Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Some Thoughts on Philippians 2:1-13 and Lent

We have in this reading one of the great passages in Scripture. Here Paul tenderly yet passionately urged Christians in Philippi (in Macedonia) to follow the example of Jesus by experiencing and practicing a deep, humble love among themselves. We do well to mine the ore of this passage with a strong desire to possess its riches. In it we will find not the world’s riches but heaven’s.

Philippi was a significant city in the first century A.D. With a wide diversity of people, ideas, and religious practices, it straddled a major road between the western and eastern spheres of the Roman empire. In this swirl of forces, the Philippian Christians suffered because of their allegiance to Jesus. Such pressure on them raised the specter of ill will and conflict in their community. Paul, aware of this, exhorted them to be united with each other in love even as they were united with Jesus.

The pattern for living out this unity is found in Jesus himself. With a stark beauty, today’s passage describes this pattern in the divinity and humanity of the person and life of Jesus – what in theology is called Christology. Now Paul primarily wrote this passage not to instruct in theology or Christology. He wrote to instruct in life. However, the life instruction depended on the Christology.

The Christology is this. Jesus was fully divine. Yet he did not “grasp” divinity such that he felt no compassion toward sinful, broken humankind. Rather, he humbled himself to enter human life truly and fully – what we call the incarnation. He so humbled himself (the Greek in verse 7 can be translated “slave” as equally as “servant”) that, to love God and us faithfully, he willingly suffered the most excruciating and abasing death the ancient world knew.

The life instruction is this. If Jesus so humbled himself in love to bind himself to us and us to God, and if we say we are united with him, we should live specifically, concretely in love as he did. We should live in such deep, humble love for others that we turn our back on all self-centeredness and selfishness in order to serve others first, to put others’ interests before our own. If this passage does not turn us from the pursuit of worldly ambition, wealth, and self-importance, what will?

As we set our faces toward Jerusalem this Lent, may we – “through self-examination and repentance, by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word” (Ash Wednesday liturgy, Book of Common Prayer) – lay aside ourselves to love and follow the example of our savior and lord, humbled and crucified for us.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Church: Vanguard of the New Heaven and the New Earth

In many evangelical churches we often hear the church’s vision and mission cast in Great Commission terms. The impetus is to be a Great Commission church because this, it is thought, is the very nature of what it means to be a church. This aspiration on the part of the clergy or the clergy and congregation need not indicate a formal connection with one or more of the Great Commission Church associations. It often indicates simply a more general sense that Jesus’ commission to his disciples in Matthew 28:16-20 constitutes the essential nature and purpose of Christian churches. This is why the Church and churches exist.

There is no question that the Church and local churches should have a strong outward dynamic through mission, evangelism, and service. The Church is not an exclusive club or secret society. Jesus calls not only individual believers but the Church as a body to love God and love the neighbor with the wholehearted, sacrificial love he embodied and continues to manifest to the world.

Yet the nature and purpose of the Church cannot be adequately captured, distilled, or focused by the label or identity of “a Great Commission church.” For the Church is the new community of humankind or the new humanity created by God in Jesus. The Church constitutes in a real sense the vanguard of the new heaven and earth. Just as God first created humanity in Adam and Eve, so God has re-created humanity in Jesus Christ and the Church.

If the Church were solely or even primarily a missional body, it would cease to exist in the final re-creation of heaven and earth which God will effect at the end of history as we know it. Yet that prospect makes no sense. In God’s gracious power and love, the Church, humanity re-created by God, will continue, perfected, in the new age pictured for us in Revelation 21.

I speak here chiefly in theological and essential terms, not in terms of the practical realities of the Church of wheat and tares. However, it may be inaccurate to assert such a qualification. For indeed the Church may well be the new humanity and the vanguard of the new heaven and earth in both theological and practical terms in this world if we conceive of the work of Christ as source and guide of the Church and not only as goal or end result.

In other words, one of the category mistakes of Christian thought, and thereby of Christian experience, is to understand the work of Christ almost completely in triumphant and static terms of the finished or end product. Too often we hold up the work of Christ in the life of the Church and the lives of individual Christians primarily with the perfected end state in view. We emphasize what will be in perfection so much that we lose the sense of good in process in this life toward that blessed completion. Indeed, we may even thus lose the sense of progress in faith, hope, and love, truth, beauty, and goodness, that will surely mark our corporate and individual life not only in this age but in the glorious age to come.

We better understand and experience the presence and activity of Christ in our world and in our community of the redeemed in terms of dynamic process as well as result: Christ dealing with sins or our fallenness, not only Christ having dealt with sins. We understand and experience these aspects of Christ’s work as the “already and the not yet” reality of the kingdom of heaven in our world, as many theologians have put it. Here, in this existence, between the cross and the Second Coming, we are the Church in process, the Church of wheat and tares. This is truly the Church, in this age. And of course, when we speak of the Church of wheat and tares, we refer at least as much to the wheat and tares within our very selves as well as within the community.

We come back then to the point that the Church most truly and essentially exists not for, but because. The Church, God’s new creation, is not utilitarian. That would be like saying that God created humanity in the first place for utilitarian purposes. The Church does not exist for mission. The Church exists because God loves. The Church emerges from God’s love and because of God’s love through the suffering labor of the cross (in contrast to the painless labor of God which gave rise to the cosmos and humanity in the first creation), in and to the delighting and loving pleasure of God. Any for of the Church’s existence grows out of this irreducible because of its existence.

The for-ness of the Church then roots in and stems from the because-ness of the church. The for-ness is not rooted in utilitarianism but in essence. And this for-ness is multidimensional. The Church, being the new humanity in Christ, lives out the for-ness of its existence in several broad but fundamental ways. In terms of purpose and activity, the Church consists of a community of worship, fellowship, service, and witness (by word and deed). Worship, fellowship, service, and witness comprise the multidimensional purpose of the Church stemming from its essential nature as creature of God’s love. With this in mind, it is wrong to say that the Church exists for witness or mission. Therefore, to seek to be a Great Commission church as if this were the whole reason for the Church to exist is to misunderstand the essence of the Church and to limit the multidimensional purpose of the Church, which is to love God and love the neighbor.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Some Thoughts on Hebrews 1:1-14

Some of us may be familiar with the “Mr. Bean” series from British television in the early 1990s. A truly odd yet often hilarious character, Mr. Bean appeared at the opening of each episode by dropping from the night sky in a beam of light and landing on an empty London street. This entrance onto the scene only heightened Mr. Bean’s singularity.

Many may view Jesus as something like Mr. Bean: a singular point in history; strange and rather out of touch with the world and regular life. In this perspective, Jesus seems to have come out of nowhere. His brief life flashed through Palestine under Roman occupation. Then he cruelly died through the collusion of Jewish and Roman authorities. A vague brightness lingers as an after image in the history of the world and perhaps in our personal lives, but otherwise he seems largely irrelevant to daily life.

The author of the New Testament treatise we call “Hebrews” knew differently. He knew Jesus to be crucial in the plan of God and the meaning of our lives: both in the day to day and in the end; then, now, and ever. Jesus focuses and culminates all that God has done and will do in loving and restoring people, first in Israel, then in the church, and finally in the entire world.

Jesus is singular, but not because he dropped out of the night sky on a beam of starlight one December long ago. Born of the Holy Spirit, he is singular because he expressly images and radiates the very being of God in the world. Born to a young Jewish woman in a Palestinian stable, he is also singular because he completely identifies with us in our living and our dying. When we see Jesus, we see God, and we see ourselves. He is truly divine and truly human. Hence, the opening of Hebrews soars with God’s grandeur and Jesus’ significance for the world!

So we cannot reduce Jesus to an irrelevance. We may choose to ignore or reject him. Yet we may not relegate him to a vague point in time long ago, or at best to just another in a set of good people in the history of the world. All things hold together in Jesus. He sustains all things. Or they fall apart. What will it be for our lives and our world?

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Some Thoughts on Jeremiah 31:27-34

The God who created the universe out of nothing is holy and mighty, entirely other than his creation or anything in it. Yet he is not aloof and distant, not by his nature or will. We may push him away; we may hide or run away; we may ignore, disobey, reject, or forget him. He still pursues us, with a persistent love. The Jewish people knew this well. When Jeremiah lived and prophesied (just before and after 600 B.C.), they lived amid war and threat of war from several nations vying for empires in the region. In this context, they proved unfaithful to God in many ways. Yet God – intimately, passionately – still pursued them. For he had called them into being and entered into a special relationship with them. They were his people; he was their God. Because of this, God repeatedly spoke to them to teach and shape them. With steadfast love, he guided them, sought their good, interceded for them, and even disciplined them. In turn, he desired their love and fidelity to him and his ways. All of this we see in this passage from the book of Jeremiah – chapter 31, verses 27-34in its repeated refrains and themes: the phrase, “says the Lord”; invocation of covenants; pithy agricultural metaphors for God’s acts; the intimate marriage metaphor for God’s relationship with them; issues of faithfulness, sin, and forgiveness; and God’s promises. Climaxing the passage is the great promise that God will restore his relationship with his people in a new, more intimate and transforming way. He will make himself known deeply within the hearts of all his people that all – not just a select few, such as the prophets – will know him personally and faithfully. This is the promise fulfilled in the gift of the Holy Spirit to followers of Jesus. This is the gift we receive, enjoy, and live out in God’s grace and power – deeply, intimately, in the core of our being and the shape of our life. In Jesus, God pursues us, forgives us, and renews us. Through the Holy Spirit, God writes himself into our hearts, that we would know and love him. The God of the universe is holy and mighty, but not aloof and distant. Faithfully, lovingly, he dwells within us. May we, faithfully, lovingly, dwell in him.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Some Thoughts on Hebrews 11 and Faith

Faith, it seems to me, is one of those words much used but perhaps little understood. We hear it often in general culture in statements such as “keep the faith,” “have a little faith,” “she broke faith with her friend,” “he lost faith in himself,” and more. We find it regularly in religious language. We hear of “people of faith,” “the Christian faith,” “faith in God,” “leap of faith,” “faith and reason,” and the like.

In Hebrews 11 we encounter one of the great passages on faith in the Bible. Here the invocation of faith is specific, concrete, and intensely personal. It is not vague, sentimental, or mushy in meaning. Let’s look at the author’s use of faith to see what it means.

At the end of chapter 10 of Hebrews, the author reminded his readers of the suffering they had endured for Jesus. The author exhorted them, despite adversity, to persevere in following Jesus. In chapter 11, he encouraged them with example after example of people in Israel’s history who had steadfastly lived by faith in God, people whom God had honored for their faith.

What do we learn from these heartening words?

Faith is not primarily about what we do not know. Faith is about what we do know. It focuses on what God has made and continues to make known about himself.

Faith, therefore, is assurance. The assurance of faith does not depend on our strength of will or character. The assurance of faith depends on God’s good and loving will, holy character, and insuperable power.

Faith, then, is trust – trust in God, known and proven in history. For God, in the history of Israel, and uniquely and supremely in Jesus, makes himself known as the lover of the world, of you and me, par excellence.

Following Jesus can be difficult. It can make us look foolish in the view of those who do not know him. It can endanger our success in this culture. It can endanger our physical well-being, even our very life. Yet God is faithful to us as he has been faithful to his people throughout history. We can trust him as we can trust no other person in this entire world. Because he is first and last faithful to us, we can and ought to be faithful to him, first and last.