Category Archives: Church

Gentiles and Homosexuals (pt. 4)

Since I’m on vacation and away from internet access, I continue my series on how we should be reading the New Testament and its implications for how we handle issues such as gay marriage. For those of us who believe in Jesus as the revelation of God’s saving power, Jesus as the resurrected Lord over all, taking up the NT is taking up our book, the stories and letters written for our communities, addressing us as the insiders, telling us what it means to faithfully follow God.

Too infrequently do we realize that this means that the characters in the stories with whom we bear the greatest similarity are the Jewish people whose understanding of God’s work is getting reconfigured. Thus, the story of Jesus’ sermon in Luke 4 tells us as much as them that God’s blessing cannot be confined to us as the insiders; Jesus’ healing the centurion tells us as much as them that God’s blessings and Jesus’ authority reach beyond the people of God even to those who could rightly be labelled “enemy”; and the parable of the Good Samaritan warns us that faithful keeping of the Law of God can keep us from seeing the neighbor whom we are called to love.

In all of this, there is something to be learned for Christians who hold to a traditionalist view of marriage as something God has ordained to be between a man and a woman. Once we have said this much, we still have not yet said what it means for our posture toward those who disagree, whom we would see as not practicing what falls within the sphere of God’s instruction for humanity.

Perhaps I can now put it more strongly: these stories together demonstrate that what God wants of us is not to restrict God’s blessings to the people of God, but to participate in showering these blessings indiscriminately among the people of the earth.

And, this blessing does not mean simply calling them to join the people of God, a “spiritual” concern above and before anything else, but means a true extending to them of all the blessings that come from the authority of Jesus, the mercy we have in our power to extend, the food with which we can feed the hungry, the medicine with which we can feed the sick–all the blessings that God bestows upon the world.

Today I want to add one more NT passage to the mix, to show that all this is not merely hermeneutical trickery on my part. Jesus tells us directly: it is not our business to restrict the blessings of God to those whom we love. This is not the character of God whose children we are.

“I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you because of your faith so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous… Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete” (Matthew 5:44-48, CEB).

The blessings of God indiscriminately shower down upon the earth. And if we are truly God’s children, we are to be agents of such showering in our own world as well. The gay marriage issue is difficult because it is easy to point to the Bible and say that homosexual lifestyles are wrong. But it is even more difficult because God demands that we not restrict the fullness of life and blessing of God to those who do what is right, to those whom we love, to those whom we can address as brother and sister.

Love is not about demanding that people act like we do or believe like we do before receiving the blessings of God that we can help bring about in the real world. Love is about bestowing the blessings of God so that the people around us will see our good deeds and glorify our Father in heaven–this is exactly what it means to be, as the church, the light of the world. It’s not about keeping God’s Law so people will see how pious we are, it means loving our neighbor, truly, as ourselves, so that they will know themselves loved by our God and Father.

Being part of the in crowd is not, can never be, prerequisite for someone being the recipient of our love, of the blessings of God.

Gentiles and Homosexuals (pt. 3)

In Part 1 of this series I illustrated the danger of thinking that we as the insiders can contain the blessings of God–we might find ourselves attempting to throw Jesus off a cliff. In Part 2, I continued with a story that shows how these blessings come even to those who stand against the very purposes of God–a Roman centurion receives the blessings of Jesus’ authority.

The point of this is to show through a series of engagements with NT stories that we must not only consider how we are to act in order to please God in our standing before him, but must also consider how we must act toward our neighbor who will not so act if we are to truly please God. In all, it seems that upholding our moral standards, or obeying God more generally, as a barrier to extending the fulness of God’s blessings to the world around us is a crucial mistake that might make us more the outsider than we realize.

The quintessential example of failure to extend blessing due to adherence to the Law is the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Image: therubicon.org
The Lawyer comes to Jesus, and correctly enumerates what must be done to obtain eternal life: love God, love neighbor. Like us, he knows that both are crucial, and that the doing of one cannot be an excuse to not do the other. And, like us, he is keen to make sure he knows who this neighbor is. How far does love extend? What must it look like?

The story that ensues is familiar. But too often, we fail to dig deep enough into the failure of love that is illustrated.

The man is beaten, and lays within an inch of his life. In fact, for all that someone can tell by looking at him, the man is dead. Why is this important? It’s a crucial factor because priests were forbidden to contract corpse impurity for any but their closest relatives. In other words, for a priest, and perhaps a Levite, to leave an apparently dead man unattended to was nothing less than upholding the Law of God.

Was the man who loved his neighbor the one who kept the Law of God and thereby kept himself pure to act on the people’s behalf in the Temple service?

Was the law-keeping obedient one the person who did what was necessary to obtain eternal life by loving neighbor?

No.

The person who was neighbor to the man, and therefore acted with the love that leads to eternal life, was the non-Law-keeping Samaritan, the half-Jewish “other” who bound the man’s wounds, entrusted him to the care of the inn keeper, and paid for him to come to full health and strength.

When we wrestle with how the ordinances of God might impact our status toward outsiders, we are too often in the place of the priest and Levite–upholding the Law of God and thereby claiming that we are loving neighbor even while we leave our neighbor without food, without healthcare, without a true participation in the blessings God has given us.

These NT stories are merely about legalists who don’t really understand God’s Law. They are about people who understand all too well the Law that differentiates them and separates them from the world that lies beyond the people of God. But Jesus takes hold of the biblical storyline that demands we recognize God as the God of all–and that we extend the blessings of God as far as God’s own Lordship itself extends.

These are stories that call us to love the outsider, that demand of us that we set aside the law of God–not as a means by which we live faithfully, but–as a means by which we determine who is worthy to receive the good things that God has bestowed upon God’s people, the good things by which God pushes back the brokenness and fallenness of the world.

Love is not depicted in any of these stories as demanding that someone enter the people of God, it is depicted as a realization that God’s blessings burst beyond the people of God, enveloping even those who will not place themselves within the space marked off by that God’s rules and people.

Gentiles and Homosexuals (pt. 2)

On Thursday I began a series in which I want to develop an interpretive framework for wrestling with issues of homosexuals in civil society for those Christians who do not believe that homosexual practice falls within the realm of acceptable Christian action.

In short, the hermeneutical move is this: Christians reading the NT are now more in the place of the first century Jews than the first century Gentiles. We are the “insiders” who know what God has done to redeem and reconcile a people and what it means, at least in general, to faithfully follow this God.

In short, what we find at several key moments is that the blessings of God are not confined to the people of God–and that these blessings overflow and come to outsiders even without their agreeing to become insiders. We began with Luke 4, and the reminder Jesus gave of how the power of God to feed the hungry and heal the sick went beyond Israel in the days of Elijah and Elisha–and this enraged his audience.

It presses the question of whether we, too, are not enraged at the idea that our community might not lay exclusive claim to the blessings of God?

The decentering ministry of Jesus is visible elsewhere as well. In Matthew 8, after Jesus comes down from the mount of his famous sermon, a centurion approaches him, asking for a servant to be healed.

Gentiles are outsiders. Uncircumcised, unkosher, Sabbath-breaking outsiders.

But things here are even worse.

The Roman occupation of Galilee and Judea is a potent reminder of the failure of God’s promises in the prophets to come to fruition. The promise of being free in their own land to worship their own God under their own king is daily thwarted by military and political subjugation to Rome.

This Gentile who stands before Jesus is not only a reminder of, but an active agent in the failure of Israel to enter into the civil, religious, and political life that God has promised God’s people.

And he comes to Jesus to ask for healing. And Jesus heals his servant.

This means at least two things. One: the man saw in Jesus, the very definition of the “insider” for the new people of God, something powerful. Two: he saw in Jesus someone who would be wiling to share that power for the good of even a Gentile centurion.

He had faith in that power, in Jesus’ authority, and that it could and would be used for him.

Here, we might say, is an example of an outsider coming “in” in order to receive the blessing. But did he? Yes, he had faith in the work of Jesus. But Jesus commends him as an insider without demanding that he actually become an insider first. He blesses him, heals his servant, without the man joining himself to the Jewish people–and without the man leaving his post as one who stands against the freedom of the people of God or leaving his life behind to follow Jesus in his mission.

Questions that present themselves to us: do outsiders see anything in the church that they would want part of for themselves?

When they do see something that looks like a good–a blessing bestowed by the power and authority of God–do we willingly give to them out of the abundance of what God has given us? Or do we demand that they become like us first, enter into the community of faith in order to know the blessings of God?

Will we give outsiders our money for their food? Our medicine for their healing? Our marriage for their comfort and security? Or are these things only for those who first drop all that they have and then enter into the kingdom of abundance?

Note: I am on vacation and will be mostly away from the internet. Please feel free to have constructive conversation amongst yourselves, but I am not likely to participate!

Christ and Christian

The past few days have seen some good, some bad, and lots of challenging conversation go by on the post about gay marriage. One of the recurring points of conflict comes from the Bible: what is it and what are we supposed to do with it?

As Christians, we are a people of the book. The scriptures witness to the redemptive work of God that comes to its fulfillment in Christ. This collection of documents is normative for Christians. It tells the stories that found our communities, it reflects on the implications of those stories for our life together. It gives rules to live by.

One of my operating theories these days is that for a people of the book our identity, our ethics, and our hermeneutics are inseparable. How we read the Bible is indicative of how we conceive of what it means to be Christian, what we think we are supposed to do will flow from these two.

Image: renjith krishnan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Part of the challenge of living well is that there are numerous close-calls: we can attempt to live by grace, because ours is a religion of grace; we can attempt to live in obedience, because we are called to obey and respond.

But these “close calls” are all the more wrong for their proximity to the truth.

We are not saved by grace [full stop].

We are saved by the grace of God made known and given to us in Christ.

We are not called to obey [full stop].

We are called to walk in the Spirit of the crucified and risen Christ; we are called to obey the words of the good teacher who also laid down his life for his friends.

It is Christ who makes us Christian. It is the participation in the cosmic reality that the crucified Christ is the resurrected Lord over all things. This will give us our own standard and definition of love.

What does it mean to love my neighbor as myself? Somehow, the self-giving of God for the sake of sinners who turned on the grace-giver in murderous rage will have to become our story. Not necessarily the murderous rage part–but that we step forward and love as Christ loved, that we bless the world as God blesses.

And that means loving those who are outside, beyond, and against the kingdom of God as ourselves. Loving neighbor is never antithetical to the love of God, because the God whom we are called to emulate is the God who causes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the just and the unjust alike–all the nations are blessed. Because the God whom we are called to emulate is the one who did not spare his own son but delivered him up for us all–while we were all still sinners and hostile in mind to this same God.

Adding Normal Church

Folks who follow the blog (or my Facebook or Twitter projections) know that our family’s primary community of worship has been a house church since we moved to San Francisco almost three years ago. This has been a great experience. We found close community quickly, made the kind of friends with whom we can celebrate life’s joys, mourn life’s tragedies, care for in time of need, and be cared for in our own.

And for the past 6 weeks or so, we have been adding normal church to our Sunday routine, heading to an evening worship service at a smallish church plant.

Image: Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Why are we adding “normal church” to our regular pattern of worship?

For one thing, I have always missed large group singing. I find that atmosphere to be more often conducive to connecting with God through song. In small groups the experience of joint worship is usually not as enveloping.

Another dynamic is opening up more connections. While the intimacy and depth of small group relationships is a crucial part of our life together in Christ, there are gifts and opportunities that one finds in a larger group that cannot exist in a small house church simply because of numbers. In this case, we were looking for a little more diversity in “age and stage,” especially after some turnover in our house church. Currently there is no peer for our 6 year old in the house church, Laura and I are the oldest members, and there is only one other man in the church besides me.

A larger community contains a healthy “more” than the house church in this respect. That is to say, “more” is not always better. Having more connections can often be a cover for having fewer significant relationships. But the up side of numbers is to be found both in opportunities for connecting with more and more kinds of people and also in being in community with people who have more gifts for the building up of the body of Christ.

So, house church has been and continues to be a rich source of worship, community, and sharing in Christ with people in San Francisco. And, we’ve started enriching that sharing in Christ together by starting to connect with the good folks at Eucharist.

Any questions?

Freedom for a Real God

Two points in Karl Barth’s articulation of the Spirit’s revelation of the Word of God to humanity deserve fresh hearing in a world that tends to go a very different direction.

One of these is the issue of freedom. I find that human freedom is one of the bedrock assumptions that most of my students bring to the text of scripture with them. Sometimes this is couched in terms of “free will” as over against a “predestinarian” understanding of how we come to be in relationship with God. But often it is not so specifically developed.

What my students assume, by and large, is that we are free, as humans, to choose for God or to choose against God as God is offered to us in Christ.

Barth Experiences God Via His Pipe

Barth challenges this assumption on any number of levels. The idea that humanity is capable due to its own ontology to respond to God is an idea he confronts, insisting that the freedom we have to be for God is the freedom which God Himself gives us by the power of the Holy Spirit.

I think Barth is picking up on a crucial thread of biblical teaching.

These days we are increasingly happy with the “atonement model” of Christus Victor. At the root of this vision of salvation is a recognition that the world is enslaved to hostile powers. Paul talks about the world being subjected to the powers of sin and death.

Christ comes to redeem.

Look at the language. Enslavement. Subjection. Redemption.

The assumption in each of these is that we are not free except insofar as we participate in the freeing act of Christ. We need to rethink what sort of freedom we do and do not have inside and outside of Christ. I don’t think that a classic Calvinist articulation is necessarily the way to go, but it is on to something.

The other place where Barth has something to remind us of is that this God for whom we are freed by the power of the Spirit is a true God who is outside ourselves.

I had a conversation once that went something like this:

  • “I spend time reading the Bible and praying in the morning.”
  • “That’s great that you clear out time for yourself. I wish I did that more.”

Without bringing too much theological critique to bear on this normal conversation, it was reflective of two very different views of the world.

I believe that when I pray and read scripture I am actually spending time with a true God and subjecting my life to, or summoning the aid of, the true Lord who reigns over the earth.

Barth reminds us that Christian celebration of the experience of the Spirit is not a celebration of our own spirits, or of finding a lost place inside of ourselves. It is the Holy Spirit of God uniting us to the Word of God who is Jesus Christ.

Good words of challenge from Church Dogmatics ยง16.2.

Theological Adams: Gendered

Someone asked what the ramifications would be for male female relationships if the Gen 1-3 stories are not intended to be “history,” as such.

Here, I don’t think that literal history matters very much.

The point of the story is to describe how things came to be the way they are. They provide indicatives that fall short of ideals. Between Gen 1 and Gen 2-3 we get some pointers for what gender means for our relationships.

Here we will run into some of the challenges of two different stories making, at times, very different points.

Genesis 1 depicts the creation of humanity as male and female created in God’s image–to rule the world on God’s behalf. The striking implication would seem to be that we are all created to rule the world for God, not just men.

To anticipate the questions that 1 Timothy raises: women are created to share in the authoritative speaking and acting for God that defines humanity and that is reembodied in ecclesial leadership.

Gen 2-3 is a bit more tricky. People rightly note that Eve was created from Adam’s rib, his side, and that she was created as a “helper.” Far from “helper” indicating subordinate, in the OT ‘ezer language often refers to YHWH in relationship with Israel (Gen 49; Exod 18; Deut 33). So there are indications of equality.

But there are also indications of male primacy. The Man names all the animals. The Man names the Woman. The Man receives God’s command and is presumably responsible for propagating it. The Man is given charge of the garden, and the woman is given to help him in his task. So there are also indications of subordination.

As the story plays out, the disobedience of the first couple creates tensions: the Man blames the Woman, the Woman blames the serpent. The creation will give evidence of rebellion and brokenness. Food will come through thorns and thistles. Children will come through pain.

And, the Woman’s desire will be for the Man and he will rule over over.

By the time we’ve moved from Gen 1 to Gen 3, the story has fallen apart. Almost entirely. Reading the stories back-to-back, canonically, humanity’s God-given gift of rule has been marred almost beyond recognition.

The epitome of the disorder of the world is that human rule is no longer shared, shoulder-to-shoulder, male-and-female standing before God on behalf of the world and standing before the world on behalf of God. Instead, the man rules his co-ruler. Creation is undone.

As a story of beginnings, Gen 3 tells us about a world gone awry. And in the middle of that skewed situation is hierarchy displacing partnership in the relationships of Man and Woman.

History, it seems, matters little for making this point, that subordination is a result of the fall, and to perpetuate subordination as God’s intent is to give up on the power of new creation to undo the disorder of the world.

So what are we to do with 1 Tim 2 and 1 Cor 11? We’ll talk about that tomorrow.

I Kissed Conserving Goodbye

As I reflect on interactions that occur around issues such as creation, design, and evolution, or around the inerrancy of the Bible, or women in ministry, I am often as aware of the theological or hermeneutical commitments that drive the conclusions as I am about the data and conclusions themselves.

In particular, I am aware of how I have changed by becoming less interested in conserving than I once was. (Roger Olson coined the term “post-conservative Evangelical,” and I find that it fits me fairly well.)

I have a number of titles in mind of books or articles that will never sell because nobody would want to read them. One of these is, “How abandoning inerrancy saved my faith.” And I imagine that the theological postures it would depict would develop this image from the film Armageddon:

“Imagine a firecracker in the palm of your hand. You set it off, what happens? You burn your hand, right? You close your fist around the same firecracker, and set it off. Your wife’s gonna be opening your ketchup bottles the rest of your life.” –Roland Qunicey, “Armageddon”

In my own trek through various ways of expressing

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Christian faith, I’ve discovered that a conservative theological posture is like that hand clenched around the firecracker. Your only option is to deny the firecracker is lit, or else submerge your hand in water so that it looses all its power.

“If the Bible has errors, the Christian faith is based on a lie!” some might say. The hand is clenched. So what happens when we discover that Quirinius wasn’t the governor of Syria, that there wasn’t a census in Judea, until Judea was annexed to Syria after the deposition of Herod Agrippa?

Your hand is about to explode.

Opening the hand always feels like the route to losing what’s in your hand. It feels less secure.

But I found that kissing conservatism goodbye, that opening my hand to what “must be true” in order for Jesus to be the reconciler of God and humanity and inaugurator of new creation, has not only “saved my faith,” but given me a faith that is more capable of dealing with both the Bible we actually have and the world in which we actually live.

Or: I know that it seems like rock is stronger than paper, but when playing rock-paper-scissors, open hand beats it.

Forgiveness, Blessing, and… Wrath?

Yesterday I shared some thoughts about the importance of resurrection in our understanding of the call to forgive. The economy of the world is not the container within which justice will be done. God must intervene. God must reverse the judgments of the world.

The powerful must be thrown down from their thrones.

The dead must be raised.

This brings up one particularly challenging dynamic in the story: the idea that our forgiveness and blessing of those who have wronged us might play into an economy of reversal. Paul puts it like this in Romans 12:

Do not repay evil for evil to anyone, respecting what is right in the sight of all people…. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. But “If your enemy hungers–feed him! If she thirsts–give her something to drink! For doing thus you will heap burning coals upon his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Some of this is more palatable to us than other parts.

The idea that our calling is never to get drawn into the game of retribution is crucial. Echoing the sermon on the mount, where Jesus tells people to go the extra mile and give tunic as well as cloak, Paul says that defending ourselves in kind is out, and repaying evil with blessing is a vital element of our calling.

As Paul contextualizes Proverbs 25:21 in the letter to Rome, he writes it into the narrative of the cross by which he believes God has saved the world. Through the goodness of self-giving love, the sin and death of the world have been overcome.

But then there’s the other part.

The bit about heaping up burning coals on their heads.

Here we perhaps catch a glimpse of something that reminds us of the peculiar position we are in, most of us, as people with access to computers and internets, and education, and money. We forget that the Bible was written in a time when only a few could even hope for the sort of freedom we enjoy. We live in a time when justice is assumed to be the norm from which only a few deviate.

The space we are called to leave for God’s wrath seems unbecoming because the reality of injustice is an idea that we are too far removed from to know deep in our bones.

Of course, there is another reason many of us don’t like the idea as well: we hope that God’s capacity for forgiveness is larger than ours. We hope that our own failures to give up a grudge don’t reflect the truest intent of the heart of God. We hope that the capacious forgiveness and reconciliation on offer in the cross will break even the hardest of hearts and that God’s work of reconciliation will outstrip all our own feeble attempts.

But there seems to be a storyline in this world in which the powerful and the true enemies continue to see the very work of God before their eyes, continue to see the cross of Christ embodied in a blessing, persecuted people–and continue to pour out their evil upon this incarnation of good.

The people of God, in forgiving and blessing in the midst of persecution, are reenacting the Jesus story, the Jesus who offered forgiveness from the cross. This is our calling–to renarrate the life of Jesus in our lives, in our communities.

And, it is possible for this incarnation of Christ to be spurned and treated with contempt–and for the wrath of God to be kindled, a wrath that will be made known in the end.

This is tricky.

If we bless in hopes of bringing condemnation, it is no blessing but a curse. So our gifts must, it seems to me, be offered as genuine offers of forgiveness and blessing–even as Jesus’ own cry on Golgotha; an offer that can be embraced in repentance or spurned unto judgment.

Forgiveness and Resurrection

Yesterday I did a little co-conspiring with Mark Scandrette and the guys from ikon here in San Francisco. We recorded a podcast about forgiveness (stay tuned for download details).

The conversation generated a number of thoughts and questions, not all of them worked out in our short time recording. Perhaps one of the most important has to do with entrusting judgment to God. At some level, especially for people who have been badly wounded, abused, left behind after a loved one has been killed, forgiveness will be tied to a conviction that the God of all the earth will do what is right.

Is that really the God who composes the Christian story? Is that really the God who beckons us to forgive and even to bless those who persecute us?

In my estimation, we have too often surrendered a major resource for answering this question because we have built our theology of forgiveness so much around the cross that we have neglected the crucial place of the resurrection.

Resurrection means not only that God has accepted and forgiven us in Christ. This much is true. But it also means, more generally, that the economy of this world is not equipped to bring about the just judgment of God.

The God of all the earth will do what is right, but this mortal life and its systems of power and even of justice are not the heavenly court.

Resurrection promises that there will be reversal. Injustice cannot escape the righteous judgment of God.