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