Friday, May 24, 2013

The Allure of Jesus

Proverbs 8 extols the virtues of Wisdom; a proper noun deserving of its capital letter because in Proverbs Wisdom is not merely something people gain by learning or experience. It is not a mere character trait or personal attribute. Wisdom itself is personified as a woman who calls to the men of the city. She calls out on the heights, at the crossroads and at the city gates that she may be found. She is depicted as a kind of righteous temptress. She is one who is attractive and even aggressive in her appeal but who stands in contrast with the ways of Lady Folly whose appeal is skewed to the shallow and short-sighted. The allure of Woman Wisdom, on the other hand, is a seduction into the ways that lead to life and wholeness. The book of Proverbs could be characterized as an attempt to help us see past the the make-up and air brushing of a magazine cover kind of life to a less attention grabbing but more deeply alluring and fundamentally beautiful life with God.

As a part of that attempt, the writer of Proverbs describes Wisdom as being fundamental to God's work of creation. Proverbs 8:22, notorious for the ambiguity of its main verb, has Woman Wisdom say "The Lord possessed/established/created me at the beginning of his work." Although it is unclear whether Wisdom should be understood as one who has always existed alongside God, a creation of God, or an extension of God's own self, what is clear and seems to be the more important point of this and the verses that follow is that Wisdom was and is present in the foundations of creation. Proverbs describes Wisdom as being there from the very beginning of creation and also as being a key player in the work of creation itself. In v. 30, Wisdom says "I was beside him like a master workman." (As long as we are talking about magazine covers, perhaps this would be an appropriate alternative for envisioning Woman Wisdom as she is described in this verse.) Wisdom's fingerprints are left all over the created world because it is by her hands that it was built. Perhaps this is why she is both so readily available (her handiwork surrounds us and attests to her presence) and deeply alluring (she is woven into the very fabric of our own being).

The writers of the New Testament found this depiction of Woman Wisdom to be quite alluring as well - though for reasons that might surprise us. They found the character of Woman Wisdom to be a readily meaningful way to talk about Jesus. A thorough study of those connections is something that exceeds both my own knowledge and the space of this blog post but a few examples will suffice.
"But we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God."  -1 Corinthians 1:24
"He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, for by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities - all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things and in him all things hold together." - Colossians 1:15-17 (notice the similarities with Proverbs 8:15-16, 22-30)
What is even more significant, however, than any simple verbal parallel between Proverbs and the New Testament is the likeness to Jesus that the first Christians found in Wisdom as one who is both intimately connected to Yahweh but also somehow distinct. We've already seen how Wisdom is personified as being an entity somehow distinguishable from Yahweh though obviously also belonging to/being a part of Yahweh given Israel's strict monotheism. This lent itself as a perfect precedent for precisely what the early Christians believed about Jesus; that he was one who was somehow distinguishable from the one he called "Father" but that he was also a true and whole manifestation of Yahweh. This idea is reflected in the prologues of John and Hebrews:
"In the beginning was the Word and the Word was God and the Word was with God." - John 1:1
"Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power." - Hebrews 1:1-3
 It is precisely these kinds of statements which push us toward the doctrine of the Trinity to which we give special attention on this upcoming Trinity Sunday. The doctrine of the Trinity arose because the Church needed a way to articulate who Jesus (and later, the Spirit) is; someone who is both God and along side God, someone who does things that only God can do but who is not the Father. As the Church sought for language to articulate this reality, they found Woman Wisdom to be readily available and alluring indeed for she captured quite well the reality that those first disciples had experienced in the person of Jesus.

Perhaps, like the authors of the New Testament, we can also come to a better understanding of who Jesus is by hearing his voice in the words of Woman Wisdom. Then we can see that when we encounter Jesus, we encounter one who was there at the creation of the world, whose fingerprints are all over us and the world around us because it is by his hands that we were made. It is for that reason that his beauty is attested by so much in our world, especially our fellow man and woman, so long as we will resist the temptation to air-brush and computer edit what does not fit our standard of beauty. It is also for that reason that when we truly behold the beauty of the life of Jesus; his mercy, compassion, and righteousness, we find it deeply alluring. In fact, we find it down right seductive because it resonates with the very core of who we are and what we long for the world to be. Jesus is not merely one who utters commandments to be obeyed. He is one with whom we are enraptured because he lives life in all the ways we've hoped it could be lived. And this is the way it should be because this is who he created us to be - to be like him. At every turn - on the heights, at the crossroads, at the city gate - Jesus is calling us to come to him and to find in him the source and satisfaction of our deepest and most pervasive longings. This is one seduction we do well not to deny.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Peopled Grace: An Open Letter to Clinton First Church of the Nazarene

My brothers and sisters in Christ,

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism and our theological forefather, spoke and wrote often about the means of grace. When Wesley referred to the means of grace, he was talking about things like prayer, scripture reading, communion, and preaching. These are a few examples of some means by which God’s grace comes to us. That is, they are places where God has promised to meet us over and over again. They are regular conduits of his healing mercy. Even if “means of grace” is not terminology you find familiar, most of these practices are familiar ones if you’ve been around the Church for very long. We engage in these practices so that the Holy Spirit may use them to shape us into the likeness of Christ.

There is one means of grace that has become particularly important to me over the last several years even though it may not be one we typically consider alongside of things like prayer and scripture: other people. I’ve come to realize just what a gift from God other people are for shaping us into the likeness of Christ. Other people can obviously serve as friends and people of encouragement and support but they can also serve as a kind of mirror to our own incompleteness. They may do this directly in their words or their actions toward us but more often it is simply by being who they are. Simply by being “other,” by being something other than I am, others can remind me of the vast array of what it means to be human and therefore also remind me of what it means to be whole in Christ.

I’ve experienced this in a number of ways in my life. I’ve experienced it in parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles who have shown me godly love. I’ve come to know it in a wife whose loving presence has rescued me from a solitary life that would come all too naturally to me. I’ve come to know it in children whose constant desire for my presence is a constant reminder that I need to truly be present with those around me. I’ve experienced it in professors and mentors who have deepened and enriched my faith. I’ve experienced in strangers, mere acquaintances, and new friends every time they force me to see life from a perspective other than the one to which I’ve become accustomed. But neither is it merely a matter of my own personal experience. I think it is of the greatest significance that when God wanted to reveal God’s character to us in its fullest and deepest sense that revelation came not in the form of law or prophetic utterance but in the form of a person; namely, Jesus.
Over the past six years, I’ve also come to experience this same truth and grace through the community of people among whom I’ve had the privilege of fulfilling the role of  pastor. For the last several weeks, as I’ve reflected on my time here in Clinton, I have been reminded of the many things about ministering here for which I am thankful; the many years of faithfulness by so many, the willingness to serve others, and the hospitality and care you have shown to my family and I. But there is one thing for which I am grateful above everything else; that you have helped to shape me into a person who is a little more like Jesus than the person who became your pastor six years ago. It is perhaps obvious that the role of the pastor is to be an instrument by which a congregations is urged to be more like Christ. What may be less obvious is that a congregation can also shape the pastor to be more like Christ. Clinton First Church of the Nazarene has done that for me. You have been a means of God’s grace in my life. By allowing me to be your pastor, with all of my weaknesses and incompleteness, you have made me a more whole person and a more faithful follower of Jesus. What greater gift could you have given me than that? Thank you for being a gift of God and a means of God’s grace in my life. 

Monday, May 6, 2013

Ends of the Earth

"Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?"

Acts 1:6 is the only place where it is recorded in scripture that Jesus' disciples asked this question but I have to imagine it was one that was on their minds frequently. They had seen Jesus' miraculous power and they hailed him as Messiah and savior. They're expectation was that Jesus was the one who would usher in God's reign in Israel and over all the nations. I imagine that when Jesus made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem at the time of Passover and all the people are shouting "Hosanna!" and Jesus begins to make his way to the temple the disciples must have been thinking "Is this it? Is Jesus finally going to begin the rebellion?" Instead, Jesus is crucified just days later and we hear the disappointment in the disciples who walk the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus as they say "We had hoped that he was the one who would redeem Israel."

Now the disciples encounter with the resurrected Jesus has restored their hope; namely, that hope that God's kingdom would be established. Not only is Jesus alive again but here, in the opening of Acts, he begins to speak about the promise of the Holy Spirit. If the prophecy of Joel is any indication, it is likely that the gift of the Spirit is something that the disciples would have associated with the establishment of God's reign. So its natural with Jesus now resurrected and promising that the gift of the Spirit is near that this same question would be on their minds once again: has the time finally come for the kingdom to be restored to Israel?.

Its not only those first disciples who seem to be preoccupied with that question. There are plenty of disciples today who seem to spend enormous amounts of time and energy on the same question - whole segments of Christianity with the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other trying to discern whether the end is near. To them and to us, Jesus very plainly says "It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority." It doesn't get much plainer that that.

Jesus also goes on to say "But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth." Jesus is not merely turning their attention away from speculating about chronology. He is also turning their attention to  mission. The focus of the disciples is not to be on the end of the world but the ends of the earth.

Immediately after commissioning the disciples on this mission, Jesus does an unexpected thing - at least I imagine it must have been a surprise to his disciples - he leaves! The disciples are just getting geared up to follow Jesus wherever he leads, even to the ends of the earth, and then he is out of sight. As their leader, teacher, and friend ascends into heaven two men appear and essentially say "Why are you staring into the sky. He'll be back." And the implication seems to be "But in the meantime you have more important things to do than stand around watch for his return. There is an urgent mission at hand."

It strikes me as remarkable that Jesus leaves in order to get this mission underway. Shouldn't Jesus be the one leading the mission? Shouldn't he be our general, our CEO, making sure we get it right? Isn't this an abdication of leadership on Jesus' part? Jesus has given us this remarkable mission, one to the ends of the earth, and he expects us to carry out with his Holy Spirit empowering us to do so. To me, that speaks volumes as to how much responsibility God has put in our hands. Jesus has entrusted this kingdom mission to us with all our fragility and failures and he expects us to be able to carry it out so long as we wait upon his Spirit to empower us for it.