Thursday, December 26, 2013

Suffering New Creation Into Existence

The final verses of Romans 8 decidedly bring to a close a large section of Paul’s argument in Romans. Throughout these 8 chapters, Paul has been laying out rather systematically his understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He identified the problem of the human condition; that no one is righteous because we are all, Jew and Gentile alike, powerless before the overwhelming force of sin. But God has acted decisively in the person of Jesus Christ, revealing a righteousness apart from the Law. This righteousness is possible because the resurrection of Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit have inaugurated a new age, an entirely new epoch in history. We are able to participate in this new reality by means of baptism and our own willingness to walk according to the Spirit. Due to the presence of the Spirit in this completely new age, we are able to fulfill the righteous requirements of the law in a way that was not a possibility prior to Christ. Furthermore, this possibility of holiness is a sign of what God intends to do for all of creation; remaking it and setting things right so that all of creation is transformed and God’s righteousness and peace reign in the world.

Of course, Paul knows that remaking has not been completed yet. It has only just begun in the communities of Christ followers springing up around the Roman Empire; little colonies of new creation taking root in the midst of the old. But that old creation with all of its ways of destruction and sin, injustice and unrighteousness is still quite prevalent. It is so prevalent, in fact, that more often than not, one might find it difficult to see the presence of the new creation at all. It might be easy to begin to wonder if such a hope for things to be made new is only a fool’s dream. In the midst of so much tragedy, so much hunger, pain, grief, and injustice, can we really say that God is doing a work of new creation among us? Paul’s answer is not only a resounding yes but also an assurance that the very things we might imagine are signs of our separation from Christ are actually opportunities to be conformed to his image. This, I think, is the heart of what Paul intends to communicate in the final verses of Romans 8.

Most telling in this regard is the quotation in v. 36. It follows the central question of this passage in v. 35.

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘for your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’”

Surely, this list of dangers combined with the image of helpless sheep is not a comforting thought. Paul first cites all the marks of the old creation in our world, all the things that might cause us to wonder if the Spirit of Christ is really doing this work of new creation among us or not. Paul follows this question with a quotation from Psalm 44 which lists some of the very same concerns before God. The Psalmist says that God has forgotten and rejected his people, leaving them to the affliction of their enemies and selling them for a low price. In fact, in the verses immediately after what Paul has quoted, the Psalmist calls upon God to wake up! In times of suffering, it is easy for the faithful to wonder if God has gone off and taken a nap. Otherwise, why wouldn’t God be here doing something about our plight?

But Paul understands suffering differently. Rather than seeing suffering as something that represents our separation from Christ, he claims it is actually something that brings us closer to and makes us more like the Christ who suffered himself. Contrary to Psalm 44, Paul says “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us!” Paul ironically claims that it is by our suffering that we actually conquer because it is in those losses that we become more like the Christ who conquered sin and death by his suffering.

Once again, context is exceedingly important at this point. Without it, we may very well misunderstand and dismiss Paul in a number of ways: as a naive optimist who utters platitudes about a suffering he has never himself experienced, as a determinist who thinks everything comes pre-planned with no choice left for us, or as a masochist who sees suffering as inherently good. But what we know of Paul won’t bear out any of those caricatures. Paul was a man who knew suffering in all its ugliness but came to see it differently in light of Christ.

We must also remember that Paul was speaking into a culture in which all these things... tribulation, persecution, famine, etc... are sure signs of abandonment by one’s god(s). Almost certainly, Jesus’ own suffering was one of the reasons why Paul initially rejected Jesus as the Messiah. If Jesus had really been the Messiah, he would not have succumbed to such a humiliating death. But when Paul accepted the one who suffered as the Christ, he recognized that meant also accepting that the way of the Christ was the way of suffering. Contrary to the popular belief of Paul’s day, Paul had come to see in Christ that suffering was not an obstacle somehow contrary to God’s nature but that it was essential to truly knowing the heart of God. In repeated and various ways, Paul reminds us throughout his writings that if we are to know Christ we must share in the fellowship of his sufferings.

So when Paul says that “for those who love God all things work together for good,” he isn’t saying everything will be always be peachy or your suffering isn’t really that bad or that you should look a little harder for the silver lining that explains how this seemingly bad thing is really a good thing. He is saying that your suffering isn’t for nothing. He’s saying that your suffering isn’t a sign that you are doing life wrong. He’s saying that if the one faithful Jew, the one who got it right it, the one who was the very presence of God in the world suffered too then maybe when you suffer you are closer to the heart of God than you realize.

And when Paul says that “those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers,” I don’t think he is saying that God chose a few individuals from before the foundation of the world that would be saved while the rest of us are damned. I think he is saying that the God who has known you from before you were born is the same God that has called you to this fellowship with Christ and that same God will see that fellowship through to its completion.

It is fitting that Paul ends the first half of this magnificent epistle in this way; re-imagining suffering in light of God’s love. In 1:16 Paul said “I am not ashamed of the gospel...”; a bold claim for a message with something as shameful as a crucified Messiah as its protagonist. But for the last 8 chapters Paul has been explaining to us why it is not a shameful message; namely, because in it the righteousness and love of God are revealed. The love of God revealed in the cross of Christ has turned the meaning of shame and suffering upside down. Shame and suffering have been filled with new meaning as they have been filled with God’s own self, becoming God’s own instruments of righteousness and restoration in our world. The cross, once a symbol of torture and God abandonment, has become the very sign of God’s presence for those who call Jesus “Lord.”

And in that same act of re-purposing shame and suffering, God in Christ has also reworked what it means to be holy and righteous. To put it another way, these verses about suffering are not a mere addendum tacked on to the preceding verses about holiness and new creation. Christ’s suffering gives shape to what Paul means by holiness and new creation. To be holy is to lower one’s own status for the sake of another as Christ did for us. To lean into the new creation is to subvert the power structures of the old creation by seeking the well being of those “below” us rather than the favor of those “above” us. Reaching back earlier in Paul's letter, this is what it means for the righteous to live out if faith(fullness). This is the righteousness apart from the law for which Paul has been arguing.

To live life in such a way, will surely be costly to us but, Paul argues, if all these things.... the cross, death, sin.... have not kept us from the love of Christ then indeed “Who will separate us from the love of Christ?” If this is the length to which God goes to be with us then indeed “Who can bring any charge against God’s elect?” In our suffering, our weakness, our vulnerabilities, even in death, we are not defeated, abandoned, or put to shame. We are more than conquerors because the Messiah, the Son of God has suffered these things for us and suffers them with us still. When we suffer for and with others, we are ushering God's new creation into existence. 

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Spirit of Holiness

In Romans 7, Paul outlined for us by means of his own autobiography just how grave our situation is without Christ. Our circumstance is so pitiable not because we are terrible creatures bent on doing evil. We might say the situation is actually much worse than that. Paul claims that even when we are well intended and seek to do God’s will sin is so powerful that it perverts our attempts to follow God’s law. The result is that rather than adherence to the law producing righteousness and life, it actually produces injustice, sin, and death. In the language of the prophet Habakkuk, “the law is paralyzed and justice goes forth perverted.”

But that is without Christ. That is the realm of Adam’s existence. And Paul has made it clear in chapters 5 and 6 that what God has done in Jesus Christ has transferred us to a new reality in which there are new possibilities for life and righteousness. Paul reiterates this point at the very beginning of chapter 8 when he says “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus because the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus set you free from the law of sin and death.” That is, we are no longer enslaved by the law of Adam’s disobedience with the production of sin as our only option. We have now been set free for a new option; that of life, holiness, and righteousness. We have this option because God did in Jesus Christ what the law was never able to do. The law was never able to defeat sin since it did nothing to empower weak human flesh against it. God, on the other hand, sent his son in this same flesh so as to condemn sin.

Paul says that the purpose of God’s actions in all this was “in order that we might fulfill the righteous requirements of the law.” This is the very thing that Paul has been saying was so impossible without Christ! Even in following the law to the last letter, we couldn’t actually produce righteousness. But now, because of God’s actions in Jesus, we can actually fulfill the righteous requirements of the law. I don’t think it would be unfair to say that this is a poignant and concise summary of Paul’s gospel. The reason Jesus is such good news is because he provides the first real possibility of genuine righteousness in this world.

Again, much as in chapter 6, Paul reiterates that this is not all automatic. We must walk according to the Spirit if we are to truly fulfill the law. We can still decide to walk according to the flesh and, by doing so, fail to produce righteousness. But once again the emphasis in on what God has already done. Paul says in v. 9 “But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit since the Spirit of God dwells in you.”

This is the real crux of the matter for Paul. If the Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you (which he says it does), then that Spirit which overcame death can also overcome the power of sin. Everything hinges on this dwelling of God’s own Spirit among us. The pouring out of this resurrecting Spirit is what makes the difference between the realm of Adam and the realm of Christ.

It may be helpful here to think back to Romans 1:18-32 and remember all the nasty things that Paul said about Gentiles. Like most of his fellow Jews, Paul viewed Gentiles as hopelessly blind, entirely ignorant of the ways of God and God’s law, clueless in their  perverting the ways of God that should have been evident to them in creation. If Paul’s fellow Jews were enlightened and well-intentioned despite their inability to produce righteousness, the Gentiles couldn’t even claim that. They walked entirely in darkness without the slightest understanding of God’s law or any aim to fulfill it. It is these same clueless, hopeless, lawless Gentiles (along with his own fellows Jews) that Paul now claims can fulfill the righteous requirements of the law merely because of the Spirit’s presence in their lives! This is testament to just what a transforming power Paul understood the Holy Spirit to be in the life of 1st century Christian congregations. Anyone, even Gentiles, could fulfill the righteous requirements of the law if they walked according to the Spirit.

Holiness and righteousness are real possibilities in this life, for Jews and  Gentiles, because God’s own Spirit has made its dwelling among us. Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

Monday, December 2, 2013


You can get so confused
that you'll start in to race
down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace
and grind on for miles cross weirdish wild space,
headed, I fear, toward a most useless place.
The Waiting Place...

...for people just waiting.
Waiting for a train to go
or a bus to come, or a plane to go
or the mail to come, or the rain to go
or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow
or the waiting around for a Yes or No
or waiting for their hair to grow.
Everyone is just waiting.

Waiting for the fish to bite
or waiting for the wind to fly a kite
or waiting around for Friday night
or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake
or a pot to boil, or a Better Break
or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants
or a wig with curls, or Another Chance.
Everyone is just waiting.

That's not for you!

                                                                        - Oh, the Places You’ll Go
                                                                        Dr. Suess

Oh, the Places You’ll Go is probably my favorite of all the books I read with my children. I love it because it is exciting to think about all the places my children will go in their lives; the decisions they’ll make, the things they’ll do, the ways that their lives will become uniquely their own apart from me. I also like that the book points out that things don’t always go so smoothly. While it celebrates all the great things we can do with our lives, it also acknowledges that there are always set backs and difficulties along the way. “Bangups and hangups can happen to you” it says.

But there is a particular part of the book that has been prominent in my mind over this last year of our lives: the lines that I’ve quoted above. Our family has found itself in this “waiting place” for much of this past year. It started last October as we waited for Esther to be born 11 days past her due date. In November, I submitted my applications to doctoral programs and began waiting for an answer. Hints of an answer would come in February as I was accepted to one school and on the waiting list at another but the final answer would not come until April. I wish I could say that I was calm and collected during this nearly half a year, trusting that God would provide no matter the circumstance but that simply wasn’t the case. I was wracked with anxiety like few other times in my life, not only wondering whether I would get in anywhere but wondering where we might be moving our family if we moved at all.

But that waiting already seems a distant memory because of what has happened since. It is difficult to even remember just how stressful that time was because the months that followed were a whole new level of stress and anxiety. On May 26, my dad suffered a stroke. The next three weeks were filled with waiting and wondering; waiting to see how long it would take my dad to recover, how much he might recover, or if he would recover at all. One day would bring reports of improvement, the next day reports of concern. Every day there was nothing to do but wait; wait to see if the swelling in his brain would go down, wait to see if his cognition improved, wait to see if he could swallow food. On June 14, the waiting ended as my dad entered his eternal rest.

The day after my dad’s funeral, my mom called to tell me that my grandmother, my only living grandparent and the only one I had known into my adult life, had been taken to the hospital. So now we would wait for the results of her tests. A week later we found out that she had stage 4 cancer in several organs and that she had a couple weeks to a couple of months to live. So we waited. We let her know that we loved her in all the ways we could and we waited for the inevitable. On August 4, my grandmother’s waiting ended.

In the time between my dad’s and grandmother’s deaths, we relocated our family from Illinois to Massachusetts so that I could begin my ThD program at BU. This brought its own forms of waiting; waiting to settle into a routine after uprooting our children from the only home they have ever known, waiting to get over the continuous string of illnesses that has come from being in a new place, waiting for the grief from too many losses too close together to become anything other than numbness and exhaustion.

And the waiting continues even now over a year since it all began. We are still waiting on our house in Illinois to sell. We are still waiting to get into our own home here. We are waiting to see if Jess will eventually have a full time teaching job. We are waiting for some order to emerge from the chaos.

All of this waiting has made me keenly aware of just how little waiting I’ve done in my life. We live in a culture that does its best to eliminate waiting from our lives.  The fast food drive thru, every searchable fact available at lightning speed in the palm of our hand, and stores open on Thanksgiving Day already decorated for Christmas have conditioned us to expect that anything worth having ought to be available simultaneous with the moment our desire arises. Generally speaking, we are not a people accustomed to waiting. Given the opportunity, we will eliminate all the waiting we possibly can from our lives because, as Dr. Seuss says, the waiting place is “a most useless place.” Time spent waiting, we often think, is time wasted. Time we could have spent doing something more enjoyable or more important.

I think we often carry this same view over into our thoughts about God and God’s work in our lives. God has a plan for each one of us, we proclaim, and our task is to get in line with that plan as quickly and smoothly as possible. We have an “Oh, the Places You’ll Go with God” theology. God wants to do great and exciting things in your life. And sure, there will be set backs along the way. That happens to all of us. But don’t get stuck too long because time spent waiting is time wasted; time you could have spent getting on with God’s plan for your life.

It is no wonder then that we have great difficulty with Advent; a season defined by waiting. For four weeks leading up to Christmas, the Church says “Wait”. Right at the time when our culture is working itself into its annual holiday frenzy of shopping, scheduling, and socializing, the Church asks us to remember what it means to wait. We remember Israel’s centuries long waiting for its Messiah. We remember that we are waiting for the world to be set right. For one month every year, our task is not to do or accomplish or follow a plan but only to wait.

In fact, the Church’s year begins here. Advent is the first season of the Christian calendar. Waiting is not one stance among others for us. It is our first stance. It is where our worship begins. Before Christ is born at Christmas, before his kingdom is proclaimed in Epiphany, before the journey to the cross in Lent, before the new life of Easter and the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost, before all of it, the very first movement of the Church’s life every year is to take up a posture of waiting. It may well be that centuries of Christian wisdom found that this posture was the one in which we could most readily come to know the savior celebrated in all the other seasons. The Church calendar, patterned as it is after the life of Christ, easily could have started with Jesus’ birth at Christmas. Instead, we confess that in order for the story of Christ to be properly told and lived it must begin with a season of waiting. Rather than counting time spent waiting as time wasted, the Church confesses that time spent waiting is essential to truly seeing and knowing Jesus.

This is what I wish to confess as well. This year of waiting for various things has caused me to see Jesus more clearly. And that clearer vision is of a Jesus who waits with us; whose priority isn’t as much plans and proper decisions, as it is presence.

I’ve been reminded in all these times of waiting that we wait for those we love. The times when we have a choice in the matter, we choose to wait for those about whom we care. We wait in a hospital room with those who are dying because simply being with them is more important than anything else we could be doing. We wait to start a meal until everyone is present because eating with those we love is as important as eating. We wait for marriage because the health of our relationship with this one person is more important than gratifying our sexual desires. When we wait for someone, we are saying that their presence is more important than whatever else we might be doing at that moment or whatever else we might get from them. In relationships of love, presence takes precedence over plans.

I imagine that it is not so different in our relationship with God. Karl Barth wrote that “The will of God is Jesus Christ.” I’m not certain about everything that Barth meant by that sentence but it at least might suggest that God’s will for our lives isn’t so much a plan as a person. What God wills more than anything else is not that we accomplish certain things or go certain places in life or make exactly the right decisions. God’s will for us is Jesus; that in Jesus we will know the presence of God in our very own flesh.

I think of all the people I know who are waiting or have waited for something for so long. Friends who have waited to have children. Who are waiting for a job. Waiting for an opportunity. Who are waiting for healing. Who are waiting for an inevitable death. Who are waiting for that special someone. Some who are waiting for purpose or direction. Some who are waiting for justice. Some who are waiting for some wholeness and peace. Just waiting for some order to emerge from the chaos. It seems like everyone close to me is waiting for something.

I’d be the last person to say that all our waiting will work out just fine in the end. It doesn’t always. I won’t say that the waiting isn’t painful, sometimes agonizing. We may very well plead with God to bring our waiting to an end. Jess and I have done just that many times over. Given the chance, we would have happily traded in all of our waiting many months ago before the worst of it had even began. But I will say that all our waiting and pleading is not in vain. It is not time wasted, whatever the outcome, if in our waiting we aim to encounter Jesus. For, as Pope Francis recently said, “The Lord does not disappoint those who take this risk; whenever we take a step towards Jesus, we come to realize that he is already there, waiting for us with open arms." 

May your season of waiting, whether it be these four weeks of Advent or a much longer time than that, be one in which you encounter a savior who is with us in all our waiting and who waits for you with open arms.