Advent Love

If there’s one thing that everyone seems to agree about, it’s that ethics are rooted in love.

At a party this weekend at my parents’ house, I had a chance to talk with a man who is a self-described “seeker.” He loves to study religions, all religions. He loves Eastern and Western. He has seen that people in any tradition (and with no religious tradition) can be “good.”

We all know how to love, right?

Well, yes and no.

Love is a malleable category. To take one less-than-serious example, we used to joke in my college fellowship group that we were doing something “in Christian love,” when we were being a jerk about something. The truth behind the joke was that all too often we used “Christian love” as a thin veneer for not loving our neighbor as ourself.

Back to reality: our definitions of love are given their substance by the stories in which they are embedded. Family histories create tremendously powerful understandings of what love looks like–for both good and ill.

And, as Christians, we confess a story about Jesus that gives specific shape to the command to love one another.

Advent, and its remembrance of “love,” provides a black-and-white picture of what will come in full color on Good Friday.

Love in the Christian story is laying down our own life so that another might live. It is setting aside our own glory so that it might accrue to another.

“Remember the Lord Jesus Christ,” Paul admonishes, “that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor so that you, through his poverty, might become rich.”

To love as a Christian depends on two things.

One, it depends on the confidence that if we lay down our life, God is able to give it back again. The call to Christian love only makes sense in a story that resolves in resurrection. Otherwise, it is mere martyrdom.

Two, it depends on an unshakable conviction that the economy of the kingdom of God is an economy of abundance. It is an economy that brings forth riches out of poverty.

Of course, this is just another way of saying we believe in the God who gives life from the dead. But it’s a life from the dead, a something from nothing, that impinges also on the present. See, it’s not merely that our riches make other people rich, or Jesus’ riches that make us rich. On the contrary, it is through Jesus’ poverty that we are made rich, partakers of God’s heavenly inheritance.

Christian love is Advent love because it is Good Friday love. It is love that moves the story of God to its successful climax.

It is the story of the self-giving God who becomes the self-giving Christ so that all those who are Christs might live and reign with him forever.

On Separating Church and State

For all the ways that our country has moved toward separating church and state, one of the remaining points at which the two are bound is marriage.

Churches marry people in the name of the state. They are therefore bound to marry only those whom the state approves to be married.

This, of course, has some ramifications for the question of homosexual marriage (do ministers have to marry gay couples if their states allow it? must they not if their states forbid it?). But its ramifications reach further. For example, it leaves the church without a way to marry illegal immigrants.

Image: Sharron Goodyear /

I had a student whose ministry was in the Latino/a community. This entails ministering among undocumented residents.

So what do you do when a couple starts dating and wants to get married?

The state says they can’t. They don’t have the documents to get a marriage license. Must this couple choose to either not get married and thus remain apart or to give up on their conviction that joining of themselves in every way, including sexually, is to be reserved for marriage?

We have lived so long with pastors saying, “.. and through the power vested in me by the State of _____…” that we don’t even realize how weird that is.

Can you imagine Jesus performing a wedding and saying, “through the power invested in me by Caesar Augustus and his Governor Pontius Pilate…”?

My point is not to say that pastors should definitely marry people in either of the two situations above, my point is that the church should be free to make its decision in the sight of God irrespective of the rites one is allowed to perform in the sight of Uncle Sam.

The church can do one of three things here. It can continue to serve as the state’s emissary and thereby bind itself to marry only within the confines of secular law rather than the conscience of its people.

It can keep doing it, but attempt to raise up a change in state law so that civil ceremonies are for the state’s purposes and church weddings are for God’s purposes. (This is the way it worked in Holland when my grandparents got married: one set of paperwork and vows for the state, the other in the church.)

Or, pastors could just stop marrying people on the state’s behalf. Really. You can do this. Tell the couple that you maintain your religious freedom, in part, by not allowing the state to dictate whom you can and cannot join. The state is free to agree or disagree as it will, and Christian people are free, and encouraged, to join that debate as a state issue. But you, as a pastor, are free to perform a religious wedding ceremony that carries no civil approval or disapproval with it.

We don’t have to wait for the state(s) to separate itself from our work as the people of the church. We can say, “No, thank you” to the state’s offer to allow us to function as its proxy.

We can put asunder what the state has strangely joined.

Not Quite the New Moses

In John 6, Jesus feeds the 5,000. In the wilderness. What could this possibly mean?

The people seem to know: When the people saw that he had done a miraculous sign, they said, “This is truly the prophet who is coming into the world” (John 6:14, CEB).

“The prophet,” the prophet promised in Deut 18:15: “God will raise up a prophet like me,” says Moses. And YHWH agrees: “I’ll raise up a prophet for them… just like you” (Deut 18:18, CEB).

And what else are we to think of one who fed so many in the wilderness? Well, Jesus has a surprise in store. The people begin:

“Our ancestors ate manna in the wilderness, just as it is written, He gave them bread from heaven to eat.”

Jesus told them, “I assure you, it wasn’t Moses who gave the bread from heaven to you, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. The bread of God is the one who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

They said, “Sir, give us this bread all the time!”

Jesus replied, “I am the bread of life…” (John 6:31-35, CEB)

Do you see what happens here? The people are pushing the notion that they are the desert people, and Jesus the new Moses who will feed them in the wilderness and even become their king. In fact, after they say, “This is truly the prophet!” Jesus has to withdraw to keep them from making him king.

Jesus is transforming their expectations. Yes, the Messiah, but no, not like that.

So if not the prophet like Moses, who? Or better, what?

Jesus reworks the story in two ways.

First: it wasn’t Moses who gave bread in the wilderness, but the Father. If you see food in the wilderness and think that you’re in the presence of the new Moses, you’ve mistaken the work of God for the work of a human.

God gave the bread in the wilderness.

But then, in another surprise move, tells them that the point of the bread was not that he was Moses, nor that he was even the sender in Heaven. Instead, Jesus is what the Sender has sent:

I am the bread of life.

Jesus is the bread sent by the Father into the wilderness. The feeding here does not say, “Behold, the prophet like Moses,” but, “Behold, the true bread of life that has come down into the world.”

Not the sending Father, not the leading Moses, not the sent mannah, but the Sent Son.”

Here is God’s provision for eternal life, the true bread that the Father has sent into the world. Not Moses, but the eternal Mannah.

“What is it?” the people asked in the OT, and so they called it “Mannah.” What is it? the people are asking in the wilderness, and Jesus tells them, “It is I, the bread of life, sent from heaven so that you might live.”

Spiritual Floundering in Seminary

The Duke Chronicle ran an article this past week on the struggles of Divinity School students. I confess, When I saw the title, “Students Flounder at Divinity School,” I was expecting something about the academic challenges being faced afresh by so many students who had pastoral ministry, rather than academics, as their vocation.

But I was wrong. (See? You didn’t think I could ever admit to such a thing–but there it is!)

The article was about the students’ perception that they were withering up spiritually. Their souls are being sucked dry by the intense academic environment that does not provide nourishment for the whole person.

I have a couple of responses to this, and would love to hear your take as well.

First, I have a great deal of sympathy for the students. I have known, far too often, the disappointment from experiencing a void in pastoral leadership in my own life. I can very much relate to the sense that I need more direction and pastoral care than I am receiving.

The students are right to be aware of this dynamic and it is good that they recognize the needs they have that aren’t being met. These feelings of not having spiritual needs met can create a great deal of frustration in a seminary environment where, if anything, there seems to be a plethora of wise, godly persons with pastoral inklings all around–none of whom are serving as your pastor.

My second, thought, however, is this: if you are going to be a pastor, you are embarking on a lifetime in which nobody is going to pastor you.

For the rest of your life, it will be your responsibility to find wise mentors to pastor and challenge you; for the rest of your life, and spiritual accountability and encouragement you receive from a peer group will come only from any group of your own making.

Is it good for div school students and pastors to be alone? No. And that is why, as a preparation for a lifetime of ministry, I encourage all such students and pastors to go out of your way to create the relationships you need for long term spiritual health.

It may very well be that the school should be doing a bit more for you than it currently is. But if this is the case, the best course of action you can take is probably not a campaign to change the system of the school, but one to change the relational systems in your own life so that they start helping prop you up for a lifetime of ministry that will otherwise likely unfold without anyone being in charge of pastoring you.

Two Down, or…

Karl Barth, The Man-Crush Resumes.

Dogmatics, Two Down

In the final section of Doctrine of the Word of God, Barth touches on two dynamics of his work that make my heart sing, and clarifies one of the recurring challenges I’ve had (including from part one of this section).

First, Barth here talks about the dogmatic method as deriving from the word of God. In other words, there can be no systematization based on a prior idea of what is most basic or foundational. No “law of God,” no theory of the atonement, no primacy of creation.

Yes, law, atonement, and creation are all important! But they are important as pokes radiating out from the center which is the Word of God itself: Christ the word, witnessed to in scripture.

This means that the “analytic” approach to theology that had its heyday in the 18th century and following, needs to take a back seat to a reconceptualization in which various elements sit alongside one another, informing one another, correcting one another, and all mutually subject to Christ the Word.

Second, and relatedly, I think Barth said in a more respectful and sophisticated way what I was striving to say in my somewhat iconoclastic rant about the Trinity a week or two ago. Yes, he has a Trinitarian statement about God, and even about the various doctrines he will cover. However, this Trinitarian statement is not the source of that structure but coordinately derived from the word of God.

The Trinity is crucial, but it does not displace the word of God as the structuring element in Dogmatics; it does not displace the foundational place of the Word of God. Or, “No foundation can be laid other than the one which has already been laid, which is Jesus Christ.”

Finally, in Barth’s very brief outline of what is to come, he leaves me anticipating that ethics will suffuse his understanding of that the church is supposed to teach.

I have been wary thus far that Barth puts too much on the teaching office itself. I see the entire Evangelical project in danger of becoming the teaching church that never faithfully embodies its calling to be the doing church. I have good hopes that Barth will offer something better. We will have to see how that develops over the remaining 6ish years of our time in the Dogmatics.

This brings Year 1 of the Barth Together reading group to a close! Yay!

If you didn’t keep up this year, you won’t feel any more disoriented than the rest of us should you choose to jump in with volume 2 in January. I hope many of you will pick up again and keep reading in 2012. Stay tuned for a reading schedule to go up in the next couple weeks.

At Work in Your Midst

Ever pray for God to be at work in a situation, in a place, in a relationship, in a church?

I’m pretty sure I have. And it never much occurred to me that I might be doing something exceedingly dangerous. It was reflecting on “atonement” in the Luke-Acts that made me think twice.

I remember being taken aback my first semester of my PhD program when people were off-handedly talking about Luke not having an atonement theology. But as I started to dig in I saw the point: Luke seems to have purposely eliminated Mark’s ransom saying. It may be replaced by the saying about coming to serve at table. And, if Bart Ehrman is right, Luke may have eliminated the sacrificial overtones of the last supper.

The cross serves a different kind of purpose in Luke: it makes the Jewish people, in particular, realize that they need God’s forgiveness (rather than making such forgiveness possible).

But then, that brings us up to the problem: the reason they should see they need forgiveness is that God was at work in their world–and they didn’t see it.

Worse, they didn’t merely miss seeing it, they actively worked against it. They opposed the one through whom God was at work, actively and powerfully.

And here is where I circle back to my question: are we really sure we want God to be at work in our midst? What if he is, and we miss it? What if he is, and we actively oppose it?

If the ministry of Jesus shows us anything, it is that the people who should have the clearest vision–both because of their knowledge of scripture and the ways of God and because of their proximity to God’s work–are the ones who oppose the work of God most vehemently.

Yes, of course, I want God at work.

But we should be as diligent in praying for eyes to see and celebrate that God at work as invoking the action in the first place.

Teaching in Grace

The final chapter of Church Dogmatics volume 1 returns to familiar themes: the importance of teaching, the grace which the church must entrust itself to so that it can continue teaching while it recognizes its own imperfections, and the mandate to continue teaching that the church must answer to in all circumstances.

I find myself once again wrestling with an ambivalent reaction to Barth.

Barth Teaches--But Does He Act?

On the one hand, he does well to keep insisting that the church must entrust itself to grace and continue teaching, not waiting for some presumed level of perfection to be attained before following its mandate. I have known too much, in the Reformed Tradition, of “waiting for the Spirit to move”/allegedly “keeping in step with the Spirit,” as an excuse not to pursue obedience.

But on the other hand, I continue in my dissatisfaction with Barth’s summary of the church’s vocation in under the rubric of “teaching.”

Even in the book where Jesus is most centrally depicted as “teacher,” and where the disciples are entrusted with carrying forward the teaching ministry of Jesus, they are not told to “go teach doctrine,” but instead, “Go… teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you.”

Doctrine is important. What we believe can delineate the saving story of God in which we are enveloped and within which we find our salvation.

However, the end of the church is not teaching, but obedience to what we are taught; not obeying the mandate to teach true doctrine, but the mandate to live a whole life following in the way and submitted to the instruction of the Teacher.

There is a rise in the love of old things in the church these days. Some people falling in love with the Reformers and their theology, some people falling in love with the church fathers; everyone falling in love with the liturgy.

The old things are good!

But there is a danger here that in getting wrapped up in the ancients we will get wrapped up in their fights; that in getting wrapped up in the controversies that lent them their identities we will wrap our own up in affirming the answers to the questions they gave.

We become the church that believes, and confesses through its practice, that our identity and highest calling is to teach true doctrine. And on the way to our theology classes, ancient texts clutched close to our breasts, we bless the homeless on the street: peace be upon you! be warm and well fed!

This is where I think Barth is dangerous: in affirming as the core of our identity the mistake that many of us, academics like my self most of all, are prone to fall into. Teaching is not what makes the church the church.

The self-giving love of Jesus has that honor, and our highest calling is to embody that story in our life together.

Past, Present, and Future

In last night’s rendition of a sermon on salvation, the pastor began by asking whether salvation is something past, something present, or something future.

The answer is “yes,” depending on where you look.

As he was working out the past, present, and future dynamics of salvation, it occurred to me that one might frame the “yes, all of the above” answer on the “Memorial Acclamation”: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

Christ has died

When were you saved? One answer to this question is, “Circa AD 30, on the cross at Calvary.”

“He gave himself up for me,” “We have been justified in his blood,” “Reconciled to God through the death of his son,” “we have been saved in hope…”

Christ is risen

Especially if you want to get more technical about how the Greek verb σώζω is used, the answer, “When were you saved,” has much more of the present and future dynamics going on. I am saved as I am united to the risen Christ–both when I first believed and currently as I walk by that same faith.

“He made us alive together with Christ–by grace you have been saved;” “Present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead;” “to us who are being saved, the cross is itself the [resurrection] power of God.”

Christ will come again

“We will be saved by him from the coming wrath of God;” “We will be saved in his life;” “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.”

The parallel between death, resurrection, and coming and salvation past, present, and future isn’t perfect. But it’s a potentially fruitful entry into thinking about the various tenses of our salvation.

When were you saved? “I’m still waiting for it, in hope.”

When were you saved? “When God bound my life to the life of his resurrected son.”

When were you saved? “When Jesus who loved me gave himself up for me on the cross.”

Telling the story of the story-bound God