Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Revelation: A Story Of Hope

So, it's the last week of the year.  I began this blog as a way to jot down some thoughts as a reading group and I read through the Bible, cover to cover, in a year.  Our Tuesday morning discussion group was one of the highlights of my year.  It functioned in many ways as an eye in the storm.  I've intentionally tried to not discuss much of what happened over this last year in my blog, with a few slip ups, but as this year comes to an end, I'd like to thank the three women who met with me each week from January to August.  Reading with them opened my eyes to how much more Christian communities would benefit from spiritual disciplines if they practiced them together.  Trying to continue reading without my group was surprisingly difficult.  I had to skip Daniel through Malachi to get back on track after my move to Ardmore, and even skipping ahead, it was difficult to stay up on my reading, not due to lack of time, but due to lack of accountability.  My plan for now is to go back in January and read the books of the Old Testament I skipped, so expect to see a few posts from that.  For those of you who have been following this blog, and occasionally posting comments, thank you for your interaction and encouragement.  I hope this blog has been a blessing to you in some small way.

So, the book of Revelation...

Revelation is one of the most confusing, and therefore most misinterpreted and misused, books in the Bible.  Other than Leviticus, Revelation might be the least read book among people I've talked to.  As one of the teens in my last congregation put it, "I don't know what it means and it scares me."  I understand the sentiment, but it also makes me sad.  Revelation is a great book, and let me explain why.

Imagine you're sitting at a sports event and you've bet your entire life savings on Team A.  By all outward appearances, it looks as if Team B is going to win.  If they do, your life is over.  I would imagine you might be in a state of panic.  Now imagine, watching that game on TV a week later knowing that Team A won after all.  No panic.  No emotional melt down.  Yes, you still find yourself caught up in the excitement of the game, but you know who wins, so now you can just enjoy the game.

That's the book of Revelation in a nutshell.  God wins.  His people win.  In spite of the fact that all outward appearances suggest otherwise (so, for the first century Christians, that Rome would clean up), the opposite happens in the end.  Revelation is a book of hope, not destruction.  It is a book that ends by heaven coming down to earth, not earth being wiped out.  It is a book that ends with God among his creation, not people getting left behind.

So what does all that mean?  It means we can all relax a bit.  Yes, get caught up in the game, after all, we're still in the middle of it.  Shout and cheer or cry out when the opposing team scores a point, but know that we win.  Our lives are not a waste.  Play hard.  Play to win, but don't give up if it looks like we wont.  We know the end of the story.  We win.

Granted, there are a whole lot of confusing details I'm not going into.  Granted, there are a whole plethora of ridiculous interpretations regarding those confusing details that I'm also not going into.  There's a reason for that.  With the book of Revelation, it's easy to miss the forest for the trees.  The trees are pretty and interesting to look at, but if we miss the forest, we missed the point.

The forest: we win!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

We Have A High Priest

In the words of one of my professors while attending Pepperdine University, Dr. Tyler, "Allegory sucks."  I couldn't help but remember him telling us that while I waded through Hebrews this morning.  Hebrews chapters seven, eight, nine, and ten are one giant midrash where the author of Hebrews takes the character of Melchizedek, the tabernacle and temple, and the Levitical priests and uses them to make points about Jesus.

Here are the points:

1) Jesus stands before God on our behalf.
2) Since our advocate (Jesus) gave himself as a perfect sacrifice, further sacrifices are unnecessary.
3) As long as we persevere in our relationship with Jesus, we also can be in the presence of God, our sins having been washed away.

Granted, I'm skimming over a lot of sub-points, but those seem to be the major ones.  However, you have to work your way through a lot of details and Old Testament references to get there.  Out of all the New Testament writings, Hebrews seems to be the one most blatantly written for a Jewish audience, at least in my opinion.  The problem is, I'm not Jewish, so this book is a rough one for me to read through.

That having been said, the Hebrews author has quite a bit to say that we need to hear, so putting up with allegory is a pretty small price to pay for the importance of Hebrews' message.

Stopping point: Hebrews 10

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Paul's Hope

I just finished reading through Paul's letters (minus Hebrews).  If you really want to dive into Paul, I wouldn't recommend reading all of his letters in two weeks.  However, reading through Paul in one fell swoop does bring to light repeating themes.  Most of us read Paul through a very Lutheran point of view, and by that I simply mean that when we read Paul what we're thinking is, "Paul's the righteousness through faith, not by works guy," but I have to wonder if that is really what kept Paul going throughout his ministry.  When the beatings, persecutions, and imprisonment came, was the concept that righteousness comes through faith really what kept him from giving up? 

I don't think so.  Now I agree that the "righteousness through faith" theme is there, but I don't think it is where Paul rooted his hope, either for himself or for his churches.  It wasn't what kept him going.
"I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.  For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hopethat the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.  We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.  For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen?  But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience." -Romans 8:18-25
What kept him going?  It seems that "obtain[ing] the freedom of the glory of the children of God" was fairly important to Paul.  And what does that mean?  I would argue resurrection and eternal life.
"But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.  For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.  But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ." -I Corinthians 15:20-23
"I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead." -Philippians 3:10-11
"Have nothing to do with profane myths and old wives' tales.  Train yourself in godliness, for, while physical training is of some value, godliness is valuable in every way, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come." -I Timothy 4:7-8
"Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the sake of the faith of God's elect and the knowledge of the truth that is in accordance with godliness, in the hope of eternal life that God, who never lies, promised before the ages began...." -Titus 1:1-2
"This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. -Titus 3:6-7
All throughout Paul's letters we can read his language of eternal life, but if we stop there we're left with a rather lopsided picture of Paul's hope, because without a more important event, resurrection, as Paul seems to understand it, never occurs.
"Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.  When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory." -Colossians 3:2-4
"For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel's call and with the sound of God's trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first.  Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever." - I Thessalonians 4:16-17
"In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will bring about at the right time--he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and the Lord of lords." -I Timothy 6:13-15
"From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing." -II Timothy 4:8
"For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ." -Titus 2:11-13
Jesus's life, kingship, and return.  I don't hear that much in most modern churches.  Quite a bit of modern theology is built upon the hope of going to heaven when we die.  That hope is surprisingly absent in Paul's letters.  He doesn't speak much at all about heaven or what happens when we die.  What Paul talks about is what happens when Jesus returns and we have life again, this time eternal life.  If you want to see more evidence of this in Paul's thought, feel free to look at more from I Corinthians 15 & 16, Ephesians 4:29-30, I Thessalonians 3:13, II Thessalonians 1:6-10, II Timothy 2:3-7, 16-18; this strand of Paul's thought is everywhere.

I think the difference between Paul's hope and the hope many congregations are trying to give their members is rather striking.  Thinking that the hope of Christianity is going to heaven when we die makes life nothing but a test.  It devalues all things physical and this worldly.  It creates a gnostic vision where nothing good can exist until we die and are set free.  Paul seems to think that through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and his reign thereafter, this life does have a purpose.  We have been set free to experience life the way God intended it, in a community that God has created, called the Church.  However, as is often times the case when two groups make mutually exclusive claims, the "world" or the "flesh," as Paul puts it, is opposed to God's will in us, as it was to Christ.  So, as Jesus was persecuted, so too will we be persecuted.  Along those lines, as Jesus suffered for a world that hated him, we must suffer for a world that hates us.  But no matter what happens, our hope is that one day Jesus will return, and on that day everyone must admit that he is the Christ, the one King of kings and Lord of lords.  On that day, true life, flowing from the eternal source, will bring all of Christs's people back to life and transform the mortal into the immortal.  That is a much richer vision of our final hope than "going to heaven," at least in my opinion.

If we want our churches, and the individuals that make them up, to be more effective and essential in our communities, maybe it is time to catch a glimpse of Paul's hope.  After all, if you don't know where you're going, how will you know if you're headed in the right direction?

Stopping point: Philemon

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Mary's Song of Praise

First, let me say I caught up in my reading today!  However, it's Advent, so I feel like posting something related to Advent.  I'm new to Advent, growing up in a religious tribe that didn't celebrate it.  Now, as a minister in a Disciples of Christ congregation, I'm free to discover and experience a richness of Christian tradition that has been sorely lacking.

This Sunday we're lighting the third Advent candle during our service, the candle of Joy.  To go along with this, my sermon will be a reflection on the Magnificat, or Mary's Song, from Luke one.  The heading before Mary's Song in the New Revised Standard Version is "Mary's Song of Praise," but I think her song fits very well with the theme of joy.

And Mary said,
"My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the
lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations
will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great
things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants
-Luke 1:46-55

What strikes me as powerful about Mary's Song is not just what is said, but who is saying it.  The Talmud has a very different take on Mary and her pregnancy.  According to the Talmud, Miriam (Mary) was betrothed to a carpenter (sounds familiar so far).  However, before the marriage was official, Miriam was either raped or voluntarily slept with a Greek or Roman soldier named Pandeira.  This obviously implies that there was nothing miraculous about the birth of Jesus, and Mary was nothing but an adulterer.  Celsus, living during the second century, repeats this rumor.

"Jesus had come from a village in Judea, and was the son of a poor Jewess who gained her living by the work of her own hands.  His mother had been turned out of doors by her husband, who was a carpenter by trade, on being convicted of adultery with a soldier named Panthera.  Being thus driven away by her husband, and wandering about in disgrace, she gave birth to Jesus, a bastard."
Rumors start somewhere, and I have a feeling Mary heard the originals.  It is easy to only hear the stories of the Bible and forget that other stories must have been going around, creating environments that would never be described as "joyful" for those on the receiving end of them.  We know exactly how teen pregnancies are treated in pious communities.  Had Joseph divorced her, his decision would only have been a reflection of the whole community's actions.  Sidelong looks, hushed voices with furtive glances, frowns and snickers, this was the future for Mary in Nazareth.  I personally wonder if that's why the Magi found Joseph and Mary still in Bethlehem some time after Jesus's birth...better outsiders in Bethlehem than cast out insiders in Nazareth.

But we don't see any of that in Mary's Song, because Advent is about Jesus's coming, and that is a reason for joy.  That is a season for celebration.  With the coming of God's son, God fills the hungry with good things; he scatters the proud; the powerful are brought down from their thrones, and the lowly, like Mary, are lifted up.  Outside of Advent, Mary is just another frightened girl with a derailed future, but because of Advent, because of Jesus's coming, Mary's lowliness is filled with joy.  The adversity and mocking she must have faced was turned into a cause for festivity.  Because of Advent, Mary sings.

I've rambled long enough.  I'll wrap things up there.  Advent...he is coming.  He came.  He will come again.  Praise God.

Stopping point: II Corinthians 13

Monday, December 5, 2011

Where's My Reading Group When I Need Them...Oh, Right, Kentucky.

The holiday season is kicking my butt as far as keeping up on my reading.  I need my reading group to hold me accountable.  I just finished Romans this morning, and I should be almost through with II Corinthians.  This is not the optimal place to be when reading Paul and trying to be finished with the New Testament by New Years.  When reading Paul, just about every other paragraph of his gives me something to blog about, and when I read huge chunks of his letters at each sitting I end up putting the Bible down and feeling a bit overloaded.  So, nothing gets blogged.  To those of you who have been following along as I read through the Bible this year, sorry for the few and far between posts here lately.  So, in an attempt to just write something, here's a post for today.

In Romans 14, Paul discusses the hot topic of dietary laws.  If, he says, a weak brother or sister in Christ only feels it right to eat vegetables, while a stronger brother or sisters feels they can eat anything, the strong should abstain for the sake of the weak.  "Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died" (v. 15).  This sounds very similar to a discussion Paul had to have with the Corinthian Church in I Corinthians 8.  These passages are some of my least favorite in the Bible, not because of what is said, but because of how people have abused them.

I grew up in a congregation that had hijacked these passages.  To be more specific, any time a member decided that he or she didn't like something (TV, contemporary worship, short skirts, etc.), these passages were brought out of the woodwork in order to manipulate the more level headed people.  "I'm one of the weak, and I don't like this," wasn't an uncommon thing to hear in some form or another.  What bugs me about this is that these passages don't say anything of the like.

The context of these passages is a mutual lack of judgment and not causing others to fall away from Christ.  "Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them" (Romans 14:3).  Who is in the right and who is in the wrong?  Neither and both, Paul isn't even asking that question.  The point of Paul's argument is that if God has welcomed someone, who are we to then cast them out?  And as far as abstaining on behalf of another, the issue at hand is what love looks like in a diverse community, not what is permissible or not.  "If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love" (Romans 14:15).  Christian love is sacrificial, other oriented.  So, the point of these verses is giving up power for another, not manipulating others to get our own way.

These are great verses that get to the root of what communal life within the Church should look like.  If more Christians lived this way, we'd have far fewer church splits.  But that having been said, I can understand the frustration many Christians feel when squeaky wheels use these passages to manipulate the whole.  I think Paul might have some other choice words for the squeaky wheels:

"Why do you submit to regulations, "Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch"?  All these regulations refer to things that perish with use; they are simply human commands and teachings.  These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence." -Colossians 2:20b-23
Stopping point: Romans 16

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Discipline Within A Community

Since moving to Ardmore back in late September, I've noticed that it is much harder for me to stay up on my reading and blog posting.  I think both those issues are tied to the fact that when I moved here, my reading group stayed in Kentucky.  I started the reading group last January because I was curious how reading through the Bible as a group would change my experience from when I read through it by myself.  Having had a group, and now not having a group, there is a startling difference.  I got much more out of my reading, and was much more motivated to do my reading, when there was a small group of us reading and discussing together.

That has got me thinking about how, as a minister, I could encourage my congregation to participate in the formation of spiritual disciplines as a community. Many Christians read their Bibles and pray, some fast and tithe, but just based off of the people I have interacted with personally, very few Christians do these things as groups (Sunday morning services excluded).  What would happen in our churches if we did the hard work of cultivating fertile soil as a group, and not just individuals within a group?  I know how much I gained over the first three quarters of this year practicing the discipline of reading Scripture with others, and I would imagine others would have similar experiences.

The book of Acts gives us a very brief glimps of the early Church's life toward the end of chapter 2.  It says that Christians were devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching, fellowship, breaking bread together, and prayer.  These are things they did as a community, as the Church.  I've got to wonder what we might experience or what God might do among us if we tried doing the same thing.

Stopping point: Acts 28

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Time Of Universal Restoration

I grew up thinking that the world was spiraling toward a fiery end.  Jesus would return, and when he did, this world would be destroyed and we would live with God in heaven for ever after.  My thinking has changed quite a bit since then.  First off, I've actually grown to care about this place.  Yes, life is one gigantic mess, but there's a lot of beauty here too.  God knew what he was doing when he made all this, and I don't want to see it destroyed.  Second, passages in the Bible started standing out to me in ways that they hadn't before, passages like I Cor. 15, II Cor. 5, and Romans 8, among others, which recontextualized Rev. 21 and 22, as well as II Peter 3.  These passages seemed to suggest that God was up to much, much more than getting my soul to heaven.  He seemed to actually care about everything he had made.  Slowly, over time, the rhetoric I heard growing up seemed less and less convincing, and less and less like good news.  If I could care about more than just myself, why couldn't God?

By the end of my graduate work, I had pretty much left behind my old views about the conclusion of the world as we know it and replaced them with what I found to be a much more Biblical view of God's final plan for his creation through Christ.  Then last year I finally read NT Wright's book Surprised by Hope, which I highly recommend, and yes, I realize I was a little late to hop on the bandwagon since it was published in 2008.  Anyway, I only felt more confident in what I was thinking after reading his book.

I say all that to say, I still get excited when I see new passages that seem to suggest God has big plans for his creation.  It's not uncommon for me, when I read such a passage, to think to myself, "How did I not see that before?"  I ran across one of those passages today in my reading.  In Acts chapter three, Peter is addressing a crowd of Jews that have gathered to celebrate with a man who had been healed.  In verse nineteen, Peter has this to say.

"Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah appointed for you, that is, Jesus, who must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through the holy prophets."

Universal restoration...getting souls to heaven doesn't even get a small mention in Peter's speech, and there is definately no mention of God blowing everything up.  God's work in creation is a restorative work, in humanity and in the world.  Universal restoration...when I read that I get excited.

Stopping point: Acts 3

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Guts To Trust

"Believe in God and believe in me.  In my Father's house there are many dwelling places.  If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also." -John 14:1b-3

What's the hardest thing for people to believe regarding Christian thought?  At first I was thinking resurrection, but after reflecting on today's reading, I'm not so sure.  In some ways I wonder if resurrection is more believable than Jesus coming back again.  Here's my thinking.

1)  Christians are pretty much unified in believing in Jesus coming back from the grave.  I would argue that it's pretty hard to be a Christian if you believe otherwise, since all of Christian faith revolves around resurrection.  However, there is a wide diversity of opinion regarding if Jesus is coming back.  It seems like a wider and wider swath of evangelicals in America don't consider Jesus returning to be all that important.  We die.  We go to heaven.  God burns up creation...the end.  Jesus doesn't need to come back.  Instead, we're taken to him.

2)  Christians can treat resurrection as a historical fact.  In other words, it's something that has already happened, so we can take it for granted and don't worry about it.  But Jesus coming back is an unknown.  It is a future oriented thing, and no matter how many times people try to predict when it will happen, the obvious reality is that no one knows when it will happen.

3)  Which leads to my last thought.  Christians are getting embarrassed by the non-Christian world suggesting that Jesus's watch must have broken.  It's been over 2000 years after all.  Where is he?  If he was coming back, wouldn't he have done so by now?  What's the hold up?  And with each passing year, the criticism and cynicism only increases.

4)  Yes, three was supposed to be my last, but I just thought of this.  American Christians can't think about Jesus returning without approaching the subject through the fighting millennialistic lenses of the 19th century.  There is some embarrassment over that too, specifically that we were arrogant enough to believe that we, as Americans chosen by God, were better than everyone else and that God would usher in his era of peace through us.  Manifest destiny for the win!

Okay, anyway, resurrection continues to be a linchpin of Christian belief, but the idea that Jesus will return and when he does heaven and earth will become one has, at best, become secondary, if not optional altogether.  Christians may be uncomfortable giving voice to their doubt, but I think most Christians are asking the same question the non-Christians are.  If Jesus truly came back from the grave and is the living Lord of the Kingdom of God, where is he?

I think I've said this before, but I'll say it again.  Christianity is not for the faint of heart.  You have to be gutsy to claim to be a Christian.  If we're going to find the courage to stay true to what has been passed down to us over the last 2000 years, we better be prepared for some ridicule.  As Jesus said in another verse I read today, "Remember the word that I said to you, 'Servants are no greater than their master.'  If they persecuted me; they will persecute you..." -John 15:20

Stopping point: John 15

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Lazarus Was Dangerous Too

Just a short post for today, but apparantly Lazarus needed to die with Jesus.  John is the only one to point this out in his gospel (well, to be totally honest, I didn't double check that factoid, but I think I'm right).  Apparently, nothing is more dangerous than a person coming back from the grave.

I never really notice that blip of information until I taught 7th grade Bible four years ago.  All the Gospels note that the religious leaders in Jerusalem wanted Jesus dead, but only John points out how the religious leaders also percieved the people Jesus healed as dangerous...and I find the reasoning rather intersting.

Rome will tear down our temple....

Jesus (and all that he was doing) was going to ruin their church.  How dare he!  Now granted, the Jewish leaders were right to fear Rome.  After all, forty-ish years later, the Roman army came and wiped Judea off the map, just as the Jews had feared.  Still, churchism isn't anything new.

Stopping point: John 13

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Spiritual Giants

I had a professor during my M. Div. work that I would consider a spiritual giant.  He was kind, gentle, compassionate, insightful, an elder at his church, and understandably, taught Spiritual Formation.  Many people who were raised in church can look back to their formative years and think of one or two people who seemed head and shoulders above the rest as far as spiritual maturity goes.  It is natural at the time to idolize those people, as we tend to do with our role models, but in doing so I wonder if we belittle the wholeness of the person's journey.

Take John chapter nine, for example.  John chapter nine tells the story of Jesus giving sight to a man born blind.  What interests me about this story is the formation and transformation that takes place after the man receives his sight.  Chapter nine is a fairly large chapter, but out of the forty-one verses that compose the chapter, only the first seven have to actually do with Jesus healing the man.  The rest of the chapter deals with the nuclear fallout.

The first thing goes wrong when the Pharisees learn that the man was given his sight on the Sabbath.  Jesus had already had numerous run-ins with the Pharisees over this matter, but rather than going after Jesus, this time the Pharisees go after the healed man.  "How did he heal you, and did you know he did not observe the Sabbath?  He can't be from God!" they say.  I love the man's reply, "Sinners don't heal blind people."  So they ask him, "Well, since you know so much, who do you think he is?"  Now, notice the man's answer.  It's not very long, "He is a prophet."  There's no shouting from the rooftops that the Son of God has come to earth, simply an acknowledgement that there is something unique about the man that healed him.

What's the Pharisees response?  They accuse him of not being blind to begin with.  They call in the man's parents for confirmation, but the parents are afraid to stand up for their son and simply send the Pharisees back to him.  It might be easy to disapprove of the parents' behavior, but the point of the story is not that parents should support their children.  The point of this part of the story is to show just how much influence the Pharisees had over the common people.  You don't pick a fight with the cops.  If you're a teacher, you don't mouth off to the most influential member of the Parent Teacher Association.  When the Pharisees were involved, and the threat of being banished from the synagogue, one's livelihood was at stake.  So, the Pharisees track down the healed man and grill him a second time.  At the end of a very long dialogue, the man makes another statement about Jesus, "If this man were not from God, he could do nothing."

We could argue that this is just another way of saying, "He is a prophet," but I would argue that this is at least a little more definitive.  The man has been backed into a corner.  He's being forced to choose sides, and when that happens he no longer makes a committally neutral statement.  He makes it quite clear he stands with Jesus, and he must accept the consequences of that decision.  Unlike his parents, he is run out of the synagogue.

It's at this point that Jesus reenters the story, actively searching for and finding the man he had healed.  Jesus asks him if he believes in the Son of Man, a reference to the Messianic vision in Daniel chapter seven where one "like a Son of Man" is brought before God and given dominion over all things for all time.  The man's response is to ask where the Son of Man is so that he can believe in him.  Jesus reveals that he is that man, and this time the healed man's response is striking.  He worships him, crying, "Lord, I believe!"

When all is said and done, the man who even Jesus's disciples reviled has become the spiritual giant of everyone involved in the story.  He understands what even Jesus's disciples do not, but this story makes me think that spiritual giants are formed not born.  They are made in a crucible of challenge and tribulation.  They don't spring forth fully grown like Athena from the head of Zeus.  But to me, that makes them all the more impressive.  When we see people who strike us as spiritual giants, we don't know what they have gone through or where they have come from, but the reality is they are who they are precisely because of the adversity they have faced.

I guess the point I'm getting at is that when we idolize people we make their achievements unattainable, or to put it another way, we assume that what God has done for them and in them he cannot do, or will not do, for and in us.  That is simply not the case.  Life as a Christian is all about transformation and formation.  It is about the development of strength and virtue, or more precisely, to be made into the image of Christs and to become little Christs ourselves.  That is something God is working to do for all the followers of his son.

There is one other thing I can't help but think about when I read this story.  The religious establishment couldn't afford to allow the healed man to stay.  He challenged to many expectations and assumptions.  His very presence brought the status quo into question, and so he had to be rejected.  He was rejected by the very people who should have celebrated what had been done for him and in him.  He was rejected by the very people who needed to learn what he could teach, and how often is that sadly the case?  How often do our churches become lifeless, homogenous blobs precisely because we've run out the people God sent to help us grow?  "They were going to change things!" we cry.  What did we expect?  By definition, maturing means change.  No one is pleased when they met forty year olds who still act like they are in high school.  We can all be spiritual giants, little Christs, as individuals and churches, if we will allow God to grow us, but if that's going to happen, we have to put our childish ways behind us and learn how God wants us to look as adults.  If we would be giants, we must leave our little sacred cows behind.

Stopping point: John 10

Monday, November 7, 2011

Where I Am, You Cannot Come

I noticed something in my reading today that I never noticed before.  In John chapter seven, Jesus has caught the attention of the Pharisees, chief priests, and temple police.  When the police come to arrest him, he tells them that he will only be with them for a little while longer and then he is going back to the one who sent him.  He says,

"You will search for me, but you will not find me; and where I am, you cannot come." (v. 34)

That last part caught my attention.  Jesus says something very similar that again in chapter eight, this time, "Where I am going, you cannot come."  What catches my attention about that phrase is that toward the end of John, during Jesus's last meal with his disciples before his crucifixion, Jesus tells his followers,

"And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also." (John 14:3)

I've never noticed the parallelism between what Jesus tells his followers at the end of the book and what he tells the religious leaders in Jerusalem at the beginning of the book.  I'm curious to see if this plays itself out as I go through the chapters in between.

Stopping point: John 8

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

I'm So Glad There Are People Way Smarter Than Me

I just read a great little post at Jesus Creed called 'The Three "J's" in the Gospel Debate.'  The post wrestles with three frameworks used to interpret the Gospels: justice, justification, and Jesus.  I won't outline the argument, but I will say it would be worth your time reading it.

I grew up in a very justification oriented denomination, but the farther I went into my education the more narrow and unfulfilling I found this framework.  Now, that isn't to say that I no longer believe in justification or that Jesus's death washes us of our sins.  I most certainly do, but as the years passed and I spent more and more time reading the Gospels and the writings of the Church, I found myself thinking, "What Jesus has done for us is so much more!"

I think that's what made the justice framework so appealing to me.  It had been sorely missing before.  However, as Scot McKnight pointed out in his post, justice may be the natural consequence of what Jesus has done, but it is not the root of what he has done.  I think this is what gets many of the more progressive American denominations in trouble.  Social justice is an evidence that God has accomplished what he set out to do, but it is not the core of what God has done.  To use the old medical analogy, it is a symptom, not the cause.

Which leaves us with Jesus.  I think McKnight is completely right in saying that Jesus is the only J that offers any true hope and power (although those are actually my words).  Jesus is the focus of the story in the Gospels, for Paul, and in Acts (his point).  If the Church is going to have a revival of any kind, or to put it another way, if God's people are going to rediscover their purpose and power, the focus must be put on the right J.  It's ironic how much harder that is to say than to do.

Anyhow, as the post title suggests, I'm very glad I can read people far more intelligent than myself and find language to express my thoughts.  Hop on over to Jesus Creed and read his post.  It will be well worth your time.

Stopping point: John 2

Monday, October 31, 2011

I Don't Get It

I grew up in a fundamentalist church.  I think that's why my sister still doesn't attend a congregation at all.  If there is one thing you learn in a fundamentalist church, it's that you should have an answer for everything.  Now, I'll admit that learning the books of the Bible and how to look up scripture passages and learning Bible authors has served me well over the years.  However, since leaving home for college in 1997, I've had to learn to embrace questions and live with "I don't know's."

For example, I'm sure once upon a time someone gave me a great interpretation of Jesus's parable in Luke 16, but frankly, when I read the Parable of the Dishonest Manager today, I was left scratching my head.  I don't have a clue what Jesus was trying to say, and I wish this were the first time I've walked away from this parable feeling that way.  I haven't gotten it.  I don't get it, and I probably won't get it any time soon.

And guess what...I don't think God cares.  If a good relationship with God was defined by understanding everything Jesus taught, we'd all be lost.  At least we'd be in good company, the Apostles didn't get it either.  I don't think Jesus cares either.  Jesus didn't die for me, and come back for me, so that I could understand his Parable of the Dishonest Manager.  And you know what...I don't even think the Holy Spirit lives in me so that I can understand the parable.

Now, some day I may read this parable and go, "Ah-hah!  I totally get this now," but if I haven't learned how to live and love as Jesus lived for and loved me, than I haven't learned a single thing of significance.

So, after almost an entire year of jotting down what I think about this passage or that passage.  My blog for today is simple:

The Parable of the Dishonest Manager...I don't get it.  I'm totally clueless.

Stopping point: Luke 18

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Fuzzy Brain Blog Post

Shepherd has been running a fever since Sunday, so Kalyn and I aren't going on much sleep this week.  I'm really noticing it today.  Attempting to think is like trying to wade through sticky fog.  There's a lot of good stuff in my reading for today, but I can't think of much to say about any of it, but for the sake of discipline, here's something.

I love the story of the woman who anoints Jesus's feet at the Pharisee's banquet.  She's disruptive, theatrical, and surely discomforting for the guests who were actually supposed to be there.  I've got to wonder if we modern religious types have changed much from Simon the Pharisee who asked, "Doesn't Jesus know who that is?!"  Now I know there are numerous exceptions to what I'm about to say, but don't our typical worship services tend to be rather structured, planned, and comfortable?  Even if you are in a church where people can come forward to ask for help or respond to an invitation, there's a right and wrong time for it.  Why don't our churches have more interruptions like this woman weeping at Jesus's feet?  Could it be because we're more like the Pharisee than we'd like to admit?  Could it be because we're inviting people to our "banquet" and not to Jesus?  I wonder.

Stopping point: Luke 7

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Jesus's Rejection in Nazareth

Luke isn't the only one to share this story in his gospel.  Matthew and Mark tell it too, but he does provide us with a few details the other gospels leave out. For example, only Luke tells the story of how the people of Nazareth literally ran Jesus out of town.  In fact, Luke goes so far as to say that they wanted to hurl him off a cliff, and that makes me wonder.  What did Jesus say, exactly, that infuriated his home town so much?  After all, when I visited the congregation I grew up in about six years ago, no one tried to kill me.

I think the answer lies in what Jesus told the Nazareans regarding the prophet Elijah.  Of all the stories Jesus could have told about Elijah, he only chose two: the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the leper.  Now, what do those two stories have in common?  Well, other than Elijah, both stories are about God sending his prophet to non-Jews.  Zarephath was between Tyre and Sidon in Pheonicia and Namaan was a commander in the Aramite army.  Jesus points out that there were a number of widows and lepers in Isreal at the time, but God only responded to the non-Israelites, ad that's why I think the Isrealites in Jesus's home town tried to kill him.

It's hard to appreciate the atmosphere of Messanic expectation that existed among the common towns and villages of Judea and Galilee.  If the number of children named Yeshua (Jeshua or Jesus) is any indicator, just about everyone was longing for the salvation and deliverance of God's people, defined as the Jews.   And what does Jesus have to say to that?  Well, it seems that he told his home town that God's salvation might not be just for the Jews.  Maybe I'm reading too much into this, but Jesus's response is along the lines of, "You won't accept me as the Messiah?  Fine.  Know that God might not accept you.  In fact, when his Kingdom comes, he might just fill it with Gentiles."  To use a horribly inappropriate phrase I picked up in Kentucky, that seems to have gone over "like a turd in a punch bowl."  If statements like that are how Jesus started his ministry, is it any wonder why so many of his own people hated him?

This also fits with the whole theme of Luke's gospel.  All throughout Luke, we're going to find Jesus inviting people to meals that proper Jews wouldn't be seen dead with.  In Luke, Jesus keeps inviting tax collectors, prostitutes, and outcasts to go with him as he establishes the Kingdom of God.  Jesus's statements early on in Nazareth fall right in line with how his whole ministry will unfold.  Through Jesus, God is bringing all people to his table, especially the ones who shouldn't be there at all.  The way Luke tells the story of Jesus being rejected in his home town simply makes that all the more clear.

Stopping point: Luke 5

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Message Of John The Baptist

If you were John the Baptist, and if you were given the responsibility of preparing the way for the Messiah's ministry, which was to usher in the Kingdom of God, where would you start?  Matthew tells us that John foretold the coming of the Kingdom of God, the coming of Jesus, and baptized people for repentance, but that doesn't tell us a lot about the nature of John's message itself.  Mark isn't any more helpful.  Luke, however, provides us with some dialogue.

John, frustrated by some of the social and religious abuses he saw going on, warned that when the Lord returned it wouldn't necessarily go well for everyone.  This is right in line with many of the Minor Prophets' warnings about the coming Day of the Lord.  This got the attention of many who were listening because they asked him what they could do, I'm guessing to divert any coming wrath.  John's response is interesting.

1) If you have two coats, give one to someone who has none.
2) The same applies to food.
3) Tax collectors shouldn't falsely increase taxes and then skim off the top.
4) Soldiers (for a modern reading, read "police") shouldn't use their power and influence to take advantage of others.
5) Learn to be content with your wages.

Seems pretty simple, right?  But Luke points out that the people where filled with a sense of expectation.  What does it mean that the Messiah is coming, and the Kingdom of God with him?  Generosity, fairness, true protection, contentment...now those are things to get excited about, because let's be honest, we don't see those things real often.  When God's will is done on earth as it is in heaven, those are the ideals that rule the day.

I love John's message.  Buildings of books have been written about who Jesus was and what he was about and what the Kingdom of God even means, but when crowds asked John about it, he got right to the nuts and bolts of it all.  If you have more than you need, give it to someone who doesn't have enough.  Don't use power to extort others, but rather use it for their benefit.  Don't be greedy, but learn to be content.  That's great.  In a Christian culture that is presently obsessed with application and relevancy, John's message seems pretty applicable and relevant to me.

But also challenging, if I'm honest.  John's message truly was radical.  Outside the Kingdom of God, if you have extra you put it away for a rainy day.  If I give a loan, I want it back with interest.  And as we have all experienced in some small way or another, power corrupts.  There was a reason the crowds were expectant, a reason they longed to see the world John was painting for them.  I think that if the Church would listen to John a little more, the communities surrounding our buildings, homes, and work places might develop a sense of expectation as well.  A glimpse of God's kingdom would be seen here on earth.

Stopping point: Luke 3

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Self-contradiction...I'm Allowed

So, a few days back I posted on how I am grateful for my amillennial and preterist heritage.  It definately helps de-clutter much of the imagery and symbolism in some of Jesus's teachings and sayings.  However, let me acknowledge that there are some things Jesus says that are very difficult to understand in any other way than futuristically.  And to muddy the water even more, they're mixed in with Jesus's prophecies about the Romans and the destruction of Jerusalem.  This is what makes passages like Mark 13 so hair-pullingly difficult.

For example, in Mark 13:24-27 Jesus talks to some of his disciples about the "coming of the Son of Man," specifically, how they will see him coming in the clouds with great power, at which point angels will be sent out to gather the elect from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.  Now, this sounds very much like end of the world stuff...unless we remember Daniel chapter seven.  In Daniel seven, Daniel shares a vision where one "like a son of man" comes to the throne of heaven and is given dominion, glory, and kingship over all things.  This dominion would last forever and his kingdom would never be destroyed.  This has led some scholars (and in my opinion, rightly so) to interpret Jesus' sayings in Mark 13:24-27 as a prophecy about his own death and resurrection.  So it is future oriented, but not our future oriented.  It then makes sense that Jesus, toward the end of chapter 13, says, "Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place."

And now to contradict myself...

I think one of the reasons individuals who interpret passages like this as end of the world stuff feel so threatened when someone like me comes along and says they aren't about end of the world stuff is because they think that means people like me don't believe Jesus is coming back.  Au contraire mon frere (yes, I googled how to spell that)...there are numerous places in the New Testament that blatantly make that claim.  I'm just saying that Mark 13 probably isn't one of them, but that does bring up another way of interpreting Jesus's apocalyptic language that has to be acknowledged.

An idealist would read these passages and say (to the preterist and the futurist alike), "Both of you are wrong.  This language is figurative in order to convey a message, an idea."  In other words, preterists are wrong because they think these words relate to an event coming just around the corner, and futurists are wrong because they think these words relate to an event coming thousands of miles down the road.  An idealist would suggest that we all stop looking for events and just get the moral of the story.  In other words, the Grimm's Fairy Tales can convey truth even if they aren't factual.

Now, as a preterist I would strongly point out the dangers of an exclusively idealist interpretation, such as the fact that individuals become the final arbitors of their own truth.  However, there is some value in an idealist approach.  So, in Jesus' death and resurrection, God makes a way for all to come to him, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven, because one like a "Son of Man" has been enthroned as king of all.  But when does that happen, just once over 2000 years ago?  Or...does Jesus still reign, making it possible for God to bring all people to him from the ends of our earth and our heaven?  Can't it be both?  Also, just as Jesus returned with "great power and glory" after his crucifixion, so too will he return again, and when he does, shouldn't we still "keep alert, for you do not know when the time will come"?  Granted, I think that prophecy has to do with the coming armies of Rome, but does that make it any less good advice for us?  I don't think so.

So, I guess this post is about keeping a healthy does of humility and self-skepticism when it comes to thinking we know all the ins and outs of Biblical interpretation.  As is often times the case with the things that are most important in life, there is more to be seen than meets the eye.

Stopping point: Mark 13

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Faith To Move Mountains

In Mark chapter 11, we find Mark's retelling of Jesus cursing a fig tree on the way to Jerusalem.  I've actually posted a little about that and how it connects to the book of Jeremiah before.  Mark, much like Matthew in his gospel, connects this story with faith.  The story ends with Jesus saying that if his disciples have enough faith, they will receive anything they ask for in prayer, including (but not limited to) mountains throwing themselves into the sea.

I really wrestle with that statement.  Growing up, this passage was always used to challenge individuals to deeper faith.  It might be fair to say "guilt" people into deeper faith.  "Have you moved mountains," the argument would go, the obvious answer to which was no, "Then you better try harder.  Your faith is weak."  But seriously...in the thousands of years that have passed after Jesus said this statement, no mountains have thrown themselves into the sea. Granted, I don't see the point in praying for that to happen anyway, but are we to believe that no one has had enough faith to do it?  Is Jesus basically calling all his followers faith wimps?

Maybe some of you can help me out here.  I'm wondering if Jesus is hinting at an Old Testament parallel here, maybe somewhere in the prophets.  After all, his whole interaction with the fig tree is an Old Testament parallel.  I'm hoping that there is some reference, some connection, that if uncovered would clarify Jesus' statement.  I hope so, becaue like I said, otherwise we're left with a guilt trip for not being able to move mountains, and that just doesn't seem right.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

God Is God Of The Living

Many Christians are Platonists, at least in their view of the value of physicality and their understanding of the afterlife.  Platonism basically teaches that our physical bodies are simply shells that hold the divine Logos, and so, when we die, we are set free.  Naturally, as Christianity spread more and more into a non-Jewish world and culture, Platonism married itself to Christianity, becoming full-blown Gnosticism by the second century.  I'm fairly certain Christianity has never fully recovered.

Where we still see the effects of this in the present state of the Church is in how many Christians still define almost anything physical as bad and anything spiritual (usually defined as exclusively non-physical) as good.  Also, Christians heavily influenced by Platonism define the future life promised in Jesus as a non-physical existence.  Finally, such Christians tend to read Plato into Paul, and end up with rather warped views of all Paul's writings, especially regarding what Paul means by flesh, soul, and spirit (in the Greek sarx, psuche, and pneuma respectively).

Anyhow, here's  what got me thinking about this today.  In Mark chapter nine we read the story of the transfiguration.  Jesus, Peter, James, and John go up onto a mountain, and there Jesus is transformed before their eyes.  As icing on the cake, Moses and Elijah also appear.  Now, when I was taught this story as a child I just assumed that Moses and Elijah were phantoms of some sort, something more than a ghost but somehow less than physical.  I can't say why I thought this, per se, but none of my teachers (at least as far as I can remember now) ever actually said they were physically there.  I assume, in hind sight, that this was because no one else assumed there was such a thing as a physical afterlife.  With Moses, this didn't present a problem.  After all, we have the story of where he went to die, but Elijah was a bit more tricky.  Elijah was taken to God in a chariot of fire, so what happened to his body?  I remember some telling me that only he and Enoch still had bodies, but most seemed to assume that once he got to God, God replaced his physical body with something less physical and more spiritual.

Here's the thing...the story of the transfiguration doesn't say their ghosts appeared or that Jesus had Star Wars hologram technology that allowed him to communicate with them as if they were there.  The story says they were there.  Alive and well.  I can't help but think back to Matthew where the Sadducees attempted to corner Jesus with a trick question about resurrection, and Jesus's final response was,

'...Have you not read what was said to you by God, 'I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob'?  He is God not of the dead, but of the living." -Matthew 22:31b-32

Ghosts aren't alive.  Phantoms aren't either.  If you cut through the clutter, people tend to have a rather narrow definition for what being "alive" means, and it's an exclusively physical reality.  Being alive, in the human sense, doesn't mean to exist.  It means to be alive, but with the exception of one, life has never been the final chapter of human existence.  Death always seems to win.

And that explains Peter, James, and John's confusion about what Jesus meant on the way down the mountain.  When he told them about resurrection, and seemed to be saying that he would physically return, it was understandably confusing to them.  If Platonism's continual presence in Christianity is any indication, it is still confusing to us.  But, Jesus was not a Platonist.  Neither were Peter, James, John, or Paul.  At the core of Christian hope is the expectant waiting for death to be done away with once and for all.  On that day, those who have died will come back to life, and those of us still alive will have our mortality replaced with immortality, and both of those will very much be a physical reality.

Is it any wonder the Gnostics had a hard time accepting what Jesus said at face value?  Is it any wonder why our present culture thinks the idea of resurrection is any less nuts?  But be that as it may, I am not a Platonist.  My hope is in the God of the living.  I will die, as we all do, but I will not stay dead forever.

Stopping point: Mark 9

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Kingdom Of God Has Come Near

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is on a mission.  He's busy and constantly on the move.  So, in that context, we should probably pay attention to the first thing Jesus says in the gospel.  In fact, the first thing Jesus says in Mark provides the foundation for everything he is going to do throughout the rest of the book.  Here's the first thing Jesus says.

"The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is near; repent, and believe in the good news." -Mark 1:15

There is some truly bad theology floating around regarding what God was doing in his son.  Popular American theology says that God sent his son to save individuals so they can get into heaven when they die.  The focus is placed on the cross, on Jesus's death as sacrifice and atonement for our sins, but there are some serious shortcomings and oversights with such a narrow soteriology.

For example, if the only reason Jesus walked among us was to die for our sins, and therefore wash them away, why live for thirty plus years first?  Why not be born as the Son of God, and then die?  God could have saved the Biblical authors a whole lot of time had Herod the Great been allowed to kill Jesus as an infant.  Also, why all this talk about the Kingdom of God during his ministry years, and even more startling, why talk about it as if it is coming to earth?  If the Kingdom of God means heaven in the popular sense (a happy place our souls go when we die if we have been good), then why didn't Jesus say that, say something along the lines of, "Follow me and you can enter the Kingdom of God in the next life."?  As far as I am aware, he never said anything remotely close to that.

(An aside here, I would fully expect, at this point, for someone to bring up the story of Jesus telling one of the criminals crucified with him, "...Today you will be with me in Paradise."  Here's a few thoughts about that.  First, this story only occurs in Luke, and the Gospel of Luke is primarily concerned with how God is working through Jesus to bring the ostracized and marginalized back into a relationship with him.  In Luke, Jesus has more meals with tax collectors and prostitutes than in any other gospel.  So, Luke might not be telling us this story to tell us anything about going to heaven, but rather something about who is allowed to be with Jesus.  Second of all, notice that Jesus calls wherever the criminal is going "Paradise."  At first glance it may not look all that important, but Paradise and Kingdom of God are two different phrases for a reason.  Kingdom of God as Jesus meant it, and heaven as we mean it, are two very different things.  The only other place I can think of where Jesus is blatantly talking about the afterlife is where he tells the disciples in the Gospel of John, "In my father's house there are many dwelling places.  If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?"  But again, that doesn't really tell us much about what heaven will be, and it certainly doesn't seem to be the focus of his ministry in John.)

Now let me be clear.  I am not saying that heaven does not exist, nor am I saying that Jesus's death did not atone for our sins.  What I am saying is that we might be missing something very, very important if we think what happens after we die was the focus of Jesus' life, ministry, death, and resurrection.  The focus, or at least what Mark makes the focus in his gospel, is Jesus working to establish the Kingdom of God here on earth.  And that changes a whole lot about my life and mission if I have been "saved."

In too much pop-Christianity, my relationship with God is all about me.  I have entered into a relationship with God, through his son, so that God can bless me.  What about Jesus's life, death, and resurrection gives us that idea?  Jesus lived, died, and rose again to bless others.  That is what living in the Kingdom of God is all about, and that has direct implications on what life should look like on this side of death.  If the Kingdom of God is where God's will is done (and isn't that what Jesus prays will come to earth?), and Jesus was working to make that a reality here, then my salvation probably has a whole lot to do with what's left of my life after I commit to following Jesus.  What happens when I die is really not all that important beside the knowledge that I will continue to exist as God's servant wherever I might be just as I have been here.

If Jesus's life teaches us anything, and I'm pretty sure Mark would back me up on this, it is that salvation, and the life in the Kingdom of God that salvation implies, is not about earning brownie points here and getting congratulatory cookies when we die.  Salvation is about hard work and sacrifice.  It is about dying to ourselves, picking up our crosses, and submitting ourselves to the will of God.  None of that comes easy.

Yes, the Kingdom of God has come near.  It has become a reality in the resurrection of Jesus.  And yes, we have been invited to live in it, but know that responding to that invitation means picking up your cross and following a crucified Lord.  There is work to be done, healing to give, peace to offer, and disciples to make.  If we as Christians started focusing more on Kingdom living than heaven dying, our world might look very different.

One last thing, I can't help but plug a NT Wright book here.  If you haven't read it yet, you need to read Surprised by Hope.  I have yet to read a better book about the final hope of Christianity and the ultimate vision of the Kingdom of God here on earth.

Stopping point: Mark 7

Thursday, October 13, 2011

I Will Go Ahead Of You To Galilee

One of the major themes in the Gospels is kingship.  To put it another way, what does it mean that Jesus was the Messiah?  We see that come to a head in Mark chapter eight when Peter names Jesus the Messiah, but when Jesus says being the Messiah means crucifixion, Peter becomes very upset.  Nothing has changed from then to now.  We still naturally define the role of king as being the one at top, but Jesus made it very clear, in his teaching and in his death, that being master means being slave and being first means being last.

That's no easier to stomach today then it was for Peter 2000 years ago.  Although most Christians I know of would never argue that they have earned their relationship with God through their own worth, I've known quite a few Christians who think all people should do things their way once they are in a relationship with God.  "But," a lady once asked me, "don't you think the world would be a better place if people did do things our way?"  To that I say, if by "our way" you mean Jesus's way, then yes, the world would be a much better place.  It would look like the Kingdom of God.  But even then, how do we as Christians work to make that happen?  If the way we go about establishing the Kingdom of God here on earth is by earthly channels, and by that I mean putting ourselves in positions of power and making people do what we want, what makes us think we'll get a different result than anything we've already seen?

As Christians, we cannot forget that Jesus intentionally refused to accept positions of power and authority, at least in the normal socio-political sense of the words.  When the crowds wanted to make him king, he flat out refused to do it, and masses of people stopped following after him when he did so.  "But that was during his ministry," you might say, "After his resurrection he is the Lord of creation!  How is that not power and authority?"  It is power and authority, I fully agree.  But, and this is a strong but, even sitting at the right hand of God, how does Jesus use his authority.

Does he caste the Herods out and take the thrown of Jerusalem?  Does he build armies and restore the nation of Israel to a position of prominence in the Middle East?  Does he travel to Rome and have a long discussion with the Emperor about who's really in charge?  No, no, and no.  He goes to Galilee.

"But after I am raised up, I will go ahead of you to Galilee." -Matthew 26:32

Nothing good can come from Nazareth, right?  In his ministry, even his closest friends had a difficult time understanding how Jesus was showing what real kingship looked like.  But even when he "arrived," and I would call defeating death and setting creation free the arrival of Jesus's ministry, he still lives out the authority he has been given by walking among the least in the nation of Israel.  He never plays the power games of those who think they are mighty.  His kingship isn't shown in palaces or armies or robes or crowns.  His kingship is shown in walking alongside the marginalized and ostracized.  As first, Jesus walks among the last.  As master of all, Jesus meets the disciples where the slaves live.

Being a Christian entitles us to nothing, especially if what we want is prestige and influence.  In fact, if we want those things as a Christian, I would suggest that we might have some wrong ideas about Christianity to begin with.  We are the slaves and servants of our communities, the suffering servants.  We give up our wants and desires for the betterment of others.  That's true rulership.  That's the power of God witnessed in this world.  Being a disciple of Jesus means breaking the cycle of how power is used in this fallen world, and that means going to Galilee and not staying in Jerusalem.

Stopping point: Matthew 26

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

An Amillenial, Preterist Hermeneutic

I'm a minister for a Disciples of Christ (from here on out DoC) congregation, but my heritage growing up was in the Churches of Christ (CoC).  In fact, I've only been a DoC minister for all of two weeks.  Now being a DoC minister, you might think I devalue or disregard my formation within the CoC.  That could not be farther from the truth.  Not all CoC's fit the militant, conservative, sectarian stereotype that proceeds them.  Now, granted, there are things within the CoC that I strongly disagree with, disagree with to the point that I did not, and do not, feel that I could effectively serve in them as a minister any longer.  However, there is a great deal of good within the CoC and their theology, and one of those things is what I want to talk about today.  Namely, CoC's are typically amillennialist and preterist in the interpretation of Scripture.

So, what does that even mean?  Millennialists get their name from a literal interpretation of the 1000 year reign in the book of Revelation (a millennium is 1000 years).  Premillennialists interpret the passage to mean that when Jesus returns he will inaugurate a 1000 reign of peace.  Postmillennialists interpret this passage to mean that after a 1000 years of peaceful human rule, Jesus will return.  In contrast to both, an Amillennialist ("a" meaning "no" in Latin) doesn't think there will be a millennium because John is writing in apocalyptic language which isn't meant to be taken literally to begin with.

This is directly tied to a preterist way of understanding Biblical prophecy.  Preterism, in a nutshell, is an approach to Biblical prophecy, especially with the books of Daniel and Revelation, that says the prophecies have already been fulfilled.  In other words, when John wrote in Revelation 1:1, "The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place," he meant it.  A Futurist would argue that the things in Revelation are still going to happen, but I don't think over 2000 years later is "soon."

"Why does any of this matter?" you may be asking.  Well, I think it makes a huge difference.  Take my reading from Matthew this morning.  Matthew chapters 24 and 25 are usually interpreted through an "end times" lens in most evangelical circles, and this naturally gets wrapped up in our modern geopolitical environment.  So, for example, when Jesus talks about the "end of the age" and says that the "abomination that leads to desecration" in the temple will be a sign that the end is coming, a Futurist would say we better start looking for something amiss in the temple because when that happens Jesus is coming back.  If you tie that with the geopolitical situation in modern day Palestine, you have a problem.  There is now a mosque at the temple.  Is that the abomination that leads to desecration?  Are Muslims then the anti-Christs?  Do we have to destroy the mosque and rebuild the temple in order to usher in Jesus' 1000 year reign?

I'll admit that I have a hard time not letting some disdain enter my voice when I think about how much hatred such a Futurist interpretation breeds.  Here would be the Preterist interpretation.  As Jesus points out, the book of Daniel talks about an abomination that leads to desolation being in the temple.  That prophecy probably refers to Antiochus Epiphanes, who walked into the Holy of Holies in the temple, came back out (which was supposed to be impossible) and proclaimed that all he found was an empty room.  Being the good Greek he was, he decided that every temple needs a god, so he build a giant statue of Zeus in the Holy of Holies and sacrificed pigs to Zeus on the altar.  This, no surprises here, went over rather poorly and started the Maccabean Revolt in 167 BC.

Well, then, what is Jesus talking about in the future tense?  A Preterist would say the Zealot Rebellion in 67/68 AD, where zealots sacked the Roman barracks adjacent to the temple and slaughtered or cast out those they saw as false temple priests, taking over the priesthood for themselves.  Much like Antiochus, the Zealots weren't meant to be in the temple either.  And what happened next?  Well, by 70 AD the Romans brought in their armies and flattened Jerusalem and most of Judea with it.  Israel was wiped off the face of the map until after WWII when the UN gave the Jews a nation of their own once again.

Roman invasion would explain a lot of what Jesus says about running and hiding.  It would explain a lot of what Jesus says about the suddenness of how the "end of an age" would come.  What it also does it defuse the harmful relationship between eschatology and American politics.  And finally, I never have to lose sleep over some scary anti-Christ, the rapture, the tribulation, how the 1000 year reign will happen, or a Battle of Armageddon since those are just made up things anyway and have no real root in Scripture.

Now I know that many who read this post will strongly disagree with me.  As I've mentioned before, American theology tends to be obsessed with "end times" discussions.  But I ask you this, is that rooted in the Bible or in the idea that America was the nation that finally got things right?  Is Revelation leading our Biblical interpretation or is our patriotism?  And specifically with some of Jesus's sayings like in Matthew 24 and 25, are we listening to Jesus or to people that came 1800 years later?  Amillennialism and preterism are wonderful tools to have in your toolbox when trying to answer that question.

I'm grateful for my CoCCoC education provided me in Biblical hermeneutics.  No creed but Christ.  No authority but Scripture.  Some might point out that these are values in the Restoration Movement and not just CoC, and they would be right.  That is one of the main reasons I'm a minister in the DoC now.  They're part of the Restoration Movement also.

Stopping point: Matthew 25

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


Jesus says he told parables because, "seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand."  Jesus is referring back to many of the Old Testament prophets when he quotes this phrase.  He then says that the disciples were blessed because their eyes did see and their ears did hear, which I can only guess had more to do with them being able to see and hear him rather than always understanding what he was talking about.  Frankly, when I read through Matthew, I have a hard time wading through all the layers of muddled theology in order to try and figure out what he was really saying.
For example, in Matthew chapter twenty-two, Jesus tells the parable of the Wedding Banquet.  In this parable, a king invites his subjects to a banquet.  They, however, don't take the invitation seriously and they all decline.  The king then makes a huge blanket invitation, inviting anyone who wants to come.  If the parable stopped there, I wouldn't have any problem getting the point, but it doesn't.  The parable ends with the king arriving to find one of the new invitees dressed in the wrong attire.  The guest has not worn a wedding robe, and what does the king do?  He basically hand-cuffs the man and has him thrown out, "where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."

Okay, what does this parable mean?  To answer that we have to take into consideration all the things that influences our interpretation.  First, Jesus is a first century Jew talking to the nation of Israel, so we have to take historical setting into account.  Second, Jesus is a prophet sent to God's people, which again provides a historical lens to look through, but also narrows the field as to how we should try to apply this parable.  Third, we must acknowledge that after 2000 years, there is quite a bit of theological musing about how to understand Jesus's teaching.  More specifically, we have to acknowledge, especially in America, how much our fixation with end time theology (in my opinion, mostly ill thought out and terrible end time theology) influences what we read.

So, Jesus talking to Jews as a prophet.  One way to read this parable is to catch onto the undertone that Jesus is talking about the Jewish religious and social leadership of his time (Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, Herodians, etc.).  God had invited them to a banquet, but frankly, they were too busy with their own business to worry about what God was up to, especially in Jesus.  What had God done in response?  He had invited everyone else.  Prostitutes, tax collectors, the poor and diseased...the outcasts of society could now be guests at God's feast.  To me, that doesn't seem like a hard conclusion to come to.

The hard part is in figuring out how broadly to apply this parable in our own time, and this is were much of our bad eschatology really bits us in the hind end.  Many of us were raised to interpret parables like this through an eschatological lens.  In other words, this parable wasn't about the Jews, or at least not exclusively.  It was about final judgement.  Jesus wasn't talking about the Jewish leadership, he was talking to humanity in general, and the threat was clear.  Accept the invitation I'm giving you in Jesus or go to Hell.

Without going down the road of a million tangents, I don't think the latter interpretation is helpful or accurate.  I don't think Jesus is talking about end time stuff in this parable, so there's no use using it to scare people into Christianity.  At the same time, what do you do about the guest who wasn't dressed in the right robes and was thrown into "darkness?"

I don't know.  If Jesus isn't talking about eschatology, what is he saying?  I've been thinking about this all morning, and here's my guess.  I think Jesus is saying that even though an invitation has been given to all, a specific response is still required.  There is still a standard.  God's reaction to his people rejecting him is not unrestrained inclusivity.  If you want to sit at his table, enjoy his food, and celebrate the wedding, you have to dress in the right clothes.  I think in the context of Jesus's ministry, death, and resurrection that this means God has made his son the one way to the banquet.  And let me say again, I don't think this has to do with heaven or hell, at least not in the specific context of this parable.  I think Jesus is talking about what it means to be a member of the Kingdom of God, and as such, God's plan and ultimate goal for humanity.  In that context, this parable has much more to do with learning God's will for humanity in this life, as followers of his son, than it has to do with whatever comes after this life.

In a way this parable is similar to the parable of the sower.  Seeds are scattered everywhere, but not every one will grow.  Or take the parable of the weeds and the wheat.  Just because the weeds are allowed to grow along side the wheat, only the wheat is harvested.  In his son, God has made it possible for all to have a relationship with him, and therefore learn what we were made for, learn why we even exist, but not everyone will choose to.

Anyway, Jesus's parable of the wedding banquet is a tough one.  And of course, there is a significant chunk of the American Christian demographic who will think I'm a heretic off the bat for not thinking this is a parable about the final judgment.  Oh well, I'll admit that I could be very wrong.

Stopping point: Matthew 23

Monday, October 10, 2011

More Than A Moral Teacher

Every once and a while I read a verse that makes it very clear that Jesus is more than just a moral teacher.  In Matthew chapter eighteen, he tells a parable about forgiveness.  In the parable, a ruler is going to punish one of his servants for owing him 10,000 talents.  According to my Bible's footnote, a talent is fifteen years worth of wages.  So, we're talking Wall Street proportions here.  Knowing that you just don't pay back 150,000 years worth of wages, the servant begs for forgiveness.  In response, the ruler had pity on him, let him go, and erased the man's debt.
However, on the way from his meeting with the ruler, the servant runs into another servant who owed him 100 days' wages.  He demanded what he was due.  His co-worker pleaded for more time.  He promised that he would eventually be able to pay him back, but the protagonist of our story would hear nothing of it.  He had his co-worker thrown in jail.  The other servants of the ruler were so appalled that they went and told the ruler, who summoned his servant once again.  Understandably, the ruler was pretty ticked.  How could the servant not forgive his co-worker 100 days worth of wage when he had been forgiven 150,000?  To pay for what he had done, the ruler had his servant arrested and tortured until he paid back every penny.

The moral of the story: forgive as you have been forgiven.

Now if we just stop there, that's a nice little fairy tail, a story you tell children to teach them a lesson, and there is nothing wrong with that.  When people read stories like this in the Bible and they say, "Jesus was a moral teacher," well...they're right.  He was a great moral teacher.  The problem with such a statement is that, in spite of the truth behind it, it is only part of a much bigger whole.  Jesus's parable doesn't end with a moral take away.  His story ends with this.

So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart. 
The take away of Jesus's parable is not the moral standard of forgiving as you have been forgiven.  The take away of Jesus's parable is a command.  You will forgive, and if you do not, you will not be forgiven.  The moral standard provides us with a loophole.  If someone doesn't forgive us, well, we don't have to forgive them.  The reality of Jesus's parable provides us with no such loophole.  If you're going to be a man or woman of God, you will forgive.  Again, that's a demand, and mere moral teachers don't make demands.  Rulers do.

I have no problem with talking about the morality of Jesus's teaching, but to think of Jesus as nothing but a moral exemplar is to miss the forest for the trees.  Jesus is the risen Lord who inaugurated the Kingdom of God here on earth.  He is still its living ruler, and as such, he sets the rules.  I'm afraid that thinking of Jesus as a moral teacher to make him more palatable is simply an exercise in rationalization.  Jesus says too many things and makes too many claims to have thought of himself as a moral teacher, and that leaves us with a decision.  Either Jesus was what he said he was, or he was nuts.  Either his claims were true or they weren't.  And lets be honest, if his claims were false, which means he was insane, insane people don't make good moral teachers.

It also means I'm insane, but I'm pretty sure I'm not.

Stopping point: Matthew 21

Thursday, October 6, 2011

I'm Back...And Jesus Has Women In His Lineage!

Well, I'm back, and it just so happens that having fallen behind in the month of September, I should now be in the Gospel of Matthew.  So, rather than trying to read the Prophets in a blaze of glory to catch up to where I should be, I've jumped ahead to Matthew and caught up there.  I'm not sure how I'll catch up on the prophets yet, but I'll figure that out next week.  So, Matthew....
In the last two days I've read the first 12 chapters of Matthew, so there was some speed reading going on.  Normally I read slowly and let my mind absorb and wonder.  This week has been more of a read, read, read...no, don't get distracted by the birds in the bush outside my window...read, read, read...oh, that's really interesting.  Don't forget that idea...read, read, read...what was that idea I just had?  Rather than try to comment on all the stuff I've read, I'll just make two observations.  One from the beginning of Matthew and another from where I stopped reading today.

After all the warnings, oracles, and promises of the prophets, it's understandable to arrive at Matthew with a sense of relief.  But once we get to Matthew, what do we get?  We get a genealogy!  Way to go Matthew.  Genealogies are about as anticlimactic as you can get.  So I'm guessing that when most people open up the Gospel of Matthew, they immediately skip to verse 18, which is where the narrative picks up.  But if we do that, we miss out on something very important that Matthew wants us to know.  Women are important to the story of Jesus, and not just any women.  Women who pretend to be prostitutes, actual prostitutes, foreigners, adulterers, and women accused of adultery are at the core of Jesus's story.

There are five women mentioned in Jesus's genealogy: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba (actually referred to as Urriah's wife), and Mary.  Tamar, we might remember, is the daughter-in-law of Judah.  Her husband died before giving her a child.  In the ancient world this was a major problem.  Interesting story cut short, her husband's brothers fail to do their legal duty, and she is left childless.  At this point, Judah refuses to give her his youngest son as a husband, which he was legally required to do.  What is her solution?  She pretends to be a prostitute, sleeps with her father-in-law, gets pregnant, and has twins.

Next we have Rahab, the prostitute in Jericho that hid the spies Joshua sent to gather information on the city.  Following her is Ruth, the Moabite.  The book of Ruth is an interesting story.  Other than Boaz, all the Hebrews are either bitter, shrewd, or unfaithful.  Who is the faithful, trusting, positive heroine?  Yep, the foreigner God commanded his people not to marry.

It's important that Matthew doesn't refer to Bathsheba by name.  He wants to intentionally draw our eyes to the scandal of Solomon's birth.  Matthew intentionally puts distance between David and the mother of his son.  She is not David's wife, at least in this context.  She is Urriah's wife, and we know what that means.  How we think of and treat adulterers hasn't changed all that much over time.  And right alongside Urriah's wife is Mary, the backwater girl from a backwater village who was almost divorced before she was even married for getting pregnant.

That's Jesus's lineage, and let's think about what this means.  In a first century context women were property, so it is odd that Matthew would include women in Jesus's genealogy to begin with.  But if all Matthew wanted to do was be gender inclusive, he could have used any woman in Jesus's lineage.  It takes two to tango after all.  Why does Matthew point out these five?  He points out these five because Matthew wants to make it very clear that God is working in Jesus to bring the marginalized, ostracized, and disenfranchised into his Kingdom.  That is, after all, exactly what Jesus points out later in Matthew chapter five with the Beatitudes.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. -Matt. 5:3,10

What Jesus is saying about how God is working through him shouldn't surprise us, because that is how God has always worked.  God is the god of an upside down kingdom.  The bottom is at the top.  The Messiah, his Anointed, is the son of prostitutes, adulterers, or people who were at least accused of those things.  And if that's the case, or so it seems Matthew thinks, then there is more than enough room in God's kingdom for people like us.  Who has been invited into God's Kingdom?  Well, sinners like you and me.  And how do we know that?  Well, Matthew makes it a point at the very beginning to tell us that that's who he used to bring his son into the world.  If that's the starting point, what do we have to worry about?

Okay, so that's the first thing I wanted to write about from Matthew.  What about the second.  In Matthew 12, Jesus tells the parable of the returning evil spirit, for lack of a better title.  I've always found this to be a rather odd parable.  Should it be taken literally?  Is he talking about a plan of attack the demons came up with at the previous year's demon convention?  Or, as is often times the case, is the parable a story about a much bigger issue.

Now I don't know if my thought today has any significance or validity whatsoever, but after spending time reading through the prophets I had an idea.  Jesus is speaking to the people of Israel, and what was the personal "demon" of Israel's past.  Well, to summarize a whole host of issues into one word: idolatry.  Idolatry was the thorn in Israel's side, the bur in their shoe.  But after the return from the exile, after the Maccabean Revolt, and by the time Jesus begins his ministry in Galilee, idolatry in the ancient sense is largely absent in Israel.  No one worships Molech anymore.  That "demon" had "gone out," and the Pharisees had certainly made sure that at least the everyday Jews of the villages were keeping Israel, "empty, swept, and put in order."  Every I was dotted and every T crossed.  And what was the result?  Abuse, corruption, arrogance, hipocracy, greed, cruelty...just to name a few.  Yes, one demon had been purged from Israel, but seven others more evil than the first had moved in, and the last state of the person was worse than the first.

As I thought about this I couldn't help but think of many congregations I have seen and experienced.  Far to many congregations are reactionary.  They get rid of A, B, and C, because they're deemed bad or evil, but they don't put anything good in their place.  "Well, we don't want to be like ______, "they say, but if pushed to express what they do want to be like they don't really have an answer.  The end result is always the same.  At best, they end up being exactly like what they said they didn't want to be.  At worst, they end up being far worse.

It's not enough for congregations to purge and clean their closets.  They have to figure out what they want to fill their closets with.  To use some of Paul's language.  It's not enough to rid yourself of works of the flesh.  You have to fill yourself with fruits of the Spirit.  Otherwise, new works move it, usually worse than the ones before.

Stopping point: Matthew 12