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