Thursday, May 22, 2008

Not Ashamed

In the sermon text for this week (Romans 1:16-17), Paul says that he is not ashamed of the gospel. This is one of those verses that becomes a kind of Christian slogan or motto. It gets plastered on T-shirts and bupmer stickers which we proudly flaunt to show just how unashamed we are. But what exactly is it of which we are not ashamed? What does Paul mean by "the gospel" and why is he not ashamed of it (and what reasons could make it appear shameful so that Paul felt he had to say he was not ashamed of it)?

These are actually very complex verses. Paul uses an astounding amount of theologically packed words in these verses: gospel, salvation, faith, righteousness. Furthermore, these words and verses are closely connected together as Paul uses the word "for" to connect them over and over again. Look at the logical progression that begins in v.15. Paul is eager to preach the gospel to those in Rome. Why? Because he is not ashamed of it. Why? Because it is the very power of God for salvation to all who believe. Why? Because the righteousness of God is revealed in it just as it was in Habbakkuk's day when he wrote that the righteous would live by faith. This logical argument actually continues down through the rest of the chapter and really through the rest of the whole letter as Paul seeks to unpack in more detail all that he has said so concisely in these two verses.

But let's attempt to unpack some of it now. What does Paul mean when he talks about God's righteousness being revealed in the gospel and what does that have to do with Habakkuk and the righteous living by faith? In the Old Testament, righteousness referred to covenant faithfulness. In other words, you had certain obligations to others by virtue of your relationship with them; certain obligations to your family, to those you did business with, even some level of obligation to strangers and aliens. You would be considered righteous if you continually fulfilled those obligations by living up to what was expected of you in all of your relationships. This was true of the relationship between God and Israel as well. Part of being righteous was doing the things that were necessary to maintain one's relationship with God. However, this applied to God's end of the relationship as well. If God were to be considered righteous, then God had to be faithful to Israel. God and Israel had entered into a covenant (kind of like a contract, an agreement) together on Mt. Sinai after God had delivered Israel from Egypt. In this convenant, God had made certain promises to Israel and if God was going to be a righteous God, then he had to keep those promises.

This is very much what Paul is concerned about in the book of Romans. Especially in chapters 9-11, Paul is wrestling with whether or not God has been faithful to the promises that he made to Israel. This arises as a question for Paul because God had said that Israel would be God's people and now Paul saw countless gentiles responding to the message of salvation in Jesus Christ while many Jews did not. Paul wanted to know that God had not abandoned Israel. As I already mentioned, Paul really gets into this in chapters 9-11 but I think he has already started to answer the question with his quotation from the prophet Habakkuk.

So what does the righteous living by faith have to do with God's promises to Israel? In order to understand this, we must take into consideration the context of the quote from Habakkuk. This quote comes in the midst of a strange time in Israel. The book of Habakkuk begins with the prophet crying out to God about the violence and injustice that exists in his land among God's own chosen people. God responds to Habakkuk's outcry but it is by no means the answer that the prophet expects. Much to Habakkuk's astonishment and dismay, God says that he is going to use the Chaldeans (a.k.a the Babylonians) to sort out things in Judah. For a modern day parallel, this might be something like God telling American Christians that God was going to use Iraq or Iran or Al Queda to sort out America's problems. It would have been truly unsettling for a Jew to hear that God was going to use a pagan, backwards nation that had no concept of Yahweh like Babylon to correct God's people and get them back on track. It is in the midst of this strange situation that God says through the prophet Habakkuk that the righteous will live by faith/faithfulness. (The Hebrew word here is actually closer to the word faithfulness than what we usually mean by the word faith in English. The Greek word Paul uses can mean either faith or faithfulness and at times it seems the two concepts are tied too closely together to be neatly separated.) In other words, the ones who will be considered righteous in Habakkuk's day will be the ones who are faithful to God's work to renew Israel no matter how strange that work may seem at the moment.

So what does all that have to do with Paul's point in Romans? By quoting Habakkuk, Paul is not only drawing attention to the specific words he quotes but to the whole situation in Habakkuk's time (just as we could use a phrase like "we, the people of the United States of America..." to draw attention to a whole document and not just that one quoted phrase). He does this because he believes that his current situation is just as strange as Habakkuk's. Just as God chose to work in an unexpected way through the Babylonians in Habakkuk's day so also God has now chosen to work in a strange and unexpected way in Paul's day; through a crucified Messiah. Paul will argue throughout Romans that just because God has chosen to work in an unexpected way does not mean that God has abandoned his former promises; it does not mean that God is not righteous. Also similar to Habakkuk's prophecy, the ones who will be counted as righteous in Paul's day will not be the one who wear the title "Jew" but will be those who are faithful to this new, strange, and unexpected way in which God is working.

Paul is not ashamed of the gospel because he has seen that it is God's power to redeem and restore Israel and to transform the rest of the world as well. God's faithfulness to his promises are revealed in the gospel, albeit in an unexpected way, just as they were in Habakkuk's day. The ones who will be counted as righteous will be those who recognize God's unexpected faithfulness and themselves become faithful to this gospel message. Paul is, in fact, so unashamed of this gospel message that he is willing to proclaim it right under the nose of the empire. Paul is unafraid of proclaiming this crucified Jewish peasant as Lord and savior in a letter that is headed to the very city where Ceasar, who claimed to be the true Lord and savior of the world, resided.

In what new, strange, and unexpected ways is God working in our world today? How is God revealing his righteousness; his faithfulness to his promises to redeem and restore Israel and all of creation? Are we so unashamed of this message that we would proclaim it even when it challenges the empire that surrounds us?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Surprised by Hope

Wright, N.T. Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. (New York: Harper Collins, 2008).

I finished reading this book last night (I've been reading a lot with my wife and daughter being away for 10 days). I think that just about everything written by Wright is pretty fantastic and this book was no exception. In it, Wright challenges the thinking about the resurrection and heaven that have become common place among many Christians today. This typical Christian thought usually goes something like this: When we die our immortal soul or spirit is separated from our bodies and this soul or spirit goes to a place called heaven to be with God until Jesus' second coming when the Christians who have not yet died will be raptured and everyone else will be punished.

Wright definitively demonstrates that this is not the orthodox, biblical Christian view of the resurrection as laid out in the New Testament, despite its popularity among many Christians today. Instead, Jesus' resurrection is the beginning of God's new creation. Early Christians did not see Jesus' resurrection as a promise that they would eventually escape this fallen world and go to heaven when they die. It was a promise that God was and is actively working to restore and redeem this world to make it what it should be. As a result, the Christian life and the mission of the Church are not about just remaining pure in this life so that we can get to heaven. The mission of the Church is actually to engage this world in God's work of new creation. Of course, we can never accomplish this work on our own. Only God can establish God's kingdom but we can and should work toward and witness to that kingdom in the here and now.

I have tried to relay many of these same points in my own teaching and preaching but Wright goes into much more detail than I have. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who wants a better understanding about what the New Testament says (and doesn't say) about the resurrection and heaven. The resurrection is so vital to the whole message of the gospel that how we understand it truly impacts how we understand our role as Christians on this earth.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Sex, Orthodoxy, and the Emergent Church

I recently finished reading two books by guys who are associated with the Emergent Church.

Sex God: Exploring the Endless Connections Between Sexuality and Spirituality by Rob Bell. Zodervan, 2007


A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I Am A missional + evangelical + post/protestant + liberal/conservative + mystical/poetic + biblical + charismatic/contemplative + fundamentalist/calvinist + anabaptist/anglican + methodist + catholic + green + incarnational + depressed yet hopeful + emergent + unfinished Christian by Brian McLaren. Zondervan, 2004.

If you have not heard of the Emergent Church before (which I am fairly certain many in our congregation have not) it is...well... actually it can be little difficult to explain exactly what it is because it is such a broad, sweeping movement. McLaren's subtitle to his book probably says it best. In many ways, it is an attempt to get past all the extra labels that sometimes define us as Christians so that we can be more genuine disciples of Jesus Christ. However, as the subtitle also suggests (and as McLaren is careful to explain in his chapter "Why I am emergent") this is not a matter of just ignoring the titles or different traditions of Christianity. It is a matter of trying to recognize the truth that exists in every tradition while also being honest about the ways in which each tradition has failed to be truly Christian.

On one hand, I find these books and the movement that has produced them to be very encouraging and exciting. They are encouraging because these authors are well trained, well educated pastors who are also excellent writers that are able to translate their learning into language that is clear, understandable, and relevant to our culture. (I found Sex God to be particularly good and would recommend it to anyone but especially to teens, parents of teens, or young adults. ) The ability to speak the depths of theology in words that anyone can understand is always a trait to be admired. Furthermore, these books and authors are exciting because they are simply seeking to be faithful disciples; to be the Church in a changing culture which is, of course, a challenge with which we must continually wrestle.

On the other hand, after reading these books and engaging in some conversations with others about the Emergent Church, I feel I am left with the question "What's the big deal?" I mean this in both a positive and negative sense. I don't want to take away from what I have already said at this point. I really do think these are good books that are worth reading because they will challenge many Christians to think about their faith in a way that they previously had not.

I wonder what the big deal is because the Emergent Church has generated a considerable amount of buzz. There have been some who have attacked it vehemently as if it were some enormous threat to the Church. In fact, in the Church of the Nazarene, one of our General Superintendents (the highest position in our denomination, for anyone reading this who may not be Nazarene) listed the Emergent Church as one of the three biggest challenges facing the Church today in a speech that she made. Many others have warned that the Emergent Church is a great danger, something to be feared by anyone who truly values their faith. To which I must respond "Really?!?". What exactly is so dangerous about it? Is it the fact that it encourages us to have the kind of unity we are supposed to have as the Church? Is it that it remembers that the whole point of doctrine is not more propositions to be memorized but words that are to guide us to be more Christ-like? Is it that it actually gives greater importance to the story of Scripture and the traditions of the Church than it does to denominational identity? Certainly, these are risky and dangerous endeavors but they are risky and dangerous precisely in the way that God wants us to be risky and dangerous as Christians, not in a way that endangers our faith. This is not to say that I agree with everything that Bell or McLaren have to say but I do agree with their general approach to what it means to be Christian and to me it seems to be such an obviously correct approach that I wonder why there are those who oppose it so adamently.

However, I also wonder what the big deal is on the other side of the buzz. I imagine that there are also those who have embraced the Emergent Church as if it were the answer to all of the Church's problems which it obviously is not. It too will have its flaws like any other Christian movement even if all of those flaws are not yet apparent. Similar to other broad, sweeping movements in the Church, I suspect that the danger of the Emergent Church is not so much a danger inherent in the movement itself but a danger in the attitude people can take toward it. The attitude of "if our congregation could just become Emergent then the masses would flock to Jesus" which is clearly misguided. To the credit of McLaren, Bell, and other leaders in the movement they do not promote this kind of attitude. In fact, for a church to wear the title "Emergent" would probably go against the very grain of the movement itself since the whole point is not to be this or that kind of Christian, whether Emergent or otherwitse. The point is simply to be Christian.

Therefore, I find these books to be good reading that I would recommend to others. I find the movement as a whole to be encouraging and at times exciting because I think it represents a proper approach to being the Church in our present culture. However, I also really have no interest in becoming "emergent" myself or making our church into an "emergent congregation" or allowing the Emergent Church to be my model for what I believe about the Church and the Christian faith. Instead, I think that every Christian and every church must simply be a part of the same conversation of which the Emergent Church is a part; the conversation that asks "How are we to be the Church in the situation where we find ourselves today?"

Monday, May 12, 2008

Church and Trinity

This Sunday is the day known as Trinity Sunday in the Church Calendar. It is one Sunday a year that is set aside to talk about this central doctrine of the Christian faith. Unfortunately, I think that for most Christians, the doctrine of the Trinity is anything but central to our faith. Instead, it is often seen more as a theological abstraction that most Christians are certain has nothing to do with real life. It is more likely to be an impossible mathematical conundrm (how can God be 3 and 1?) than it is to shape our lives as disciples of Jesus Christ in anyway.

This problem is then compounded by the fact that the Trinity is never spoken of in Scripture, at least not by that name (which can be a real problem for folks like us who want everything we believe and do to be "biblically" based). There are passages like Matthew 28:19 and 2 Corinthians 13:14 (and many others, those are just two of our readings for this week) where Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are listed together and seem to somehow be treated equally and yet also differently from one another. But those limited references don't seem to give any explanation of how the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit relate to each other or why the Church believes in something called the Trinity.

In spite of that, the Trinity is the central doctrine of the Christian faith. It is the essense of the shape of the Nicene Creed, the most basic confession of Christianity. It is the very first article of faith in our Nazarene Manual (as it is in the manual or handbooks of nearly every other denomination). It is the doctrine that most fully captures the identity and character of the God that we serve (although all doctrines fail to do this at some level).

So how did this seemingly abstract and unbiblical doctrine become the central confession of the Church's faith? It did so because it is neither abstract or unbiblical. The doctrine of the Trinity did not begin as an exercise in philosophical reasoning or lofty ideals. It began in the lived experience of the Apostles and the early church, who were predominantly Jewish and therefore, adhered to a radical monotheism. One of the most firmly held beliefs of any Jew in Jesus' day was that God was one and that there were no other true gods (see Deut 6:4). Yet these early Christians knew that the one God that they believed in was present in some special way in the person of Jesus Christ and later in the presence of the Holy Spirit among them. They knew that God was one but they also knew that God had revealed Godself in these two distinctly new ways. In essence, the doctrine of the Trinity actually contains the story of our salvation. It tells the story of the God who created us and sent the Son to redeem us and the Spirit to transform us. It was this reality, which is the overarching story of all of Scripture, that would lead the Church over the first several hundred years of its existence to work toward articulating its belief about God in the doctrine of the Trinity.

Not only was this doctrine borne out of the lived experience of the Church. It continues to guide the Church in its life together today. This is true because we believe that as humans beings we were created in God's image and we believe that we, as the Church, are the people on whom God's Holy Spirit has been poured out in a special way so that God's image might be redeemed in us and so that we might be about the business of seeing God's image redeemed in others. As we say in our mission statement every week, we are called to be a community that is a faithful image of God's love. In other words, we are to be an image of the Trinity. The love that exists between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is a model of the kind of love that we are called to exhibit as the Church; an intimately interconnected, missional, self-giving love that so binds us together that we become one body, the Body of Christ.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Unity in Diversity

I took piano lessons for years as a kid and a teenager and eventually practiced enough that I could read music and play some songs pretty well. However, I eventually gave up playing the piano because it was such an enormous amount of work for me. Vast amounts of effort could cover up my lack of natural ability to some extent but it eventually became apparent that something about me just wasn't gifted for this specific task. As a result, I am genuinely impressed whenever someone sings or plays an instrument as if music were actually their first language. It is as if their brains are wired a bit differently in a way that allows them to very naturally translate black dots and lines on a page into a pleasant and impressive mixture of sounds.

It is because of this experience and many, many others like it that I often find myself reflecting on the truly amazing variety of ways in which God has gifted people. It is simply fascinating to me to see the way that God has gifted other people to do things that I simply can not do. Of course, committment and harwork can take you pretty far. I was able to play the piano, after all, despite my lack of talent for it. It just became more obvious with every hour that I practiced that even enormous amounts of practice could only take me so far while others seemed to have a God given ability for creating music. Their hours of practice and dedications would enable them to do things with an insturment that I could not.

I find this variety of gifts even more fascinating as a pastor when I think about the various ways that people in our congregation are gifted. Obviously, as the pastor, I have a pretty important role in our congregation and as I look back on my life, I can see ways that God has gifted and shaped me to fulfill that role well. As a result, I pour enormous amounts of time and energy into further developing the gifts that God has given me to be a pastor just as someone else might spend hours developing their gift in front of the piano. However, a congregation full of me would be a pretty dysfunctional church. The budget would never be balanced. The building would fall into disrepair. Our children wouldn't have anyone who knew how to communicate the gospel on their level. People would think that music had ceased to exist as an artform. And we would probably be more likely to write a lengthy paper about the mission of the Church than we would be to actually carry out that mission.

This is similar to one of the problems (possibly the problem) Paul addresses when writing 1 Corinthians. It seems that the christians in Corinth were all seeking to acquire the same spiritual gift, that of speaking in tongues, because they felt this was the most superior spiritual gift and if they could acquire it then they could wear it as a badge of their spiritual superiority. This pursuit of the same gift seems to have led to divisions and factions in the congregation as some boasted of their spirituality as being greater than that of others.

In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul writes to this congregation to show them that their thinking about spiritual gifts is wrongheaded in two closely related ways. First, he wants them to see that the Holy Spirit has gifted them in a variety of ways and therefore, they should not all pursue the same spiritual gift. Secondly, he wants them to see that spiritual gifts are just that; they are gifts and not badges of spiritual honor to be boasted about. God has not gifted them to build each of them up individually. God has gifted them so that they might use that gift in cooperation with the gifts of those around them to build up the church. Paul then compares the church to the human body and says that the different members of the church must be unified in purpose just as the members of a human body are unified. If one part of the body were to somehow decide that it wanted to do its own thing, it would harm the whole body and the body might even fail.

Therefore, as the Church, we are called to exhibit unity in our diversity. Somewhat ironically, when the church at Corinth sought uniformity by all seeking the same gift, they actually ended up with arrogant boasting which led to division, the very opposite of unity. In contrast, Paul encourages the diversity that exists in his congregation and commands these Christians to use their diverse gifts for the good of the whole community, which will lead to a genuine unity.

If we are to succeed as a church we must exhibit this same kind of unity in diversity. We must use our various gifts and talents for the good of the community. This is true in a very practical sense just because it takes so many different talents and abilities to carry out the many different ministries of a church. However, I think it is also true in a much deeper way. Exhibiting unity in diversity is part of our very identity, it is a part of what it means to be an image of the Triune God. The Trinity exhibits this same unity in diversity because even God is not an isolated, uniform being. God exists as three separate and diverse persons who are so intimately bound together and united that they are one. As our congregation functions less like individuals who are loosely associated to each other and more like a body that is united in identity and mission, a body of variously gifted people bound up together in a common salvation; we will not only carry out more successful and efficient ministry. We will actually become a truer image of the God we were created to reflect in this world.