Monday, September 18, 2017

The Church’s DNA

I suggest that the church has a biblical dna that must govern the way we conceptualize, structure, orient, worship, and serve the world. Genesis 12:1-3 gives us a classic description of this dna which, I would claim, underwrites any form the people of God take in the Bible. Whether they be a fugitive group of escapees from Egypt, a nation formed on Mt. Sinai, nomads wandering in the desert for 40 years, a united monarchy, divided monarchies, exiles in Babylon, or exiles in their own land, the threefold promise of

-being God’s people,
-being blessed and protected by God, and
-used by God to bless everyone else,

should mark, indeed, be the rationale, for their existence.

I assume, then, that such a dna ought to guide of reflections on the shape of the church in our time. Assuming nothing about what a church must look like, questions like these should guide our considerations:

-what does it mean to be a “people” in our individualized and increasingly individualizing culture? What of structures do need to a people in this environment? What does such a “people” need from “leadership” in that setting?

-how does being “blessed and protected” by God affect our lifestyles in an endlessly consumeristic culture? Can we sit looser to what we determine we need as a church, or can we give to our world and trust God with our own existence?

-how might being “blessing” the world, understood in the Old Testament sense bring life and earthly well-being, impact the shape of our presence in the world? Might being “with” them rather than requiring them to come to us be a better way? Or perhaps doing away with the “us-them” category altogether?

11: Mark 3:14: “to be with him”

“And he appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles, to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message, and to have authority to cast out demons.” (Mark 3:14-15)

Often overlooked in this passage where Jesus appoints his twelve apostles is the first of the three mandates given to them. Before Jesus intends to send them out preaching and exorcizing he intends them to “be with him.”

What does he mean by this? France says it is “their personal involvement with and training by the master” and “is the essential prerequisite” of their being sent out (France, Mark, 159). And so it is with us, as well. Time “with” Jesus is as important and nonnegotiable now as it was then.
This is not, I think, a sequential process, though it may start that way. For the twelve it was an ongoing feature of their journeying with Jesus. Watching Jesus in action. Debriefing with him afterward. Taking one step forward and, sometimes, two steps backward. Growing through their failures more than their successes (which are precious few in this gospel), and finally, failing spectacularly at the end. It was this spectacular failure that marked their matriculation into apostleship.

What did they learn from being “with” Jesus that equipped them for their task? There’s a scene in The Fellowship of the Ring that may help. When Elrond declares the need to take the One Ring to Mordor and its destruction, the responses of the FoR are instructive.

Each of them dwarf, elf, human clamor to be the ring-bearer. “I” instead of the “We” was their operative instinct. Amid their arguing and shouting, little Frodo Baggins the hobbit cries out, “I will take it! I will take it! I will take the Ring to Mordor!” But he immediately adds, “Though… I do not know the way.”

Frodo’s humility in being willing to take on a necessary task that was too big for him touches the others. Gandalf commits, “I will help you bear this burden, as long as it is yours to bear.” Aragorn offers the protection of his sword. Legolas the elf and Gimli the dwarf offer their skills and experiences too. “And you have my bow!” responded Legolas. “And my ax!” followed Gimli. 
And Sam Gamgee, Frodo’s gardener and loyal hobbit friend, declares, “Mr. Frodo is not going anywhere without me!” 

This sense of humility in the face of the journey, sharing gifts and abilities, and Gandalf’s presence with them are suggestive.

-Unless we recognize that the task is too big and the journey too long for us, we will not persevere and endure.
-Unless we can help one another to discover our gifts and offer them the opportunity to serve as they have been gifted, we will never come together as a community.
-Unless we are “friends” who have each other’s back to the end, we will succumb to the rigors and trials of the crucible we enter.
-Unless we have desire and room for Gandalf (a Christ-figure) to be “with” us, we will wander aimlessly.
Surely, these are among the things we learn through spending time “with” Jesus throughout our lives. To know Jesus truly. To know ourselves well. And to see in each other both the reflection of Christ’s image and the neighbor claiming my care and concern. Those are essential prerequisites for the mission Christ entrusts to us. And they are lessons we never stop learning until we have fulfilled our baptismal vocation in death.

This time with Jesus apparently worked for that original group of twelve. Luke tells us this in Acts 4:13: “The leaders saw how bold Peter and John were. They also realized that Peter and John were ordinary men with no training. This surprised the leaders. They realized that these men had been with Jesus.

They “had been with Jesus.” May we too be “with” him as well.  

Can It Really Be That Simple?

Jesus said that his burden was easy and his yoke was light (Mt.11:28-30). Whatever exactly he meant by that, it doesn’t sound like the experience most of us have following him. Why is that? How can we live into and out of that “easy” burden and “light” yoke in a world like ours?
Jesus has something to share with his followers – his own knowledge of God the Father. And it is free – gratis – to all who want it. We have only to receive it. Easy. Light. Get it? Jesus will welcome us who come as little children and share what he alone has to give. No entrance tests to pass or qualify on. No prerequisites. Just come and receive Jesus’ gift of his knowledge, that is, his relationship to the Father, and enjoy!

Ironically, just this coming and receiving we find almost intolerably hard to practice. Years ago now, Jacques Ellul claimed that human beings hate the gospel and the grace it offers. Even good church people. In fact, it may be church people who hate grace and gospel the most! Standing on our own achievements or merits, earning or way, deserving what we get, keeping what we have by our own efforts, all this seems seared into our hearts by what has become of us in the wake of Adam and Eve’s defection in the Garden. For we all choose to replicate their defection in our own lives by embracing just these patterns of thought and action.

And folks like us who think and act like that aren’t very open to receiving gifts. It embarrasses us. We fumble around and worry because we have no gifts to give in return. Sin has robbed us of our openness to the gifts and graces of others, especially God. Therefore, we shy away from the gracious Christ and his gracious Father who wants his children to know him. We create other deities who have the decency to let us have something to offer him for his gifts. Or one so loathsome we feel justified in staying away or ignoring. That way really never satisfies most of us. And we struggle and grow weary, our lives mired in frustrated longing because we cannot accept Jesus’ free offer of satisfaction and delight in his gift of the knowledge, that is, the experience of the love, comfort, and mercy of his Father.

I said earlier that even many church folk have a hard time with simply receiving God’s gifts to us gratis. And there’s a biblical book that deals with just that. It’s 2 Peter. A much-neglected book, perhaps because it’s a tad too close to the book of Revelation which most of us want to avoid at all costs!

Nevertheless, the writer addresses the first part of the first chapter of his letter to exactly what we have been discussing. Here’s what he says:

His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants of the divine nature. For this very reason, you must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love. For if these things are yours and are increasing among you, they keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For anyone who lacks these things is short-sighted and blind, and is forgetful of the cleansing of past sins.
Knowledge of God in Christ has graced us with everything needed for us to experience life as he intended it. He even goes so far as to call it becoming “participants of (or in) the divine nature” (v.4)! Then he lists goodness, knowledge, self-control, endurance, godliness, mutual affection, and love as qualities his readers should strive for (because God has already given them the “oomph” to strive for them). If his readers are finding it difficult to accept God’s gifts and do what he empowers them to do, the writer points to the one thing that hinders them: forgiveness. “Short-sighted and blind,” these folks have forgotten they’ve been forgiven (v.9)!

That is, they’ve forgotten they have only to show up to receive God’s gifts with empty hands and open hearts. And they can do this certain they’ve been cleansed and accepted and need bring nothing to offer God or stand on before him but themselves. Yet, as noted above, they struggle with this too, apparently. They cannot, or have not, remembered their forgiveness.

Forgiveness allows us to accept, even with joy, that we cannot and do not have anything to bring to God to justify his welcome of us. Forgiveness means we can forget the past; God has (Heb.10:17). Sin no longer burdens us or God or conditions our relationship to God or him to us. We are free to live, not apart from sin for we still do sin, but beyond it. In a reality that has overwhelmed sin, dealt with it, rendered it as no longer of any account and power over us. Strong enough even to break through our resistance to it, to enliven our memory to claim this forgiveness and draw nearer and nearer to God.

Can it really be that simple? Simply remember that we are forgiven? To enter into the joy of a living, renewing relationship to God in the midst of the turbulence and challenges of the day to day? Jesus says it is. 2 Peter affirms its true. It really is that simple!

On International Women’s Day: Why I can no longer defend the ministry of women in the church

I have defended the ministry of women in the church in public for a while now, including on this blog.

I don’t think I can do it any longer.

Not because of any lack of calling or gifting in their ministry, but because of a lack in mine.

Take Phoebe Palmer.

She began to be involved in leading a Bible study in New York around 1830. She soon received invitations to preach across the USA and in the UK. Something like 25 000 people were converted by her ministry.

25 000 people. Converted. Does that need defence? Really?

She visited prisons regularly, ran a society helping poor people in need of medical attention, and was involved in an ambitious project to challenge the new problem of urban poverty through the provision of low-cost housing, free schooling, and employment. She had a particular concern for orphans throughout her life.

Challenging injustice on a grand scale. Do you want me to defend that?

In The Promise of the Father, and 20-odd other books, she stressed the idea that God could and would give the blessing of holiness in an instant to a believer, and taught that holiness would be gained by faith. This teaching gave rise to the Holiness Movement, which by 1900 had changed the beliefs and practices of almost every evangelical church in America and Britain. Her ideas shaped the early Pentecostal movement, and the modern charismatic movement.

She formed the spirituality that formed me. She changed the world. Who am I to even think of defending her . . .

Sunday, September 17, 2017

10: Mark 3:7-19: Jesus Builds the FoK

3:7-12: Jesus’ Freedom March

Mark gives us another summary (1:32-34) of Jesus’ New Exodus campaign. The note that they went to the sea may have a deeper meaning. The sea in Jewish thought was a haunt of evil and demons. Mark may be suggesting that Jesus takes the offense and goes to the “home” of his opponents. There he healed and exorcised many sick and possessed people. A massive freedom march.

Again, Jesus forbids the subjugated demons to identify him. Is this because they know who he is and Jesus wants to keep his true identity a secret (for whatever reason)? Or because it requires faith and not supernatural testimony to know who Jesus really is? Or is identification by a demon a questionable source and would taint Jesus? Maybe it’s lying. Who knows? Perhaps Aragorn’s moment of self-revelation to the Hobbits in FoR resonates a bit with Jesus at this point:

"’For all I knew I had to persuade you to trust me without proofs, if I was to help you.... But I must admit,’ he added with a queer laugh, ‘that I hoped you would take to me for my own sake. A hunted man sometimes wearies of distrust and longs for friendship. But there, I believe my looks are against me’" (cited in Fleming Rutledge, The Battle for Middle-earth, Kindle Location:996-998).

Whatever the case, Jesus commands and the demons submit to his authority. Which might be just the point Mark wants to make.

3:13-19: Jesus Forms the Nucleus of His FoK

Mountains are often places of revelation, like the mount of transfiguration we’ll meet later. Here I suspect it is the same, but different. Here the revelation is not of Jesus but by Jesus. He reveals that these twelve men will form the nucleus of his people, the Fellowship of the King. They will take his word to their people (v.14) and bear his power to exorcize (v.15). These twelve symbolize the twelve tribes of Israel. This new people of Jesus is the people of Israel in the time of fulfilment, Abraham’s people.

These twelve men, in all their variety and different social settings, jobs, political persuasions, temperaments, and so forth, are Jesus’ choices for his new people. From tax collector to zealot, they run the gamut. This conglomeration of differents signifies God’s intent to bring the whole world together around this man Jesus. Even those who betray him (v.19)!
Tolkien narrates the gathering and commissioning of the FoR in a way that shares some similarities with Mark’s story. Hobbits, elves, dwarves, humans, and a wizard, differents all. Including one who betrays the cause (Boromir). And on their mission rests the fate of the world. 
Here is how Tolkien presents the mandate of the FoR.

"’You do not stand alone. You will learn that your trouble is but part of the trouble of all the western world. The Ring! What shall we do with the Ring, the least of Rings, the trifle that Sauron fancies? . . . "’That is the purpose for which you are called hither. Called, I say, though I have not called you to me, strangers from distant lands. You have come and are here met, in this very nick of time, by chance as it may seem. Yet it is not so. Believe rather that it is so ordered that we, who sit here, and none others, must now find counsel for the peril of the world.’"
Mark does not tell of a mandate issued by Jesus to the Twelve on this occasion. But the setting (a mountain) and the symbolism (the New Israel) move in the same direction as Tolkien’s story. It is not difficult to imagine similar words from Jesus to the Twelve.

The net section details more of the dynamics at work in the formation and furtherance of the FoK.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Cultivating the Practice of Reading Scripture

by Joel Green

While teaching at a conference some years ago, I was startled when a participant announced that he could not imagine how any Republican could claim to take the Bible seriously. Not long afterward, I witnessed a repeat performance in another setting, except in this case we were told that Republicans alone read Scripture correctly. This reminds me of what I imagine to be a first-century “battle for the Bible”: Pharisees, Christ-followers, and Sadducees, all reading the same Scriptures but reading them quite differently, and reaching diverse conclusions about the nature of faithfulness to God. How can this be?

Clearly, a lot has to do with our formation as readers of Scripture and not only with the words written on the page. This underscores the importance of reading Scripture as a “practice,” since the idea of “practice” assumes circularity: Formed by our reading of Scripture, we become better readers of Scripture. This is not because we become better skilled at applying biblical principles. The practice of reading Scripture is not about learning how to mold the biblical message to contemporary lives and modern needs. Rather, the Scriptures yearn to reshape how we comprehend our lives and identify our greatest needs. We find in Scripture who we are and what we might become, so that we come to share its assessment of our situation, encounter its promise of restoration, and hear its challenge to serve God’s good news.

Paradoxically, perhaps, cultivating the practice of reading Scripture first prioritizes Christian formation more generally. This is because there is no necessary, straight line from reading the biblical materials to reading them Christianly; sharply put, one can be “biblical” without being “Christian.”


Hermeneutics with Heschel in Three Paragraphs

Herma and Hermeneutics

"What impairs our sight are habits of seeing as well as the mental concomitants of seeing. Our sight is suffused with knowing, instead of feeling painfully the lack of knowing what we see. The principle to be kept in mind is to know what we see rather than to see what we know.

Rather than blame things for being obscure, we should blame ourselves for being biased and prisoners of self-induced repetitiveness. One must forget many cliches in order to behold a single image. Insight is the beginning of perceptions to come rather than the extension of perceptions gone by. Conventional seeing, operating as it does with patterns and coherences, is a way of seeing the present in the past tense. Insight is an attempt to think in the present.

Insight is a breakthrough, requiring much intellectual dismantling and dislocation. It begins with a mental interim, with the cultivation of a feeling for the unfamiliar, unparalleled, incredible. It is in being involved with a phenomenon, being intimately engaged to it, courting it, as it were, that after much perplexity and embarrassment we come upon insight-upon a way of seeing the phenomenon from within. Insight is accompanied by a sense of surprise. What has been closed is suddenly disclosed. It entails genuine perception, seeing anew. He who thinks that we can see the same object twice has never seen. Paradoxically, insight is knowledge at first sight."

~ Heschel, The Prophets, XXIV-V (from Alan Hirsch)