What the Magi Reveal: From Instinct to Wisdom, and Wisdom to Worship

[This is the manuscript for a sermon that I preached on January 3, 2016 at Saint Peter’s Church. The audio can be found here.]

Today is the is the final Sunday of our Advent and Christmas sermon series. And if you’re new to the Anglican tradition, you may not know that we actually often continue to talk about Christmas even after Christmas, because it’s so central and foundational to our faith.

This year we’ve studied a number of different characters in the Christmas story: Zechariah, Elizabeth, Joseph, Mari… Simeon — and this morning we come to the Wise Men, or, the Magi as they’re also called, who are perhaps the most mysterious of all these characters. As we’ve studied each of these figures and their faith journeys, we’ve asked the question of what they can teach us about God and about ourselves, and what does this mean for our lives.
So with the Magi, I want to ask, what makes them wise? Why do we call them that? And how are they different than Herod? Which might seem obvious, but it’s a significant question for how Matthew tells the story. So we’ll look at Herod too. And then, finally, how does God through Jesus cause the Magi’s wisdom to become genuine worship?

Whitney and I were blessed to get to travel back to Austin, TX this past week where both of us are from, to see our families and stay with them. We had a great trip, and got to do pretty much everything that you hope you get to do with family on Christmas and for the holidays. We left just feeling very grateful for the special time we got to have with everyone. For the freedom that we have to travel safely and be with people we love. I share this because as I continued to reflect on this on the way home, it just struck me how radically different and how far removed our experience of Christmas usually is from the one that Mary and Joseph and Jesus had.

Because there are some seriously disrupting and disturbing aspects to this whole episode. The first couple years of Jesus’ life were pretty rough and dangerous! It’d be nice if we had a different story to talk about for the first Sunday of the 2016 – one that would provide a more light-hearted reflection – maybe some inspiration for New Year’s Resolutions. But there’s things about this story that are dark, and horrific!

Of course, this is not the first time that such a slaughter of infants occurs in the Bible, as many of you probably know. In the Exodus story, Pharaoh did the same thing! — by ordering that all male infants under the age of 2 be cast into the Nile, but Moses like Jesus is able to escape because of God’s warning and the help of others. So clearly Matthew is trying to connect the dots between Israel’s expectations for deliverance and Jesus’ fulfillment of that expectation.
The Tradition has called this story the Flight to Egypt, which also has connotations of the Exodus, but later on the church started calling it the Slaughter of the Holy Innocents. Sometimes the infant victims are even referred to as the first Christian martyrs. So maybe as much as any, this story highlights the harsh reality that the world is not a safe place, and God does not necessarily protect us from having to endure suffering, loss, and injustice and tragedy. It’s a difficult truth.

There’s some non-biblical historical credibility to these events as well, at least insofar as we know that Herod really was the kind of king that was capable of make such a cruel order. We’re told that he had three of his sons executed who he accused of conspiring against him; and before he died, he supposedly ordered that on the day of his burial, one member of every family in his kingdom was to be killed so that the nation might actually mourn.

We don’t know how many babies Herod had killed. It probably wasn’t as many as Pharaoh, because Bethlehem was very small. Some archaeologists have estimated that it might have been several dozen. But really, the number doesn’t matter. Regardless, it makes you want to ask, why couldn’t God have warned the families of all the other babies, if he was able to warn Joseph and the Magi about Herod’s intent to kill Jesus? Where is the hope and comfort in this story? Is there any hope or comfort in it? I think it’s fair to ask this.

Or, the other thing we might be tempted to do just to blame Herod — to call him crazy and evil and let that be the end of it. Which seems reasonable! But we may also want to be careful not to distance ourselves too much and too quickly from Herod — horrible as his acts were, terrible as he was. Even though we’re not in the same situation, and even though we’d never do the things that Herod did, it may still be the case that there’s a little bit of Herod in each of us.

Here’s what I mean by that: Herod is living according to his instincts. He’s in survival mode. He’s motivated by fear and the desire to be safe and in control. Herod is fixated, he’s stuck, in a self-centered, self-serving existence. He can’t see beyond his own interests and concerns. This is what allows him to devalue human life and make decisions without any regard for others. And while it may not show itself in the same extreme ways, we often get stuck in instinct mode ourselves. I know I do.

And secondly, if we just blame Herod, we risk putting ourselves in the place of the same people that Jesus later most directly challenges in his public ministry: the religious leaders of his day. Those who were always ready to demonize or make an enemy out of another group, and to do so while ignoring their own responsibility for the sin and suffering and injustice in the world. Jesus calls them out on this, because he has the authority to do so.

And the final thing about blaming Herod is that he’s also the product of a whole system and empire of sin and injustice — it’s not like he’s working alone, or like he doesn’t answer to someone. Herod is allowed to have power and be a king only because Caesar approves of him and views him as politically advantageous. There’s a structural nature to the violence and fear-based governance that rules the world in the First Century, and we see that same fear-based governance at work in the world today! It’s always on the defensive. It’s willing to harm others in order to protect itself. It’s anxious. It’s always just trying to compete and survive. But this is also natural, it’s normal, it’s conventional — It’s instinctual.

It’s the way of the world. It’s the way of Herod, of Pharaoh, of Caesar… And it’s the instinctual way of human nature that many of us find ourselves living in at times.

But then, there’s the Magi, and they weren’t like Herod. This is the contrast that Matthew is drawing. Because they were wise. They weren’t instinctual – they were wise. The wise men saw the world differently, and they were living for something different. They weren’t living according to their instincts. They were able to see beyond themselves. They were pursuing God, even though they do not know God yet. And somehow, they had the wisdom to see that the true king wasn’t Herod, who was the official king, but Jesus!

Now, we don’t actually know how many of them there were, and there’s no indication that they were kings. Rather, as the name “magi,” suggests, they were like astronomers, magicians, or interpreters or dreams. So maybe they marveled at the vastness of the cosmos, and maybe they looked to the stars, because they were seeking, they were searching for more truth, because they knew that their lives and their purpose depended on something bigger and much more important than themselves. They’re after truth for truth’s sake! Not just for their own benefit or the benefit of the group they were born into.

And this is really important, because many skeptics — they wonder how Christians can believe that something that happened at one time and in one place could have significance for all people and throughout all of history. Sometimes theologians call this the “scandal of particularly.” The idea that God acted most decisively at one moment, in one person, through one group, in all of history. This can be a hard pill to swallow, and understandably so.

Maybe you know people like this today, who aren’t Christians, and still have a lot of questions, but are drawn to God. It’s one of the largest and fastest growing groups of people in country, according to many sociologists — those who describe themselves as spiritual but not religious. I think the Magi were kind of like this, and it’s important for us to listen to people like this today.

But the wise men in this story are meant to reveal something to us about precisely this issue — how God does indeed work through one person, one people, and one time and place in history, but in order to reveal something and to do something for the whole world — for everybody throughout all of history. The gospel is breaking down all the barriers of worldly kingdoms. As Paul says in Galatians, in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, which is probably why both Jews and Greeks weren’t sure how they felt about this.

For example, in Luke’s version of the story, it was shepherds, not wise men, who came to Bethlehem. They were basically the exact opposite of the wise men. They were poor, uneducated and probably Jewish, while Matthew tells us about these wealthy, educated, and non-Jewish Magi. Which just further testifies to the universal appeal and reach of the gospel to the whole spectrum of social classes.

So the way Matthew narrates what’s going on here not only sets up a contrast between Herod and the Wise Men, but also between the Kingdom of God, which is for all, and the Kingdoms of this world, which elevate one group above everyone else. Jesus’s birth itself begins a new drama and battle between the kingdom that Jesus inaugurates and the on-going kingdoms of this world. Herod is just one example of a worldly king. There are many other Herods today! And the conflict is intensified as the two realms draw closer to each other.

During this week in the new season after Advent which the church still calls Christmas, there is on January 6th, something that the tradition calls Epiphany — the feast of Epiphany. We hear this word (epiphany) and we probably think about having an epiphany, right? A moment of clarifying insight or vision, an ‘aha’ moment, where things that were blurry before, that puzzled us, come more sharply into focus. Well, the church throughout the ages has had something similar in mind with its inclusion of this story during this season of Epiphany. The story has been seen as symbolic of God’s revelation and coming to the Gentiles — the non-Jewish world, and, it’s telling us something about who God has been all along, but that we just didn’t fully know yet.

The magi, then, once more, are part of this same “unveiling”: they help to disclose the mystery of the nature of God’s kingdom ushered in by Jesus!

Ok, but here’s the final act of the story: there’s a limit to all of this wisdom. The wise men take their knowledge as far as it can go! We’ve seen this contrast between instinct with Herod, and the wisdom of the wise men, but what does the birth of Jesus teach the wise men, ultimately, that even they couldn’t have figured out in their own wisdom?

The clue, I think, is that Jesus comes in the most unsuspecting, unimpressive way. As an outside, essentially, and from the margins! There’s nothing safe or ideal about his circumstances. He comes as one who isn’t even welcomed by his own. Rather, he’s excluded and rejected. As Jesus himself would later say in Matthew 8:20, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”

Like the nation of Israel itself had been for centuries, Jesus and his parents are forced into Exile because of Herod. And like many people then and now, the Son of God had to seek political asylum and become a refugee. They likely had to flee quickly with very few possessions, and it might have been difficult for Joseph to find work in Egypt as a carpenter and as a migrant. They would have been dependent on others to take care of them. They wouldn’t have any citizenship to rely on.

So Jesus is excluded, he’s marginalized. He has enemies who want to kill him, even though he hasn’t done anything wrong. His plight is like that of the murdered children in the story. And even though he’s initially spared, he ultimately shares in their fate, as the holy innocent one who is slaughtered, who does an unjust death.

Now, the Magi don’t understand all of this yet, but they recognize Jesus as king, and that’s what’s even more amazing about their journey. It says in v. 4 that when the star stopped over the place where the child was, they were overjoyed, and they paid him homage in the form of three gifts (which is probably why the tradition has said there were three kings), at least two of which were symbolic of Jesus’ priestly role, and the death he would later endure.

The familiar passage in Philippians 2 retells this whole story, essentially, in poetic form, about Jesus Christ’s descent, to this lowly place, and the ascent and worship that he receives as a result. It says:

Have the same mind in you as Christ Jesus,Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place, and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

I imagine that this gospel proclamation, though they maybe didn’t hear it, is what the Magi saw, it’s what they observed and experienced when they came to the place where Jesus lay, and it’s what moved them from a place of mere wisdom and searching and expectation, to actual worship and adoration, joyfully giving costly gifts.

So in closing my prayer is that it would be so with you and all of us, that we would be compelled and drawn by the light of Christ that has come into the world at Christmas and into this year, that it would give us an Epiphany, that we’d be compelled and drawn to have the same mind as the Magi, who were wise beyond what they knew, and searched and searched until they found the one who was calling them all along. Calling them beyond their instincts, and beyond their best wisdom to worship the true king and savior of the whole world.

Joseph’s Story as a Gospel Story: God’s Will and our Plans

[Below is the transcript of the sermon I preached on Dec. 14, 2015 at Saint Peter’s Church. The audio can be found here.]

This morning we’re in the third week of our Advent series, where we’re looking at a different character each week from the birth narratives of the Gospels — in the Christmas story. And this Sunday we come to the character of Joseph. And as we’ve been asking for some time now, we’ll continue to raise this central series of questions: What do we see for our lives in this story, particular in what it tells us about God and about ourselves? So that’s where we’re headed.

I’m sure many of you since Thanksgiving have already purchased and decorated a Christmas tree. Well, Whitney and I did this about two weeks ago, and after decorating it – after she mostly decorated it – we were sitting in our living room, and out of the corner of my eye I look over and noticed that the tree was beginning to fall over, and before I can even do anything to get over there and catch it or something, which probably would have been a disaster anyway — it had already just crashed into our coffee table, and it sounded like all of our more fragile ornaments had broken. It didn’t catch on fire or anything, but for a moment it did kind of feel like I was in the Griswald family living room from the Christmas vacation movie.

Thankfully, we actually only lost a few ornaments, but the reason the tree fell over was because we had propped it on this box that we thought made it look better, and put a skirt around it — just the way we liked. But the box was just not giving it the support or the surface area that it needed into order to be balanced, so we had to abandon that plan, and now it just doesn’t look as good.

And I don’t want to take the Christmas decoration example too far, but obviously it’s appropriate given the season and how much in our culture that we love to decorate for the holidays.

One of the beloved Christmas stories of our time that highlights some of the superficiality of our decorating habits during this time of the year — I’m not talking about anyone at Saint Peter’s, only everybody else in Mt. Pleasant — Dr. Seuss’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” No doubt you all know it. And probably most of you have seen the movie that came out staring Jim Carey as the Grinch in the year 2000. This was actually the movie that Whitney and I saw on our first date about 15 years ago – so for the longest time we watched it every year on that day. I will admit I eventually got kind of tired of it, but we still love to quote it, and it’s just full of satire about the consumer experience of Christmas.

One of the most memorable moments from the movie, as it relates to decorating for Christmas, is when Betty-Lou Who, is competing with her neighbor, Martha May, to win the prize for the best decorated home in Whoville. Martha May pulls out a Christmas-light machine gun to decorate her house [picture], and of course she wins. This scene in the movie is an exaggeration, of course, of what we do on Christmas to make everything look good and feel good, but it also pin-points exactly what TJ was talking about last Sunday with the look-good, feel-good culture that we live in.

This can be missed sometimes in the Grinch, because of the humor, but throughout the movie there’s actually this fairly strong critique of our society’s obsession with self-image and self-presentation.

We make plans, and we make ourselves presentable. But these plans and the way we try to present ourselves often get in the way of what God is trying to do in our lives. And one thing the Joseph story seems to be teaching us, is that ultimately, God doesn’t care very much about our plans or image.

Now, it’s one of the stories in the Bible that doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to appreciate. Those of us who are men, especially, can pretty easily put ourselves in Joseph’s shoes to think about what it would have been like, socially, to agree to marry someone, who’s already pregnant claiming that the pregnancy had divine rather than human origin. (Of course, Mary’s circumstances were probably even more terrifying, but we’re looking at her story next week.)

It sounds totally scandalous though, that’s she’s pregnant by the Holy Spirit – it sounds like she’s completely making it up. And of course Joseph is made to look like a total fool if he claims to believe her and not divorce her.

In the First Century, even when two people weren’t officially married yet, if they were engaged, for the Hebrew people this was still a legally binding agreement, unlike it is today. And so after finding out that she’s pregnant, it would have been within Joseph’s right, certainly his interest, and even his obligation, legally, for him to publicly expose and shame Mary.

So this is the situation that Joseph finds himself in. But Matthew tells us that Joseph was a righteous man, that he was just – not unlike Zechariah and Elizabeth – and that he because of this, he was willing to divorce her quietly when he learned about the pregnancy, and to take the significant social risk of not making a big fuss about it. People would still eventually find out, and that would really be embarrassing. But he’s willing to face that.

So at this point in the story, before the angel speaks to him in his dream, Joseph is already portrayed as a upstanding, God-honoring man, who’s merciful and compassionate toward Mary – even though he has good reason not to be. He spares her from disgrace. This might remind you of other moments later in the gospel when Jesus steps in and spares people from disgrace. So Joseph is not far from the Kingdom of God, even before Jesus or John the Baptist has announced it. He knows the law not merely at the external level but at its very heart. Much like King David, and as descendant of the house of David, Joseph is a man after God’s own heart.

And I think this is important for helping us understand the relationship better between the Old Testament and New Testament a little better. Joseph is standing right in the middle, between the old and the new — his story is part of a key turning point. Joseph is a bridge figure, because he anticipates the new thing that God is going to do in Jesus. He sees beyond the conventional understanding of the Law and God’s commandments. He has an intuition into Christian love, which, though implicit in the Old Testament, has not yet been fully demonstrated and made explicit until the person of Jesus comes on the scene.

This is why Jesus says later on in Matthew, in the famous Sermon on the Mount, “You’ve heard it said, an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth…” — This is Jesus quoting Exodus 21:24, and it’s the “let the punishment fit the crime” mentality, which many of us naturally default to — but, Jesus says, “I tell you, do not resist an evil person…” (5:38-39a). And this raises all kinds of complicated questions for us today, in the age of terrorism and mass shootings. But I think the point about the movement from the Old to the New, is that justice is not served by simply letting the punishment fit the crime. The gospel is telling us something different.. Ultimately, there is nothing we can do to justify ourselves before God or before others. And if we can’t justify ourselves, neither can we justly condemn anyone else. Even if what they do is evil.

And for Matthew, who tells it a little differently than Luke — Luke narrates from Mary’s perspective — for Matthew, Joseph is the person in the story that really signals toward that true justice, the heart of the law which is love. Because when he receives the angel’s message he’s not offended by it — he’s not scandalized by it. There’s no indication that he doubts it. He might have struggled with it before making a decision — it may have been a very difficult decision. But he’s able to make the decision to believe it and respond in faith.

Now, without the angel’s message, he’s not going to stay engaged to marry. He can’t. It would be unthinkable for him. He has to divorce her – it would be viewed as impious not to. This is the difference between the gospel, and the best that religion and morality has to offer. Showing some mercy but finally walking away is the most that human beings in their own strength and wisdom can do without God’s love. Without God’s love, good, honest, ethical people, run out of imagination. Only love would compel someone to marry a crazy, poor, pregnant woman. Only love could see an act like this as God’s will and trust it enough to follow through on it.

This is where God breaks into the story. It’s where God interrupts it, and disrupts it. It’s what moves the story onto a whole new playing field. It becomes a gospel story, a story about radical grace rather than just a story about kindness.

A well-known author by the name of Joseph Campbell has a famous quote that goes like this: “We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”

We can say that in a Christian way: We must be willing to let go of the life we’ve planned so as to enter the Kingdom of heaven — which is how Jesus describes it in the gospel of Matthew. We must be willing to let go of the life we’ve planned — we must be willing to let go of the image we’ve protected — if we want to live life in the Kingdom of God.

Joseph completely gives us his plans, which were good plans, but he gives them up. Joseph lets go of the self-image he had, of the reputation he’d kept — and he did this in a culture that would never look at him the same way again. This is the kind of stuff God works through — even though it looks like foolishness to the world sometimes.

When I was in seminary, I worked as a chaplain in one of the dorms at Baylor University. And I was married at the time — yes, Whitney and I lived in a dorm together one year (which was special). And I was leading a Bible study with a group of freshmen one year. One of the most common themes and questions that arises in a college-student Bible study — some of you will appreciate this — is that of God’s will and how to know God’s will for your life. There’s this desire among young adults with a certain kind of Christian background and church experience – to talk about just wanting to stay in God’s will for their life. You know, you think about the big decisions we’re making in life that often come during or soon after those years of young adulthood, and it’s usually stuff like: What should I major in, what do I want to do when I graduate, where do I want to live, who am I going to marry?

And when you’re in college, if you had a traditional college experience, it’s like the only thing that adult ever asks you about, when you’re in this stage of life: what are you studying, what are you going to do with that degree? So you can’t really blame them for being preoccupied with these questions. And then what’s funny is that as we get older, those questions don’t really even change that much – they just kind of morph. They become, what neighborhood should we buy in, should I make a career change, should we move, where are we going to send out kids to school? Are they going to get into a good school? Can we afford to send them there? Adult versions of the same kinds of questions.

So there’s a pattern here with the way we think about God’s will for our life remains at the external and circumstantial level. It’s not that these questions are unimportant — they’re not — God cares about them, and we should pray through them. God’s will does pertain to these questions. They matter.

But if we look back not just to the First Century but also any century since then until now, most of the time, you didn’t even have the luxury of asking most of these questions! Where are you going to live, what a career are you going to choose, even who you’re going to marry — these big life choices, weren’t choices. They were pretty much decided for you.

And so maybe having these choices in the first place is part of the problem. It let us assumes that we’re the ones in control of our lives, and that we get to make our own futures. This freedom becomes an idol, and as an idol, it’s at the root of our culture’s obsession with planning and with self-image. So much so that we take whatever we plan and however we want to present ourselves, and call it God’s will or we trick ourselves into thinking it’s God’s will.

We have to be willing to let go of the life we’ve planned, and the self-image we prefer, in order to live in the Kingdom of God.

So just looking at the Joseph story one last time: is the lesson simply that we need to pay attention to our dreams so that we can hear God tell us what we should do? I don’t want to rule that out necessary, and in fact that can happen.

But most of the time, we find ourselves struggling to know what to do because we’re not clear, and because we’re not certain, about what God wants, at the external level.

So why doesn’t Joseph say, oh that was just a dream. Who knows what God wants? The thing that most determines whether we’re living in God’s will for our life is not so much the choices about the external, circumstantial things. But about the kind of people we decide we want to become before we even face those choices. Who are we going to follow? What are we going to trust? How we answer those questions will largely determine everything else.

There are couple places in the New Testament that stand out where this question about God’s will is addressed:

  • Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. – Rom 12:2
  • It is God’s will that you should be sanctified… give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. – 1 Thess. 4:3a; 5:18

The reason that Josephs responds the way he does, when the angel tells him in his dream not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife, is because he had already chosen what he was going to live for, and who he wanted to be. This made him open and ready for God to move and speak to him in an unexpected way.

Joseph could never have guessed what the angel was about to ask to do, and yet, when he gets the news, he believes it, and when he’s to ask to stay with Mary, he does it. He is willing to set aside his previous understanding of God’s will in favor of a deeper and higher understanding of it — one the leads to the kingdom of God, the heart of the law, and that is governed by God’s love. This is what makes the Christmas story a gospel story.

So before closing, here are two questions for us to continue to reflect on:

  1. Are their plans in your life, they could be good plans, that God might be calling you to give up?
  2. Is there an image that you’re keeping, that you’re trying to protect, that God is asking you to let go of?

So in our lives, let those words of Paul be your guide: Do not be conformed to the patterns of this world! Rather, with Joseph as our example, do not let your plans and your self-image get in the way of what God wants to do! But be transformed and sanctified by the renewing of our mind, in the light of your love, and by the heart of your law.  So that we can live and walk in your kingdom.  So that we can know what your will is — your good, pleasing and perfect will. Amen.

Fear, Doubt, and Silence in Zechariah’s Faith Journey

[Here is the audio for this sermon that was preached on Sunday, November 30, 2015 at Saint Peter’s Church.]

Scripture: Luke 1:5-25; 67-79

One of the most commonly-stressed themes during the season of advent, is that we are entering into a time of waiting, hoping, longing — with expectation — that God is going to come and do something new, something remarkable in our lives and in the world. Which might seem strange, given that we already know the outcome of this story. Are we just pretending to be waiting to find out what’s going to happen?

Well one reason we wait is to practice waiting, because so much of life is waiting — being patient, preparing, trusting, having faith, even when we don’t know what’s going to happen. This takes courage. It’s scary, and many times, we doubt. The character of Zechariah in the first Christmas story illustrates this as well as any.

We’re told in the text that both Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were righteous in the eyes of God, and that they came from the order of the Jewish priesthood, so he had some special responsibilities as a religious leader. And so he knew as well as anybody what the Jewish hope was for a Messiah. The way that the angel Gabriel speaks to Zechariah, further suggests that he had been praying for years to have a child.

And yet, his hope for this had all but run out, given his age and his wife Elizabeth’s barren state. He could never have guessed that he would be the father to John the Baptist, the greatest prophet Israel has ever known! The most he could hope for was that someone else would have such an honor.

For those of us familiar with the Old Testament, when we hear this story, we probably immediately think of, among other stories, the most famous: God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 17-18) – we also think of their reaction, their disbelief in response to the announcement. Actually, they laugh, when God tells them they‘re to have a son. And eventually they end up taking matters into their own hands.  Abraham sleeps with Hagar who gives birth to Ishmael, who was not the son that God had promised. So the scene with Gabriel’s announcement to Zechariah follows a similar pattern, and this is intentional on the Gospel writer’s part.

One of the questions we’re asking each week in the e-devotionals that will be going out starting tomorrow, is a question we’ve been asking as a church throughout this fall when we read the Bible together: What is this story telling us about God, and about ourselves? And obviously one of the things it’s saying is that God is faithful. That God’s commitment to accomplish his purposes is not going to be hindered by human weakness: age, infertility, insignificance, poverty, whatever! In fact, God consistently chooses to work through these weaknesses. But we forget this: that God is steadfast, that God is on the side of the weak. Zechariah doubts too, and as a result he carries the mark of his doubt by losing his speech. But ultimately, because of God’s mercy, Zechariah’s story doesn’t end with doubt. As we read, it ends with song and praise.

So we’re going to look more at how that happens. What are the causes of Zechariah’s doubt? And how does God take Zechariah — and us! — on a journey from doubt to faith?

I know not everyone here as seen the movies or read the books, but I can’t help but mention the Hunger Games Trilogy as an illustration of what it might have been like to be a Jew in First Century Israel-Palestine. Because the last movie just came out, and because I know some of you have seen it, and all of you have probably heard of it. Whitney has read the books, so she kind of got me into it. But it’s really this compelling picture of the experience of living in a colony that’s occupied by a foreign Empire. Some people want to revolt. Others think it’s better to wait, but everyone knows there’s an enemy, and everyone is waiting to see if a true anointed leader is going to rise up and bring them liberation. So maybe this helps us imagine with a more contemporary example, what people like Zechariah might have been feeling. Otherwise, I think it’s very difficult for us to relate to this, given when and where we live.

Before this moment in Israel’s history, and many of you know this, there had been foreign occupation, after occupation – hundreds of years. Yes, many of you have known pain and loss, and what it is to face incredible difficulty and even tragedy in your lives. But few if any of us have lived through something like what the Jews as a whole people had endured under the Romans and in previous generations under the Greeks– was almost unimaginable. The Jewish historian Josephus writes that around the time of Jesus’ birth, there was a revolt when Herod the Great died. After the Romans repressed the rebellion, they crucified 2000 Jews to make a statement about what happens to insurrectionists. This is why in one of the reasons why in Zechariah’s song, there’s such a strong theme of God taking the side of those who have been cast down, and of delivering Israel from their enemies. This is the political climate that Jesus comes into. And this is the historical situation in which Zechariah is trying to have faith.

Another element in the story is that, culturally and religiously at this time, having children was essential for carrying on the family name, perpetuating God’s covenant with Israel, and providing oneself with care in one’s old age. So barrenness, or infertility, was regarded as a tragedy, a disgrace, and even a sign of God’s punishment. Zechariah and Elizabeth were stigmatized and already likely somewhat estranged from their community because of this.

Historically, they’re discouraged, and culturally and religiously, they’re discouraged. So it’s hard to blame the guy for a doubting a little when he hears this news! So naturally, what does Zechariah says when he hears the good news that Elizabeth is going to have a son, and not just any son, but John the Baptist?

v. 18: Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” “How can I know that this is so?” Some translations say. Zechariah wants to know: how can he be certain about what the angel has told him? It was a way to ask for proof.

So what is the cause of Zechariah’s doubt? The first thing is, his desire for certainty. The desire for certainty is not only one of the main causes of doubt, but it’s also one of the greatest barriers to faith. One of the theologians I’ve read over the years, John Henry Newman, says that: “If we insist on being as sure as is conceivable… [then] we must be content to creep along the ground and never soar.” (Flying is risky much like faith is risky.) Faith is not the same thing as certainty. And if we wait for certainty, we’ll never “take off.”

It is true that real faith does brings with it, assurance, and confidence, and trust, a kind of security, but it’s the kind of security that brings peace even in the face of uncertainty, rather than certainty itself. Maybe we could say it this way: Faith is knowing that everything is going to be ok even if everything is not going to be ok. Which doesn’t sound very happy, I realize, but there’s a real freedom that comes with this faith, a freedom that eases the urge to want to secure everything in our lives: our children, our financial futures, our relationships, our reputation… Some of this stuff has to be done – we have responsibilities – but when our responsibilities are carried out from a place of gratitude and trust, then what is uncertain won’t unsettle us so much.

Now, this moment for Zechariah would have been a very important moment in his life. He wasn’t simply performing a weekly duty in the temple. He would have been chosen by casting lots, as the text says, and the honor of offering the incense in this particular ceremony usually only came once. And everybody else was waiting outside, praying! So there’s some pressure, and he’s already pretty nervous! When Gabriel shows up, it says Zechariah is gripped with fear!

And the first thing the angel says to him, v. 13, is “Do not be afraid Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard.” – Do not be afraid. Did y’all know that the commandment not to be afraid, to fear not, occurs more times in the Bible than any other? If one of the greatest barriers to having faith is our desire for certainty, then at the heart of our desire for certainty is fear. It’s one of our strongest emotions and instincts, maybe the most difficult to overcome.

Now, sometimes it’s true that, we doubt because there’s a lack of evidence, because something isn’t reasonable — because an argument doesn’t hold up. And I’m not dismissing good questions, or intellectual objections. And too many Christians settle for weak answers to good questions. Nonetheless, more often than not, when it comes to having genuine faith, the Bible seems to suggest that fear is a bigger stumbling block than our intellect.

Because there are some things that we’re never going to be able to understand – at least not in the way that we’d like to. A Catholic priest and author by the name of Richard Rohr calls these things the big five, and he names them as birth, death, suffering, love, and God. Don’t try to make too much sense of these aspects of life, Rohr says. They’re non-rational. They’re not irrational, but neither can they be understood by reason alone. They’re mysterious. I’m reminded of Saint Augustine’s words here:

“We are talking about God. What wonder is it that you do not understand? If you do understand, then it is not God.”

Again, this is not an excuse to justify irrational beliefs. But neither is the absence of certainty an excuse for your lack of faith, for your doubt. Do not be afraid, the angel says, your prayer has been heard.

You see, to doubt something though, is always to trust something else more – there’s no such thing as pure doubt. We doubt because we trust something else instead. What are you trusting more than the good news? What are you afraid of that’s causing you to doubt?

The trouble with fear and doubt though is that we can’t just will them away. We’re so naturally prone to both! And familiarity with the faith or church attendance doesn’t necessary guarantee our protection from them. So what can we possibly do about this?

Well, it may be that the best direction we can take from the story is just to look at what God does to Zechariah. He shuts him up! He loses his ability to speak for like 9 months! I don’t think I’ve gone without speaking for more than about 9 hours, the majority of which was probably during sleep.

At first, it might seem like God is punishing Zechariah, and I’m sure that it felt like it. I bet those first few days and weeks, maybe even months, were miserable. But where does Zechariah end up at the end of the story?

His song in v. 74 and few verses after declares that God has come to

enable us to serve him without fear, to give his people a knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God!

Not only does Zechariah now believe, having seen his wife give birth, but somehow, during the suffering and frustration of his mandatory silence, he’s come to believe in the good news without fear, to believe that it means salvation, rescue forgiveness and mercy.

It might be that Zechariah’s forced silence was the best thing to ever happen to him. Sometimes the only way to quiet the echo chamber of our mind, with its voices of fear and doubt, might be to just find the time to stop talking for a little while.

So maybe just as one takeaway for us this week, we can try to observe some voluntary silence. To practice our waiting. To give room for God to grow our faith in those places where fear and doubt linger. Let’s pray.

The Widow’s Mite or the Widow’s Plight? What we do with what God has given us

[This is the transcript for the sermon I preached at Saint Peter’s Church on November 15, 2015. The audio can be found here.]

Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.

Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.” – Mark 12:41-44, NIV

So as some of you know, we are right in the middle of a short three-week series that began last Sunday in the book of Numbers, where we looked at the story of Joshua and the 12 scouts or spies that were sent out to investigate the land of Canaan — the promise land. 10 of the 12 that came back did not believe that God could help them, and the people as a whole were persuaded that it was not possible to take the land that God had promised. They thought that God was setting them up for defeat. It’s a really a tragic story in many ways, as it shows that there are serious consequences for refusing to claim what God has given us, and to steward it with a willingness to risk and make sacrifices — to trust that God will make good on his promises!

For today though, we’re looking at this short little story in Mark’s Gospel (it also shows up in Luke), but it actually asks very much the same question of us: “What are you going to do with what you’ve been given?”

Every time I read this story, I think of this coin that Whitney has. It’s supposedly a “Widow’s Mite” – a Greek Lepton (1/64 of a day’s wages then — it’s worth a little bit more than that these days though!) Her family on her mom’s side is from the Cayman Islands, and somehow a number of these coins made their way to the Caribbean on ships, and they’ve been dated back to the early Roman era. So she and her three brothers each have one. And like her favorite piece of jewelry — besides her wedding ring of course — because it symbolizes her family heritage.

But, the coin is also valuable to Whitney and me because of the story it represents. It’s a famous story and for whatever reason it’s one of those that really seems to resonate with people — there’s just something about the way something so insignificant can be seen as invaluable in the eyes of God.

Now, when we hear the word temple, which is where it says this story took place, we might be tempted to think of something like a church. But as some of you may know, this was a massive, public space. It probably looked and felt more like a marketplace. There were a number of places scattered around where you could purchase birds or wood for offerings, or frankincense. There was also a place for the free-will offering, which is where Jesus and this woman were.

The wealthy, powerful and important people would have been visibly giving large offerings, and you would have been able to hear the noise of their big gifts being tossed into the treasury.

And Jesus is not impressed — especially since they were giving their gifts in such a way as to be noticed. The widow, on the other hand, gives everything she has to live on, it says — her Bios! is the Greek word, and it probably goes totally unnoticed, but not by Jesus. He recognizes her radical trust in God to provide for her.

Jesus then goes on to point out that the rich after giving their large gifts were still rich. The rich in this story give out of their abundance, but they do not sacrifice their abundance. They share their leftovers. It’s kind of like famous billionaires we know of, some of whom are even very socially conscious (Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Warren Buffett, Oprah…). And I’m not bashing them. I’m just saying, they’re still very rich even after they give.

And of course we do the same. We usually just give what we can afford to, even if that’s a lot. Most of us probably do not eat less, or dress worse, or travel less, because of what we give… Our giving doesn’t cut substantially into our life. We don’t give up control. But the widow did.

So Jesus tells us that the offerings of the wealthy pale in comparison to the sacrifice that the widow makes. She’s living on the currency of the Kingdom of God! While the wealthy people give what to be noticed, they give what they can spare, they give to stay in control.

And so this is the common, straightforward reading of the story, and it’s a good one. It teaches us something very important. That God looks at their heart — not the amount of money that we give. That we’re to give sacrificially, and joyfully. That we’re to give because we’re seeking God. Not because we want something from God. And finally, it poses the question, not just what are you giving, but what are you holding back. Is trust informing your stewardship, or is fear ruling over you?! What’s keeping you from giving more of your life away? What are you going to do with what God has given you?

As is often the case in reading the Bible though, and you all know this, to get to the best stuff, sometimes we have to dig a little deeper. And we don’t have to be scholars to do it! Sometimes it just takes one google search. Again, the natural thing to assume I think is that the Temple was kind of like the church, or that tithing to the temple was like tithing to the church. But the Temple was more like the city government than it was like a church, and tithing was more like paying taxes than making charitable donations. It likely added up to something much higher than 10%.

Because the Temple had a political and economic function just as much as a religious one. Church and state were not separate. It was public and central to society. Of course they were occupied by the Romans, so they weren’t totally in charge. It was more like a colony within the Empire. But the Temple had long been accused of collaborating with the Empire. This is what led to some of the rebellions that we can read about.

But the point is, there was a hierarchy. And at the top were the political and religious leaders. We really need only look at the previous three verses to see this, and to see what Jesus was saying about these people:

38 As he taught, Jesus said, “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39 and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. 40 They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.”

Mark puts these verses about the corrupt leaders right next to the ones about the widow’s offerings for a reason! And keep in mind, this is a holy week story. Jesus has already rode in a donkey and disturbed the peace by driving out the moneychangers in the temple.

Why does he say though, for instance, that the teachers of the law “devour widows’ houses”? Well, from what we can know historically, the scribes and the teachers of the law were part of the literate class that worked for the wealthy. So this is most likely a reference to their activity of administering loan agreements and foreclosing on people’s property when loans couldn’t be repaid! And obviously, widows in the First Century had no way of making any money.

But in ancient Israel, widows and the poor were not supposed to be required to make offerings to the Temple. So something isn’t right about this picture. Mark is pointing this out, and Jesus is criticizing it! In other words, here the passage can be heard not just as praising the widow, but as condemning the way the poor are being manipulated to give to the temple!

And this criticism from Jesus falls right in line with the Prophetic tradition — the second half of the Old Testament — where we read again and again God’s warning to his people about their social responsibility for the marginalized and for the poor. Hear what the prophet Zechariah says (7:9-11):

8 And the word of the LORD came again to Zechariah: 9 “This is what the LORD Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. 10 Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.’11 “But they refused to pay attention; stubbornly they turned their backs and covered their ears.

Reflecting back on the message of the earlier prophets and what led Israel into Exile, God is basically saying through Zechariah, “my heart is so bound up with the needs and the circumstances of the poor & weak, that if you act against them, you act against me!” Ignoring them is to ignore me! (like Matt. 25: “What you do to the least of these…”)

Now, this is not to say that when you take care of the poor you’re somehow earning God’s favor. What it does mean though, is that, if you don’t have room in your heart for the poor, you don’t have room in your heart for God.

So yes, this poor widow has a beautiful, generous heart, and she’s an example to us, but she’s also a victim of an unjust society. The temple had become a place where widows were robbed. Though the affluent were tithing, the weightier matters of the law are neglected (Matt 23:23). The money the widow gave was going to the very same people who would take money from Judas only a few days later to capture Jesus and have him crucified!

For some reason though, these circumstances seem to be the kind in which God meets people the most — identifying with the plight of the widow and the marginalized. The widow is a victim of a self-righteous and unjust society – Jesus lets himself become victim to a self-righteous, unjust society. The same sin and suffering that takes advantage of her sends Jesus to the cross. We could say the same sin that lead to a mass-shooting, terrorist attack in Paris two nights ago, in Beirut last week, in Charleston earlier this year — this same sin puts Jesus on the cross. He enters into the sin, suffering and death of the world on a mission to redeem it.

Next Friday I’m going to Atlanta for a day to hear the world-famous German-theologian Jurgen Moltmann speak at a conference about his 40-year-old book now, The Crucified God. He’s 89-years old now. Moltmann was a POW after fighting for the Germans in WWII. During his time as a Ally prisoner, his cell was decorated with images of the concentration camps so as to remind him and his cellmates of what they had done. Moltmann says that at that time he would have rather died than had to face the truth and the shame of his country’s crimes and his role in those crimes. Here’s a quote though that captures the conclusion he ultimately came to in his book:

“God allows himself to be humiliated and crucified in the Son, in order to free the oppressed and the oppressors from oppression and to open up to them the reality of a free, generous and compassionate humanity.”

Friends, no other religion says anything like this. Jesus dies for the widow, but he also dies for perpetrators, the Pharisees and the terrorists. There is no one is out of the reach of the grace of God, and there is no thing that can separate you from it.

And if we grasp this – if it grasps us – it’s no longer a matter of trying to figure out what God wants us to do. Or how much God requires us to give. Those are very moralistic and religious questions. When the story of God’s love seizes us, we’re moved to give our whole lives to it — our bios, like the widow. We don’t have to be in control anymore, because of our gratitude, and because of our trust!

So is this passage about tithing? Is it about giving and stewardship? Yes it is, but it’s also about the Gospel itself, which is the real reason why we give anything.

As members of Saint Peter’s, your tithes and offerings, your gifts — whether in terms of money, time, or talents — are not gifts to the institution, or to the staff, or clergy. This church, this staff, is not separate from you. You know this! but this is not a transaction. Yeah there are operating costs, which we try to keep as low as can so that we can give as much as we can directly to the ministries that God has entrusted to us and to things outside of ourselves.

But truly, you are not giving to the church. Rather, you are the church, and as the church, you give. We give as the church, and, when we do, God is really the one giving, through us. That’s how we become the body of Christ, tangibly, his hands and feet in the world. So that we can do our ministry, but also so that we can work to take care of the poor, the orphan, the widow and the stranger.

And this means we partner with others. The church can’t do it all, and shouldn’t try! Maybe some of your money needs to go to sponsor children through Compassion International or World Vision. There are water wells to be drilled, good micro-finance banks to be funded, possibly. Human trafficking to be stopped. Environmental restoration projects to be supported.

So as a church we partner with Suzy McCall and LAMB in Honduras, where our team of 12 women is currently serving. We’re sending a team to Haiti again in January to work in the medical center we sponsor there. We’ve partnered with the Pink Bus on the East Side. We’re forming a new Art Bus team, and we’re looking for other local ministry opportunities. We give to our diocese which goes to support church planting.

Tithing is not mentioned very much in the New Testament, and when it is, the details are unclear. But rather than being an excuse not to tithe, if anything, Jesus raises the standard to a much higher level. He tells the rich young ruler to give everything! Now he doesn’t tell everyone to give everything, but the chances are that he’s challenging each us to give more than we’re comfortable giving.

There’s a quote in your bulletin from C.S. Lewis that has stuck with me on this question:

“I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare.”

What we’re going to see next week, as we turn back to the Joshua story, is that even when we’re up against giant obstacles in our life, when we trust, and risk, and give, God is with us. I know that can sound a little bit cliche or just like a Christian platitude — I hear it even as I say it — but I really believe that when we step out and let go of the need to control in generosity and in sacrifice, that Christ is there, just as he was in this widow’s life.

The widow in the story gave everything. The rich people let her do it — while they only gave for show, while they gave what they could spare, and while they gave to stay in control.

Our giving, by comparison, is a response to what God has already given us. So the challenge is simply this, as we ask of ourselves again, each day: What are we going to do with what God has given us? Let’s pray.

Revelation: Where has God Spoken to Us?

(Below is the transcript for a lecture I gave on Oct. 20th at the Ridley Institute of St. Andrew’s Church in Mt. Pleasant, SC. They are an extension campus of Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, PA.)

Your reading this week was entitled, “What is the Bible and What is it good for?” but even this question has another one behind it, an even broader subject which is the subject of tonight’s lecture: “Revelation: Where has God Spoken to Us?” The doctrine of Christian revelation — the question of how we get the content of our faith, and what is the authority for our faith, what is the medium by which God has spoken to us and continues to do so.

But I also think it’s fitting we should come to the topic of the Bible after having already been introduced to the doctrine of the Trinity and each person of the Trinity, because that’s really how it happened for many of the first Christians. In the earliest churches, there was an understanding of the doctrine of Christ and the good news of the gospel that comes from that, that Jesus preached, and even a growing understanding and experience of the Holy Spirit long before anyone had a Bible. The authority of the Christian faith was established in communities and through the apostles who got their authority from Christ and then from the Spirit several centuries before the Bible was formally canonized. But for us, some 2000 years later, we’re in a different situation. We weren’t there, so we depend more on the written record of that authority and of God’s revelation to the first Christians.

It is with the broader topic, though, of the doctrine of revelation, that I want to begin, and then we’ll move into talking more about the Bible itself, the Bible in the tradition of Reformation Anglicanism in particular, and to conclude, thirdly, we’ll look at the role of the Bible and how we can understand it today. How does its authority function in our communities of faith, in our churches, in this particular context of 21st Century North America?

1. GENERAL AND SPECIAL REVELATION

So first, we’re asking, what is the difference between Christian knowledge and other kinds of knowledge? This is largely the question of distinguishing between what the tradition has sometimes called special revelation and general revelation, or analogously, natural revelation and supernatural revelation.

We’ve all at one time or another had that experience enjoying creation and the beauty of nature, staring up at the stars or marveling at the sunset or a breathtaking view of the mountains and just been wowed by what we see. It’s one of God’s languages, it’s one of the ways that God communicates something to us very generally, that is available to everyone. This is what is meant by this notion of general or natural revelation.

The great medieval scholastic theologian Thomas Aquinas believed that truth becomes known through both natural revelation (certain truths are available to all people through their human nature and through correct human reasoning) and supernatural revelation (faith-based knowledge revealed through Scripture).

So there’s a distinction between these two ways of knowing, one Christian, one not necessarily, but Thomas also maintained that the relationship between general revelation and special revelation was complimentary rather than contradictory. Thus, although one may deduce the existence of God and God’s attributes through philosophical reason, certain specifics (such as the Trinity and the Incarnation) may be known only through special revelation and may not otherwise be deduced.

And the Bible, Aquinas says, contains revelation that may be general as well as special. So there are things that Scripture tells that we also know apart from Scripture, but there is also properly Christians truths that we couldn’t know apart from Scripture.

The Bible itself actually tells us about general revelation:

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
2 Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
3 They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
4 Yet their voice[b] goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world. — Psalm 19

This is Scripture, talking about revelation outside of Scripture!

In the New Testament, in Romans 1, Paul says

20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

In other words, in addition to the book of Scripture, we also have the book of nature. There’s Revelation big R, and revelation little r.

In Acts 17, moreover, there is the account of Paul’s reference to the altar to an unknown God (v. 23) that even the pagans recognized. Paul saw that the Greek philosophers believed God was the one in whom we live and move and have our being… they believed that “we are his offspring” (v. 28).

The main point being made that we can indeed know some things about God apart from any specific or explicit communication from God. And we know this, in large part, by the authority of our capacity for reasoning.

The English Reformer Richard Hooker would agree! And he helps clarify the relationship between general and special revelation:

“what Scripture doth plainly deliver, to that the first place both of credit and obedience is due; the next whereunto is whatsoever any man can necessarily conclude by force of reason; after this the Church succeedeth that which the Church by her ecclesiastical authority shall probably think and define to be true or good, must in congruity of reason overrule all other inferior judgments whatsoever.” (Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Book V, 8:2)

So first Scripture, then reason, and then, the Tradition of the Church — and in that order, for Hooker. And this is the orthodox way of understanding the order of authority in the Christian faith: Fides quaerens intellectum. Faith seeking Understanding (Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas).

But just as the Roman Catholic Church put the authority of the Church before Scripture, much of the modern church has put the authority of reason before Scripture. The church has never said that reason and Scripture might contradict each other, but the modern church has indeed thought this at times, and it has created a false dichotomy between the two — between Scripture and reason.

In the historical period that we’ve come out of, usually just very broadly referred to as “modernity,” there’s tended to a privileging of a certain kind of knowing: scientific and rational knowing. That has this air of objectivity to it, assuming that its vantage point on matters of science, politics, economics, religion — whatever — is inherently the right and best one. It has been characterized by the preoccupation with and quest for certitude, in a kind of detached and false, God’s eye view of truth that was thought to be truly objective and foundationally indubitable!

But of course, there’s no such thing as a perfectly objective, unadulterated view of reality. We always have a particular perspective on things that is influenced by many variable beyond our control. This doesn’t mean that we can’t know anything. It just means that we always know by faith seeking understanding. And actually this quest for certitude in modernity ultimately fails and begins to produce what we now could call the postmodern period.

As the Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:12,

“For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”

2. THE WORD OF GOD ITSELF AND IN REFORMATION ANGLICANISM

But to say that we have faith in the Word of God does not mean that we simply have blind faith, nor that we have faith only because it has been written and passed down to us through a reliable historical record. Of course, we do believe that it has, and we have good reasons for believing that, but our faith does not stands on empirical evidence or philosophical reasoning. It doesn’t contradict these things, but neither does it depend entirely on them. The reason we believe in the authority of Scripture is because it first came to us not as a special, sacred document, but as a living and spoken Word confirmed by the great cloud of witnesses before us.

As it was talked about two weeks ago when discussing who Jesus is – fully human and fully divine —  what’s called the Prologue of John, we read that:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.

Skipping down to v. 14:

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

Furthermore, in Hebrews 1:1-3 it says that

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. 3 The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.

And so, initially, and primordially, the way that Christians receive special revelation about God is through Jesus Christ. Scripture is Scripture because it bears witness to Jesus Christ, the Word of God.

Perhaps now finally we could define Christian special or supernatural revelation this way:

God’s self-disclosure narrated through the history of a particular people, through personal action, culminating in Gods utter self-investment in creation through the incarnation, life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Daniel McGloire, Faith Seeking Understanding)

As this definition suggests, special Revelation in this way is not simply the transmission of data or propositional truth claims to which we merely ascend, cognitively. Rather, in Scripture God’s revealed identity is rendered primarily by narrative, but this grand Story in the whole sweep of Scripture.

The 20th Century Swiss Theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, give us something to think about when he says that

Only Scripture itself possesses the power and the authority to point authentically to the highest figure that has ever walked upon the earth, a figure in keeping with whose sovereignty it is to create for himself a body by which to express himself.

Balthasar goes on to say that

Christ’s existence and his teachings would not be comprehensible form if it were not for his rootedness in a salvation-history that leads up to him. Both in union with this history and in his relief from it, Christ becomes for us the image that reveals the invisible God.The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics I, 31-32

It is a narrative, a drama, even, because there is this whole history in our Old Testament that sets the stage without which we could not understand and receive the revelation that is in Christ, and that story is told and lived in the Hebrew Scriptures, which is comprised of the Torah, the first five books of the Law, which chronicles the Patriarchal lineage of our faith — Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and on to the Exodus, with the giving of the Law itself, which then leads the Narrative History of Israel, the Wisdom Literature, and the Major and Minor Prophets.

And in addition to narrative, Scripture contains prophetic oracles, proverbs, commands, cries, lamentations, and apocalyptic visions. So the forms of biblical witness to revelation are diverse and none should be neglected — each is an important way of witnessing to the self-revelation of God who remains ever free and beyond our control. (Neither God nor the Bible is ever our possession.)

When we get to the New Testament, this is what it says regarding the authority of the Old Testament, in 2 Timothy 3:14-17:

14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, 15 and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

“The Holy Scriptures are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ!”

In Article 6 of the 39 Articles of Religion, it says:

Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation. In the name of the Holy Scripture we do understand those canonical Books of the Old and New Testament, of whose authority was never any doubt in the Church.

This way of describing the authority of Scripture is uniquely Anglican, and it’s very important. It’s a bit different from some of the other modern definitions of the authority of Scripture that we find in other Christian churches.

There’s a saying in the tradition translated roughly as follows: In essentials, unity, in non-essentials, liberty, and in all things, charity. I think this particular Article, which is basically the same statement that we affirm as clergy for our ordination covenant, is particularly suited for upholding this traditional axiom: in essentials, unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things charity.

That way that Jesus himself claimed the authority of the Hebrew Scriptures as God’s Word seemed to fall in line with this. He knew the essentials, he upheld the essentials. He also knew how the religious leaders were prone to overlook the essentials by clinging to the external security of the non-essentials, missing the very heart of God’s law.

But then we also see as early as 2 Peter 3:15-16 that the early church was regarding Paul’s letter’s as part of Holy Scripture, as the Word of God and as the New Testament. So the authority of both testaments is confirmed in Scripture itself.

Nonetheless, we believe in what Scripture says not just because it is Scripture that says it, but because what Scripture says can be seen as both good and beautiful in the life of Christ, and has been confirmed in our lives by the witness of the Holy Spirit. Because what Scripture gives witness to is not just a fixed, historical, past tense fact, but a real, living and active faith that can be seen and experienced as redemptive.

To further illustrate this point, if we consider Islam, for example, and compare its view of the Quran to our view of the Bible, the Koran is understood, so far as I know, to be the actual verbatum dictation by God in the Arabic language that has to be accepted, whether you understand it or not, simply as God’s revelation of the truth.

And since all translation means some degree of interpretation, and since human understanding is always fallible, it is therefore an article of faith for Muslims that the Quran cannot be translated. In order to hear God’s Word, therefore, you must learn Arabic. It is a purely external authority.

By contrast, when we look at Christian faith: the parallel to the Quran, based on how Muslims understand it — is not the Bible but if anything, it’s Jesus — (because it is Jesus who is the Word of God, in the primary and fundamental sense, but this is not a perfect parallel.) But Jesus did not write a book He gathered a company of disciples, making the things of God known to them. And that in turn is how the church grew. So Jesus really is beyond comparison to anything in Islam.

Because Discipleship means much more than reading a book. This is why we have different accounts of Jesus’ words and deeds in the four Gospels. And from the modern and Muslim point of view, we therefore have no reliable certainty. And actually That we have four gospels is used by Muslims to argue that we have lost the original Gospel.

But of course, that would be to miss the point, which is that true Revelation (capital R) is always an event in the present, that comes to life again and again. As the letter to the Hebrews declares:

…the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. — Hebrews 4:12

The Psalms declare that God’s Word is a “lamp unto our feet and a light for my path”! (Psalm 119:105)

What makes the Word of God alive and active? Is it the letters on the page? No, it’s the Holy Spirit in our hearts!

So while the Reformers were right to insist that the witness of Scripture is normative for the life and faith of the church, this witness does not exist in a vacuum. We can’t take Sola Scriptura out of its context of criticizing the 16th Century Roman Catholic Church. Nor, however, can we simply say “Scripture plus tradition” to fully and effectively communicate the gospel. Rather, it is the Spirit of God who freely uses the witness of Scripture in the context of the life of the church that is able to create and nurture faith in Christ and obedience to Christ as Savior and Lord.

Summarizing John Calvin’s understanding of our knowledge of God and the doctrine of Revelation, Benjamin Warfield says this, and I’m paraphrasing: We do in fact have as human beings an innate knowledge of God, quickened and developed by a very rich manifestation of God in nature and through God’s providence, but this knowledge fails in its proper effect because of our sinful nature; As a result, an objective revelation of God, embodied in the Scriptures, was rendered necessary, and as well [here the second part that we cannot miss!], a subjective operation of the Spirit of God on the heart enabling sinful human beings to receive this revelation. So it is, in sum, by the conjoint divine action, objective in the Word and subjective by the Spirit, that a true knowledge of God is communicated to us.

In many ways Calvin speaks for all of the Reformers when he says this. But it is not just the theology we must take care to consider. Just as important to the tradition are the historical events of this period themselves. We remember those who came before us in the English Reformation who gave their lives so that the people might know this Word of God, hear it and read it for themselves. Because hundreds upon hundreds of them were martyred in the process, for standing up for the authority of Scripture over and against the authority of human beings and the institutional Church’s corrupting the teachings and abusing of power and authority of Scripture. Nicholas Ridley himself chief among these martyrs.

Of course this legacy of sacrifice for the Word of God began long before the Reformation itself as those like Wycliffe, and later on John Hus and William Tyndale, and others were willing to risk their lives to translate the Bible from Latin into the common language of the people. As it says in Article 24 of the 39 Articles:

It is a thing plainly repugnant to the Word of God, and the custom of the Early Church to have public Prayer in the Church, or to minister the Sacraments, in a language not understood by the people.

So as Anglicans we stand on the shoulders of these giants, these courageous and faithful men and women who gave up everything so that those of us coming after them could be shaped and informed by God’s revelation to us.

3. SCRIPTURE TODAY

Now, just as you’ve heard each week so far in the course, when it comes to the Anglican doctrine of Scripture, like the other doctrines, it is not merely an abstract theory but has practical and pastoral application. So invite you to take time at some point to look once more at those two quotes from Thomas Cranmer that are in your reading for this week. There you will see his reflection on the great comfort and encouragement of Scripture, why it’s such a treasure, and how it edifies us, providing for us not just everything necessary for salvation, but also as it says in 2 Timothy, correction and training for righteousness:

Cranmer quote 1:

…the Scripture of God is the heavenly meat of our souls, the hearing and keeping of it making us blessed, sanctifying us and making us holy, turning our souls, it is a light lantern to our feet; it is sure, steadfast, and everlasting instrument of salvation, giving wisdom to the humble and lowly hearts, comforting, making glad, cheering and cherishing our conscience: it is a more excellent jewel or treasure, than any gold or precious stone, it is more sweet than honey or honey comb, it is called the best part, which Mary did choose, for it has in it everlasting comfort.

Cranmer quote 2:

And whosever giveth his mind to Holy Scriptures, with diligent study and burning desire, it cannot be said (St. Chrysostom) that he should be left without help. For either God almighty will send him some godly doctor, to teach him . . . or else, if we lack a learned man to instruct and teach us, still God himself from above will give light unto our minds, and teach us those things which are necessary for us and wherein we are ignorant.

So we’ve talked about general revelation (natural) and special revelation (supernatural), We’ve looked at what the Bible is and how it has functioned and been understood in the tradition of the Church, and now finally I want to make just a few comments about how we receive it in our contemporary church context.

Again, as Calvin said, the authority of revelation, of our knowledge of God is both subjective and objective, or another helpful way to put this would be to say, it’s both internal and external, and based on a rational way of knowing, and an aesthetic way of knowing!

As we already saw, the modern period has given tremendous priority to an objective understanding of authority and knowledge, while what is usually referred to as the postmodern period that we’re living in to some extent now has put far more emphasis on the subjective side of authority and knowledge.

So here’s how this has pretty much played out (Lesslie Newbigin):

In Modernity, with a concern for objective knowledge and authority, there were two general trends: The liberal, and what we’ll just call the fundamentalist.

  • Liberal: reduce objective knowledge to what is measurable by science and reason. And thus relegating what is religious to the subjective realm, what Schleiermacher called the pre-conscious feeling of absolute dependence.
  • Fundamentalist: reducing the Bible to the function of scientific and rational knowledge!

Or to put it another way:

The liberal response: The question was, “How do we get the modern world to listen to the Bible?” How can we make the Bible intelligible to the modern world?

The fundamentalist response: How do we get modern certainty — absolute, objective knowledge — from the Bible? Both questions were mistaken from the beginning.

Newbigin suggests a third and very different question altogether that I find to be profound: The question that we have to put to the world instead is, “how can the world make any sense at all without the gospel?” Again, as Article 6 declares, on the sufficiency of Scripture unto salvation. We look nowhere else but to the person and work of Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit.

A Gospel or Christ-centered view of Scripture, in other words, interpreting Scripture with Scripture, but also interpreting Scripture through the lens of the person and work of Christ.

Discrepancies in Scripture: Obviously, when we read the Bible, the are some great tensions. Put the book of Joshua, for example, alongside the sermon on the Mount, and you have a problem, potentially.

  1. First of all, the ultimate clue is in Jesus himself.
  2. Secondly, we recognize in the Bible we have the story of God leading a people to a deeper understanding of his nature, so we have to read the former(the people) in the light of the latter (God’s nature). When Jesus says, “You have heard it said… but I say unto you,” there is not an absolute discontinuity, but Jesus is bringing an old commandment to its full strength and deeper understanding in his own teaching.
  3. Thirdly, that means we have to read every text in the context of the Gospel itself! The Gospel is the clue for our understanding of Scripture. This also means that we read every text in its cultural context, as well as with sensitivity to our cultural context.

Make Every Effort: Participating in the Divine Life

This is the rough manuscript of a sermon that I preached yesterday (Oct. 11, 2015) at Saint Peter’s Church. The audio can be heard here.

His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins.

10 Therefore, my brothers and sisters, make every effort to confirm your calling and election. For if you do these things, you will never stumble, 11 and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. – 2 Peter 1:3-11

The opening lines of 2 Peter are describing the process and the reason for Christian spiritual growth. It’s talking about this journey that all followers of Jesus necessarily have to go on, that takes us from immaturity, to maturity, foolishness to wisdom, selfishness to unselfishness – from worldliness or godliness.

Because this journey, is the purpose of the Christian life: it’s the journey of our transformation. We talk about this a lot at Saint Peter’s, this goal and vision of being a church of connection and transformation, but it’s one thing to about that – to say that’s who we are – it’s not always very easy to actually do it. So that’s the question this morning: what is spiritual growth, why does it matter, and how do we make every effort to experience it, to realize it in our lives as a community of faith?

The early church father and theologian, St. Athanasius, was famous for saying, and many other Christian after him said this, that: “God became human so that human beings could become like God.”

In other words, so we could grow in godliness. Not so that we could be like God in terms of God’s power, but God’s character.

We could describe it this way: Spiritual growth is

“the gradual process [Long Obedience in the Same Direction!] by which a person is renewed and unified so completely with God that he becomes by grace what God is by nature.” – Fr. David Hester

And the Bible talks about this journey from life on our own, to life with God, as life in Christ, life in the Spirit, life in the Kingdom of God sometimes. And here, Peter calls it “participation in the Divine Life.” This is an interesting way to put it.

The second letter of Peter is one of the latest books of the New Testament, and so there’s a good chance that this word participation was being borrowed from a little bit of Greek philosophy — which just means it wasn’t as much of a Jewish idea. To participate in something, is not to yourself be in charge of it, Rather you’re benefiting from something that someone else has initiated and made available to you — you’re partaking in it, but you’re not in control it.

So it’s a really helpful word to help describe what’s going on when we experience spiritual growth. It’s like we’re plugged in, we step into the flow of God’s spiritual stream rather than that of our strength and wisdom.

Something else that’s very encouraging at the beginning of the letter of 2nd Peter: It tells us that, with the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and his goodness, his character, we already have everything we need for this kind of life — for this participation!

“His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.” 2 Peter 1:3

Personally, I sometimes I have a hard time believing this — that we have enough knowledge. We’ve just finished the second week of our fall classes that are going on right before the worship service, and in the faith and personality class that I’m leading, I was just telling everyone about how my personality tendency is to always think that I need more information, that I don’t know enough, and I need to study and understand more before I can act and live effectively and productively. So I hesitate, and remain too long in the comfort zone of gathering knowledge so that I feel more competent, so that I sound more competent, which is where I get my superficial sense of security and control.

Now, not everyone is stuck in their head like me. Some of you all are doing-centered, or feeling-centered, and thinking is not what holds you back. Maybe it’s your busyness or some of your emotions that have that have power over you and that distract you, and prevent you from stepping into the divine life.

It is true, though! We already have the knowledge that we need to grow into godliness and spiritual maturity when we know our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

But why is spiritual growth such a big deal? The passage this morning states that 4 [God] “has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.” – 2 Peter 1:3-4

Spiritual growth is important, then, because if not, we will not be able to escape the corruption caused by evil desires.

Now on the one hand, I don’t think it takes much convincing for us to recognize that the world is corrupt and full of people with evil desires. Perhaps we’re even feeling overwhelmed by that right now, with the news of yet another shooting in Oregon, the on-going war in Syria, or simply the death of a 10-year-old girl who was practically part of our church.

But on the other hand, when it comes to our own desires and nature, this is a pretty heavy statement. Are we really so corrupt? Are our desires evil?

In verse 9 from today’s reading, it says that if we find ourselves having evil desires, if we don’t have these qualities that God is giving to us (goodness, self-control, perseverance, godliness, mutual love, etc.), it’s because we’re nearsighted and blind, and it’s “we’ve forgotten that we’ve been cleansed from our past sins.”

But this is not necessarily that easy to understand. What does the death of a First Century Jew have to do with us, today? This is the very question that we ask in Alpha at the beginning of the course: Who is Jesus? Why did Jesus die? And why does it matter to us? And I can’t do the question justice right now, but the Bible is very helpful.

The Bible talks about sin as something that finds its way into not only what is widely condemned as evil, but what is commonly praised as good. It’s something in us, but it’s almost much bigger than us. It’s like we’re trapped in a web of selfish desire. And it’s not limited to one moment in time or one place. Our sin crucified Christ in the First Century, but it still happens in the 21st Century.

The cross, is the world’s attempt, it’s our attempt – we’re connected to it across time and history — to keep our sin from being exposed. God comes into the world through Christ exposing sin and showing a better way, but we reject him.

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer says in his Letters and Papers from Prison, “God lets himself get pushed out of the world and onto the cross.” We say to him, we don’t want your way. We don’t want your nature. We want to keep ours.

But Even more than that, the cross is God’s refusal to accept our rejection of him.

The Gospel Story culminates in the cross, because that’s where humanity is at its worst, with all of its anger and hate, betrayal and violence, colliding with what humanity in Christ and in God can be at its best when it’s transformed, and when it participates in the Divine nature. And the resurrection is God’s confirmation that his love is more powerful than sin, death, and suffering.

You all know the story of Cinderella, and maybe some of you got to see the new Disney version of it that came out this year. It’s a pretty good movie, and most remarkably, at the end of the story, Cinderella forgives her stepmother, before leaving to marry the prince.

Cinderella-2015-offical-stills-cinderella-37816256-5760-3840But what’s the difference between Cinderella and her stepsisters and stepmother? Both of them suffer. They’ve both been treated unfairly in life. Cinderella loses her parents to illness. In the new Disney version, we learn that Cinderella’s stepmother is a widow.

I was especially struck by one of the opening lines of the movie, where the narrator says that Cinderella was different, because she saw the world not as it was, but as it could be. And she sees other people, not as they are but as they could be. She sees them for the image of God that they have in them, however buried it might be. And when it comes to her suffering, presumably, I think, because she’s been shown great love, Cinderella takes her suffering and allows it to be transformed rather than transmitted. Which is exactly what Jesus does on the cross, only on a much grander scale.

The Cinderella story can’t get so far as to tell us that God forgives has forgiven us, but for whatever Cinderella still seems to have the forgiveness of God in her. I think this just goes to show that human beings are longing and hungering for this kind of love. We just don’t know it most of the time. But the Cinderella story, which is a secular story, without fully understanding it or depicting it, seems to knows this longing and to have gotten at least of that transforming love of Christ.

In our Connect Group right now we’re reading this book called The Good and Beautiful Life. The author’s premise is that, as it says in our passage for today, Goodness in our life comes from knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  And when we look at his life, we see the good life.  And, when we look at his life, we see the beautiful life. And when see the beautiful life of Christ, when that it is good and that it is beautiful, then we also start to see that it is true.

It’s like there’s this little light inside of us that comes on when we see the true nature of God as revealed in Christ. We didn’t know it was there, and we wouldn’t have known if God didn’t ignite it in us by coming to us. But then it starts to grow.

Something in Cinderella caught a glimpse of this truth, of this beauty and goodness and love — maybe in the great love that her parents showed her. It gave her something to hold to. Of course that love always come from God, even if it is received through someone else.

We have to gaze upon the life of Christ though to be reminded of this, because we’re so quick to forget it. We’re so quick to forget how ugly and how undesirable sin is, and how beautiful, how good, participation in the Divine Life is! That’s why we get together in our groups and in worship, to look, to hear and to remember the both the weight of our sin, and the sin of the world that we’re a part of! And to remember, to look upon and hear again, the extravagance of God’s love that didn’t abandon us in our sin.

“Make every effort,” it says, “to add to your faith!” Again, just like participation, faith is a gift. It’s not something earned. But it is something confirmed, as we read in verse 10.

Some final practical things though: what does it take to see this in our lives?

Practically, we have to spend time with the Lord. We just do. Separate, solitary, undivided time. You can’t have knowledge of Christ if you aren’t making every daily effort to give time to him. There’s lots of ways to do that, different prayer practices, that take many forms. But the key is regular time.

The second thing you have to cultivate vulnerability in relationships. This one’s probably the hardest for many of us. I think it is for me. But we have to ask ourselves, have I given someone permission who’s close to me, and I have asked them to speak truth into my life, and tell me when I’m messing up? Or is everyone around me afraid to do that because of how I might react, or because of the distance I put between myself and them?

And thirdly, as Christians we have to assume a posture of submission to God’s will in the circumstances and necessary suffering in our life.  We stay committed to this process, to this journey and to this growth. You can’t bail when it gets hard. And obviously, the first two things will help to reinforce this.

And so we say together, let us make every effort! Because we’ve been cleansed from our past sins. Because we’ve seen the the beauty and goodness of God’s love in Christ, and we’ve also seen ugliness of that sin. In this we know all we need to know, to make every effort to add to our faith, to grow in godliness, to participate in the Divine Life. Amen.

Christian Community Today and some Barriers

This is a manuscript from a sermon I preached on Sunday, Sept. 6th at Saint Peter’s Church. Here is the audio.

1 My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?

If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,”[a] you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. 11 For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,”[b] also said, “You shall not murder.”[c] If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.

12 Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, 13 because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

– James 2:1-14

“32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. 33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all 34 that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.”

Acts 4:32-35

For several weeks now we’ve been in series on Christian community, and most recently we were talking about how, at the center of that community, is the church’s faith in the good news of the resurrection of Jesus. The passage that was read from the book of Acts describes the kind of gathering that was taking place in response to that good news. It was so good, that this is what it led people to do — to share and hold their possessions in common. It’s the kind of behavior that would only make sense if it they really did believe the resurrection was true!

Think about what had just happened. Jesus is leading this movement and teaching and preaching about a new kind of world order that is available to us, that we get to live in, and he is perceived as a threat by the religious and political establishment. So they try to stop him and his followers, by torturing and killing him. And it doesn’t work. These Christians believed, whether people today do or not, that the best attempts by the most powerful people in the world to stop this guy — failed. Which means Jesus and everything that he was about, proved more powerful, and now these Christians think they have that power on their side.

But what kind of power is this? The kind of power that now this time, finally, gives Jesus the ability to go and lead a militia to be victorious over the Romans? No, the resurrection means that there’s already been a victory, and the picture of Christian community described in the book of Acts is the result of people believing and living into the freedom and the peace of that victory. Because there’s nothing the world could do to them that Christ hadn’t just overcome.

So here’s what it says they were doing:

Testifying to the resurrection of Christ, full of grace, and being a church for the sake of others. And they were able to do this, it says in verse 32 at the beginning of the passage, because “All of the believers were of one heart, and one mind.” They had community.

But of course, we all know how hard it is to actually live this out so much of the time. So this morning I want to mention just some of the ways that Christian community, as it is depicted for us here, gets thwarted, gets derailed — what are the barriers to community in our church, and what keeps us from being able to live life together in this manner: full of grace, unified, and for the sake of others?

You know as I think back on my own life at the times when I felt like I have had the strongest, closest community, it’s always been when I was in a group that focused on something beyond itself. Not a group that simply existed for itself. Maybe you’ve experienced how some friend groups are like that, where it’s fun to get together to have fun together, but that’s pretty much it. Which is ok, but it doesn’t really endure.

So like even something as ordinary as a high school football team or band, a theatre group — these kinds of activities and group efforts help you form relationships without even really having to try. Community is the natural byproduct. You’re not trying to form community. You’re trying to do something else, and in the process, community gets forms. They provide you the structure and routine. There’s this intensity and commitment that unifies you around a common goal and mission, to which everything else is subordinate.

Community forms when we are compelled and become willing to struggle for something, to fight, to strive, even to suffer for the sake of the people in our group, for the sake of a cause, or for the sake of others.

This past week I found out that a high school friend of mine died. He was a teammate. We haven’t seen each other or talked but a few times in many years, and I would be sad if anyone in my graduating class had died, and he wasn’t even the first one, but I think I’m really feeling it because we were part of a community together. We went to practice or to school every day for six years. Same team, same huddle.

Of course not all groups are good just because they form community. There are cults, gangs, mafias, extremist groups, fascist regimes — that have community, you could have community, you could say — but they’re not good. But all these groups, these communities that I’ve mentioned, or the ones you can think of — even the best of them — they’re still worldly forms of community. They’re interesting. They have the potential to create real and lasting bonds and lasting bonds, but there’s a limit to them. There’s conditions. There’s fine print.

At a certain point, they show favoritism – they become exclusive. And judgment is more central to these groups than mercy. In James 2:13, which we also read, says that mercy triumphs over judgment in Christian community. See with these other groups and communities, not anyone can join them. Colleges have an admission process. Sports and dance teams and musicals have tryouts. You have to be judged to be good enough at something before you can belong. Of even in the case of family, you have to be born into it. That doesn’t mean these other kinds of groups are bad, but they have a particular purpose. They’re not the same as a Christian community, or as church.

Or take countries themselves. Maybe some of you saw the story this week: how it is possible that 12 refugees from Syria drowned on while trying to get to Greece. Why wasn’t there some way for them to secure safe travel and temporary asylum? Because nations are exclusive. They don’t look out for the interests of poor migrants.

Now, I’m not saying that churches can solve immigration or refugee problems. And we do have something that we’re centered around, something that we’re about — it’s the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the power of God’s grace working in us through the Spirit. A community has to be about something. It can’t just be a community. Something calls it together — even if that something is just proximity and survival.

But what I’m submitting to you is that the church is the most radically inclusive form of community that there is. Most people don’t want a radically inclusive community. And the church doesn’t stop with inclusion, and inclusivity is not the same thing as tolerance. But what makes the church so inclusive and potentially so unified is that because it’s organized around Christ, the starting point for everything we do, is that we’re all in need of forgiveness, and we’ve all received forgiveness. It’s the most universal claim of our faith about the human condition and about our relationship to God. And it’s what guards against all forms of divisions and factions, exclusion.

Remember how that Scripture reading from the book of James started off today (2:1). It says,

“My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?”

And then James goes on to give the example of favoritism being shown to the wealthy and the powerful – elite of society who were in church, because of maybe how the church stood to potentially benefit from showing them favoritism. While the poor and ordinary folks were discriminated against by comparison.

Now this is tricky for us today, because increasingly in American churches in recent decades, we’ve already shown our “favoritism” by the time we choose which church we’re going to part of or which neighborhood we’re going to live in to begin with.

Even 40 years ago, it was far less common for people to go “church shopping” — to pick a church. Obviously we were divided before that into denominations. But you were Catholic, Methodist, Baptist, whatever – you didn’t choose that. I mean, how many churches do you drive by on your way to get here? For some of you I know it’s not very many, but for others it’s probably dozens.

I’m not condemning this, but it makes a point, that there’s been huge shift in church culture in the last half century, as a result of the decline in denominational loyalty, to cater to average Christian consumers who are looking for very specific things when they visit a church. And there are some good things that have come about as a result of this change, but often the adverse effects on our thinking about community can go unnoticed.

Take a look at this quote from Eugene Peterson’s book Christ Plays in a Thousand Places about community:

As we realize both the necessity and the nature of our lives in community, we also become aware of the difficulty, the complexity, and, as Christians who are following Jesus, the seductions all around us to find an easier way, a modified community, a reduced community customized to my preferences, a “gated community.”

You see, the thing that potentially makes Christian community different from any other kind, is when we don’t have a gated community. Do we have a gated community at Saint Peter’s? That’s a question we just have to continue to ask of ourselves. How can we move toward being less of a gated community?

Because that’s the direction Jesus was headed — he called a tax collector and zealot into the same group of 12 disciples. It’s like if Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump were forced to be friends.

There is not a single social group that has a common bond strong enough to bring two people or groups like that together other than the church. It takes the gospel, or as it says in James 2:13, the triumph of mercy over judgment. That’s what’s at the core of Christian community. When God’s grace and forgiveness is the organizing center of our community, our judgment of each other is disarmed, and reconciliation and unity are possible.

New Testament scholar Scot McKnight talks about how the earliest Christian churches were made up of folks from all over the social map. They did not meet in churches like we do. They didn’t “drive home” afterwards. The churches were small and met in homes. There were slaves, craftsmen, women, children, tenants, landlords, migrant workers, homeless people, probably a few wealthy or elite people, all the way down to an enslaved prostitute. There were likely to be three or four different ethnicities represented, without one single group being the dominate one.

And I’m not saying this to romanticize the early church. Quite the opposite. Think about the problems and social divisions that they would have had to deal with. And we read about some of them all throughout the New Testament. But here’s the thing about these kinds of conflicts.

Conflicts themselves are not the barrier. We don’t seek out conflict, but the problem for community isn’t so much conflict, but the avoidance of conflict — the unwillingness to engage it in the spirit of Christ. We would do much better actually if as Christians and as a church, we would always try to see conflict as an opportunity to be faced and dealt with when it arises, in the Spirit of grace and forgiveness and mercy.

I was talking to someone recently who works for a charter school, and she was describing their company culture. They’re not allowed to complain to anyone about anyone else. If someone starts complaining to you about someone, you’re immediately asked to stop and go talk to them. So literally in this particular charter school work environment, it’s a normal practice for coworkers to schedule like 10-15 meets where all they do is have a very direct, honest conversation about an issue.  They deal with it, try to resolve it, and move on, not holding any grudge about it. Critical energy has to be channeled into actually solving the problem, in other words.

There’s hardly anything more counterproductive to the formation of community than getting offended, or having our feelings hurt, and refusing to make the effort to go to the source of the problem and have a graceful confrontation. Because the hurt is inevitable in any church.

We’re so autonomous though. We’re so entitled and consumer-mind in our culture, that we just walk away from things or people when we don’t like it or that bothers us. Most people didn’t have his luxury. They didn’t get to choose their community, they just had one, and they had work on making it better.

Look at verses 33-34 from chapter 4 in Acts one more time before we conclude: It says,

“And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all 34 that there were no needy persons among them.”

Too often we take something as beautiful and transformative as God’s grace, and made it into just another doctrine or idea — but it’s intended to come alive in our communities and in relationships.

When the power of God’s grace is at work in our church, there is no conflict or difference or sectarian agenda, or need that can get in the way. Because we’ll be a people aware of our need for forgiveness, receiving that forgiveness, and extending that same forgiveness to others. We’ll be of one heart and one mind, testifying to the resurrection, full of grace, and becoming a church for the sake of others.

Kenotic Marriage: A Wedding Homily

This is an adapted portion of the homily I gave at my sister’s wedding this past weekend on the following passage:

Philippians 2:1-11 (NIV)

 Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

This Philippians text is one of those highest moments of inspiration in Scripture, I believe, where ordinary language just seems to fall short. So the Apostle Paul resorts to poetry and song to capture the beauty of the Gospel Story. He’s talking about this central and distinguishing claim of the Christian faith – that God dwelled among us as a human being in the person of Jesus Christ.

This passage is probably not immediately associated with marriage in most people’s minds, but in fact it speaks directly to the kind of relationship that God has called Christian couples to have with each other – one that is marked by humility, selflessness, and mutual submission.This is one of the things that’s so counter-intuitive about the Christian life: that when we embark on the journey of following Jesus, we discover that happiness and success is not found in the way that we might expect it be.

The love God for us in Jesus is powerful precisely because it embraces weakness, and because it is willing to go down into the darkest, loneliest and most painful places of the human experience. Paul says about Christ, that though he was in his very nature God, he did not consider equality with God something to be grasped. Instead, he humbled, emptied himself (kenosis).

Through Christ, God himself moves into the space of separation that’s created by our sin. We sin against God and we sin against each other. But rather than letting the effects and the consequences of that sin keep us apart, God passionately pursues us. This is what the cross demonstrates. God says, look, you can do your worst — do your worst to me! — and I’m still going to love you. I’ll suffer for you, I forgive you, and I desire to have this intimate relationship with you.

This is the Christian hope! It’s the good news that we believe and proclaim. And it’s also the story that marriage tries to illustrate and live into. There’s this intimate relationship that we get to have with each other — just as we can have with God — that creates a place of safety, comfort, and encouragement, free from the pressure to perform. Which is amazing! It’s an incredible gift.

But we’re are also sinners! We’re imperfect. So we hurt each other. We mess up.

Because in marriage your whole selves get meshed together. Your interests, your trusts and your differences are totally shared. And this changes things. It doesn’t tend to naturally bring about peace. It brings about conflict. It causes your pride and your selfishness to rise to the surface.

The thing is though, because of the commitment you’re making today, you’re saying that when this happens — when there’s hurt and conflict — you don’t get to run away. You stay put, you work it out, and you fight for each other. You fight for your marriage. In doing so, your commitment will sustain you even when your feelings and circumstances do not.

And through this God will teach you to have the mind of Christ, to give up the selfish ambition and vain conceit that the Scripture talks about. And this will feel like loss at first. It feels like dying a little bit. But what you eventually get is something deeper, and stronger, and freer than what you had before. As one writer puts it, it’s like “falling upward” (Richard Rohr).

And that’ when the real joy comes. God will use your adversity, and use your perseverance in the face of that adversity, to make you more like him, to grow you closer together and to actually increase your love for each other.

The Message to the Church in Sardis: Waking Up to God’s Story

This audio for this sermon can be found here.

Revelation 3:1-6 and 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

Well we have another very light-hearted passage to consider this week… Last Sunday it was about fornication, and this week we get to talk about how some of us can maybe not get our names blotted out from the book of life! I had several good conversations with folks this past week in two of our men’s groups, the Monday morning Bible study men, and then another groups that’s really more of a mentoring group, and one of the themes that has emerged just in light of our on-going study of the book of Revelation is about the subject of Christian hope. And more specifically, the Christian hope in history: What’s the Big Story that Christians believe about History? What is the church’s hope in history?

Because you know there are these other views of history out there, and other kinds of hope; other Big Stories. And I think it’s helpful for us, in our relating to the world and to others around us, to understand what some of these other Big Stories are.

One of the most popular Big Stories today is the story of progress. It’s the story that says, history is going somewhere, and as history moves along, things generally get better. It may be two steps forward and one step back, but there is still the assumption in this view of history that whatever is earlier or older is more primitive and less developed, and that whatever is recent or newer is better, — more civilized, sophisticated. Whether because of science, technology, government, business or whatever, this Story says that there is always a continuously upward, forward movement. C.S. Lewis called this view chronological snobbery.

And what’s going on underneath this story is usually the belief that human beings are, by nature, either good, or at least clever enough to solve their own problems. So even like with capitalism, for example, self-interest and competition will actually bring about the best for humanity within certain limits. The story of progress also tends to often be nationalistic, or seen from the perspective of one particular culture or people group that has the responsibility or destiny to lead the way for the rest of the world. (e.g., “Manifest Destiny”)

Of course there is another story to counter to this progressive one. It’s the Story of Regress, that everything is getting worse. It’s the story of the good old days — idea of a golden age in the past, and human history has descended down from that time to the present. It’s also gaining popularity right now.

Sometimes Christians get caught up in this story as well. It’s the “evacuation plan” story. Whether it’s the world, our country, society or culture in general, it’s headed in the wrong direction. And things are so bad, human beings are so bad, that we just want Jesus to come back right now and fix it or take us away. And this is also what many Christians assume the book of Revelation is about — that Revelation is primarily a book predicting and describing the end of the world when Christ returns. But really, Revelation is less about predicting or literally describing historical, future events, and much more about warning and figuratively describing the significance of current events — current events then, current events throughout history, and current events in the present. Because history and human beings are always going to be struggling with the same thing. Yes, there will be new challenges, but the root of the problem is never going away. It’s our sin, it’s our collective egoism, it’s violence, it’s idolatry.

Ok, but so whereas the 1) Story of Progress tends to stress historical, political hopes and goals — there’s a strong collective identity tied to the Story of Progress — the 2) Story of Regress puts more emphasis on individual and personal hopes, and tends to check out of the realm of public life.

There is a Third Big Story, about history, that I won’t say as much about because it’s not as popular in Western cultures, but it is has been a dominant view in much of the Eastern, Asian and African world. It’s based neither on progress nor regress, but on a view of history that is an endless cycle of history destined always to repeat itself. Some version of this is actually many Greek philosophes believed, and it’s also what most Asian and Eastern religions believe even today.

So what is the Christian Story, then, the Christian view of history that God is calling us to wake up to, to be part of and to live into? Not just historically, but also personally? We can’t separate those two things like some of the other Stories do. They have to mutually inform and enforce each other.

I want to share this quote with you from Reinhold Niebuhr’s book The Nature and Destiny of Man. He says,

“The final majesty of God [in history] is contained not so much in his power within [history] as in the power of God’s freedom over [history]…This freedom is the power of mercy beyond judgment. By this freedom God himself is involved in the guilt and suffering of free human beings who have, in our freedom, and in our sin, come into conflict with the structural nature of reality. ”

Because the structural nature of reality is ultimately determined by God’s nature, and above all, God’s nature is love — the power and freedom of mercy beyond judgment. Sometimes things in history get better, and sometimes they get worse. And as Christians, we do as much as we can to care for creation and society, as God’s stewards of those things.
But history shows us time and time again that the story of God’s love for the world isn’t something that can be legislated. You can’t legalize it. You can’t institute it. In other words, the gospel cannot be the norm of society. It will never be the norm. History is too conflicted. Human beings are too sinful. The gospel will always be countercultural, counterintuitive, and society won’t know what to do with it. The forgiveness extended to Dylan Roof by the surviving family members of the shooting victims this summer is case in point. They showed mercy beyond judgment. And the world didn’t know what to do.

History can’t operate on that stuff (on grace and forgiveness). The only thing that can save history is something achieved from beyond history. The power of God’s love, and the power of the resurrection says that the Kingdom of God can break through at any moment, and it’s not going to be in continuity with what was happening before. It’s on a totally different plane. It’s not an escape, and it’s not a development. It’s a transformation. It is for history, but it comes from beyond history.

Another way to say it is that there’s overlap — between this age and the age to come, because the Kingdom of God has broken in. it isn’t fully here, but it’s available to us now by the Spirit.

Here’s what British theologian and missionary Leslie Newbigin, has to say about the way the Kingdom of God comes:

“There’s is no direct path from here to the kingdom of God. It goes down into the depths of desolation as Jesus did. And out of those depths does God raise up the new creation. The resurrection points to this. There’s no straight line.”

That’s the Big Story Jesus is telling us to wake up to. That Jesus’ death was not the defeat of God’s Kingdom, but its beginning. It’s arrival. And yet, to stop here, merely with the proclamation of God’s power and freedom over history, of mercy beyond judgment, would be to completely forget about the Church and the part it has to play in God’s Story. If we stop with proclamation, we miss the whole next Act in the drama of history. It’s the Act of Sipirt, through the Church! We have a mandate! Not an option, to participate.

And honestly friends, this is where most American Christians do stop. We stop with proclamation. And proclamation, especially when we do it from a safe place, like in this sanctuary, feels pretty good. But when we stop there, then the world the culture around will eventually just tune us out. And I think that’s largely has happened in our culture. Because we’ve made our proclamation, but we haven’t lived into it, so the Church has lost its voice.
Because we’ve said, you know, the world’s a mixed bag, good and evil, and we live in it, so how we can escape it? We compromise. We adjust. We assimilate. We soil our clothes, as Jesus says, to the Church in Sardis. But that’s the very thing Jesus says is going to bring about our judgment. So let’s look at church in Sardis again as we try to tie this all together.

It’s hard to know exactly what was going on in the church of Sardis. We’re not given much detail. The charge brought against them by Jesus is not about false teaching, as was the case in Pergamum and Thyatira, to some extent, which we looked at the last two weeks. Rather, Jesus just accuses them of being spiritually dead and asleep, which is a pretty grim assessment — even if it is kind of vague.

We do know though that Sardis was a famous city for its glorious ancient history. It was once an impressive place. So it was probably still coasting on its reputation from the past rather than experiencing its own genuine revitalization. You probably know some churches like this. I don’t think Saint Peter’s, as a church, has this problem, but some churches in our city probably do. It’s the good old days problem, kind of like the Story of Regress!

At the same time, one commentator has also noted that there was nonetheless evidence or at least the appearance in the church of Sardis of some vitality. We might imagine that it was a busy place, humming with Christian activity, and there was no shortage of money or talent or “manpower” (Stott, 85). So they were making some Progress….

So in Sardis, on the one hand, there is a kind of a spiritual nostalgia. Some had lost touch with the hope of God’s Big Story for history, right now, in the present, not in the past. But then, on the other hand, there was also busyness. They were taking pride in all the good things they had going on. It’s amazing how things can be going in the right direction all around you, while personally, and spiritually, you’re hiding in, or distracted by it. Avoiding repentance! Busyness and spiritually sleepiness tend to go together.

Paul gives the same warning to the Thessalonians. We read that too. us about judgment coming like a thief in the night, or coming when people are saying “Peace and Safety.” This phrase, “Peace and Safety,” was probably one of two things. It could be a Roman political slogan maybe, a chant that promoted the Roman Way of military might and the Story of Progress of this particular empire, this particular civilization! Or, others scholars it was an Epicurean philosophical slogan, like a Story of Regress, that basically, “eat, drink, and be merry, while we have this peace and security, because we only live once, no one knows what tomorrow will bring.” You can easily imagine Paul calling either of these ideas into question, as both were pagan and anti-Christian.

And, look, let’s just be honest about the Scriptures this morning. This doesn’t feel like a forgiving Jesus or a grace-only Paul. No, there’s stern words here about who will meet judgment.

But this is a good example of how we have to interpret Scripture in light of the rest of Scripture, and most importantly, in light of the Gospel, which is the center of our faith as Christians. Not every passage in the Bible has the whole message that God wants to speak to us. We know this, which is why we read more than just one text each Sunday. The Thessalonians passage is addressing much the same issue and says much the same thing that Jesus does, but to another church. But at least in Thessalonians, it says that we’ve been appointed not to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through the love of Christ and by faith in him.

So I think we’re always left in Scripture with this tension between grace and the command of faithful living. But the command to live faithfully and the warning about what happens when we don’t, is not the same thing as legalism. As Neibuhr said, our final hope is in the promise of the power of God’s mercy beyond judgment, but in the interim we continue to wake up to and live into our role in God’s Story.

Listen to what C.S. Lewis has to say about this tension:

“Handing everything over to Christ does not, of course, mean that you stop trying. To trust Him means, of course, trying to do all that He says. Not doing these things in order to be saved, but because He has begun to save you already. Not hoping to get to Heaven as a reward for your action, but inevitably wanting to act in a certain way because a first faint gleam of Heaven is already inside you.”

Lewis goes on to say that, “If you look at history, you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most about the world to come.” He give the examples of the English evangelicals like William Wilberforce who worked to abolish slavery because their minds were concerned with the Way of God’s Kingdom, and how slavery didn’t measure up to that Way.

Even in situations which seem hopeless, we act in such a way that accords with what God has ultimately promised. We take actions of love, not because we think they’re going to necessarily be immediately effective, but because they correspond to that about which we have been assured.

Ok. So if we really believe this story, if God’s big story of love for the world is the one we’re waking up to and being invited to live in, then I think to close we can make a few practical observations about what we’re doing. If we believe in the Christian Story of history, in contrast to some of these Stories, if we’re awake to that story, and it’s the one we’re tuned into — then how we spend our free time is going to reflect that. And I know some of you, when I use the phrase free time, you’re like, what free time?! If that’s you, I’m sorry. I know people are busy, family, jobs, whatever. Hopefully, it’s just a season, because that’s all it should be, or something may need to change.

But for those of you who do have a little bit of free time, this could take shape in so many different ways, you can do so many different things — based on what you’re passionate about, based on your gifts and strengths.

But there are a few things, I think, if you’re waking up to God’s Story, that you’re less likely to be doing. I would say if you’re waking up to God’s Story that you’re probably less likely to be giving 15 hours of your time each week to Facebook, Netflix and watching football. And you know I’m not picking on football. I played football, I like football. I have a team I pull for, and they’re pretty good. In fact, they’re better than your team. They’re gonna beat your team. Not that I care…

But there’s a man in our church who told me earlier this year, you know, I used watch football all day on Saturday, but I don’t anymore. I still like football, but I just don’t care as much. I know it doesn’t matter. So why would I spend my most of my day watching it? Because for this man, it wasn’t helping him wake up to God’s big Story.

Or, another major media outlet, just getting swept up in the blame-game, fear-based political bantering that’s always going on right now. That’s not our hope. That’s not our Story. And as TJ said earlier this month, Christians are called to be engaged in the public arena, but not like that. Love and humility is the only posture we’re aloud to take! We gotta wake up, make time for the stuff that matters, for God’s story, or we’ll miss it. And judgment comes like a thief in the night.

And I hope we can continue to see as a church, how much living into this Story depends not just on ourselves, but on our involvement with others around us. This is why we have Groups, several of which will be picking back up next month. Individually, and even just as individual families, we’re not equipped. And, you know, some people in our Connect Group tried this last fall, it’s a lot more fun to take a media fast with a group than it is by yourself. So this is just something that we have to keep working on. Let me pray for us.

The Message to the Church in Thyatira: Holiness and Embodiment

The audio for this sermon can be found here. You can also subscribe to the Saint Peter’s podcast on iTunes.

Revelation 2:18-29

So as most of you probably know, we’ve been doing a sermon series this summer on the letters to seven different churches in the book of Revelation, and this week we come to the fourth letter in the series, which is addressed to the church in Thyatira.

And even though we’ve been in this series for several weeks, this is my first time to preach from the book of Revelation, and I have to admit, it’s been challenging for me to study it. Yes, because the letters are convicting about God’s truth and God’s judgment, but also I think because, the way that Jesus is portrayed in Revelation doesn’t exactly sound like the same Jesus who preached the sermon on the Mount. Do you notice that at all? Why would that be? Why the seemingly harsher and more condemning tone?

Well, the historical situation matters a lot for our understanding, and we’ll get there, but it’s true, Revelation as a book is probably the most intense account in all of Scripture of the conflict between good and evil. It comes to a head. So the language reflects that intensity, that urgency, that polarity.

Another thing to keep in mind though is that while we’re calling these different passages “letters,” they probably weren’t individual letters. Really all of them together are like one single letter with seven different messages to seven different groups, but also one message to all the groups, and what is that one message — before we look at the specific message?

Well, despite very difficult circumstances, and even with the warning that Jesus will “give to each of us as our works deserve,” the book of Revelation is actually above all about hope. It’s about hope, because it unveils the power of God to be victorious over not just sin, but even death and great suffering. The big picture of Revelation, is intended to bring comfort. And it’s about hope, because in the end, God is going to do what? As it says in Rev. 21, “make all things new,” and “wipe away all our tears.”

It’s as if Jesus is also saying, don’t you remember that I died and suffered much in the way that some of you are? I’ve been there. I’ve walked that path. And what happened to me? I was resurrected! So trust me. Don’t let up now. I give you the confidence and the endurance to face the very worst that world can bring your way. Not for avoiding it, but for conquering it. This is good news!

But yes, at the same time, the book of Revelation is also issuing a sober reminder that the Christian life is going to be hard. Now, it’s not going to be hard because everyone’s out to get you. We’re not getting persecuted in this country. 70% of Americans still identify as Christians even if they don’t act like it, and in fact, if anything, historically, Christians in the West have been guilty of actually persecuting non-Christians. But the Christian life is hard because regardless or when or where we live, the dominant forces of this world – culturally, economically, politically, spiritually, are by nature, opposed to the way of Christ.

And so if our primary motivation is to avoid the difficulties of this opposition, we’re in for a stern correction from Jesus. Yes, it’s a message of hope, but for us, at least those of us who are relatively safe, privileged, and prosperous, this letter is less of a comfort in the face of persecution and affliction and much more so a warning and wake-up call in the face of too much comfort! Because when the church loses its holiness, its humility, and its willingness to sacrifice instead of compromise itself, it also loses its moral authority. And this, I think, is the real heart of the challenge that the church is facing in North America right now.

And it is in this respect that this letter speaks to us despite the situational differences. So what was going on? The church in Thyatira sound like it’s in a decent place. It’s moving forward and growing in spiritual maturity. In verse 19, Jesus even acknowledges their “love and faith and service and patient endurance.” These are strong affirmations! So these fruits of the Spirit were being manifested. Jesus affirms and encourages them for this, but there is this accusation as well, of tolerating or accommodating a prophetess, Jezebel, who is promoting fornication and eating food sacrificed to idols. They loved, had faith, and served with endurance, but they lacked holiness.

You might recognize the name Jezebel from 1-2 Kings. She was a Canaanite queen who enticed Israel to worship of foreign gods. So the name likely serves as a metaphor for similar behavior to that of the Jezebel from Kings. Which means it may not be the name of the actual woman who was influencing the church in Thyatira at the time. And when Jesus says, “I will strike her children dead,” it doesn’t mean her literal children but rather those who follow her.

Now, the name Jezebel was associated with sexual immorality and the common practice in the Roman Empire among pagans of cultic prostitution and ritual orgies. So at one level, the issue is indeed about actual unholy sexual acts that some people in the congregation were either indifferent, or maybe some were even condoning or participating in these ceremonies. Which sounds pretty shameful, and it was, but this wasn’t happening in some dark alley or bad neighborhood somewhere. It was high society practice! The powerbrokers of the day were steeped in it.

So on the other hand, and at broader level, Jezebel represents something else — she names those of us, who wanted to keep our faith while also keeping our standing in society. So yes, there is always the temptation and struggle with inappropriate sexual gratification, which must be seriously dealt with. But Jesus’ words here are equally concerned with social and economic desires — not only sexual desires, but the desire for material or financial security, by being connected to the right people, as well as the desire to be noticed or seen as important. Because holiness in the Christian life isn’t just about sex. It’s about all of life. There’s often a connection between sexual immorality and exploitation in the Bible.

As for food being sacrificed to idols…. This problem surfaces elsewhere in the New Testament. There is of course the obvious connection to pagan gods, so the act itself is dishonoring to God at least by association. And it also helped with climbing the social latter.

But to eat food sacrificed to idols, or to tacitly approve of it, was not simply to worship the wrong god or even to merely commit unholy acts. It was to make a different confession of truth and basically bless the Roman way of life: a way of life that consisted in conquering other people into submission to the emperor, and oppressing and persecuting all who resist. If you eat the food that’s being sacrificed to their gods, that’s what you’re saying, essentially. That Rome’s gods are true gods. That Rome’s ways are the right ways, that their way is the holy way. Whether it’s Caesar himself that’s being worshipped or Apollos — who was the Greek sun god, and archaeologists have found ruins of shrines dedicated to Apollos where we believe the city of Thyatira was located (modern day Turkey).

So this wasn’t just about momentary, isolated or individual stumbling into physical cravings, which we can all relate to some extent, whether in terms of food or sex, but a more sustained lifestyle commitment that some Christians were making, and an accommodation to falsehood about who God is, what is true, and how we’re called to live. That John records this particular rebuke by Jesus suggests that some Christians in Thyatira were not only tolerating it, but actively justifying their refusal to speak against it. In other words, there was some very sophisticated rationalization and self-deception going on. I think you’ll recognize some of this:

  1. First, as we’ve already been talking about, they’re concerned about their own survival and prosperity, so they say it’s not a big deal to eat this food or associate closely with those who fornicate.
  2. Secondly though, and this one will sound very familiar, there’s the responsibility for effective evangelism. Shouldn’t we adjust (TJ mentioned this last week) ourselves to the cultural around us in order to have a more compelling witness to the Gospel? In the world but not of the world? We’ve all heard that one… See here’s the thing about this argument. Obviously, Jesus wants us to evangelize and engage society. Our faith is always engaged. But for Jesus, faithfulness – holiness – always comes before effectiveness – at least insofar as the world tends to measure effectiveness.
  3. Thirdly, a further argument put forth in favor of tolerating Jezebel would have been a philosophy that was popular at the time based on Plato’s thinking, but distorting it, by saying that the spirit and the body are separated in an extreme way. There were different varieties, but the term that’s generically applied to this sort of thought is “gnosticism.” So, Christians who were giving into this logic would say things like, what does it matter what I do with my body? I don’t believe in these false gods. I believe in Christ. I can eat whatever I want. The only thing that really matters is my soul or my spirit. And what I do in my body doesn’t affect my spirit, so I’m good! We’re off the hook! Holiness isn’t important.

Maybe the most widespread, disembodied practice of both of the Roman Empire and the US today is to accumulate wealth and to consume without regard for its effect on others.” I’ll mention a three examples before we wrap up.

  1. If you are a business owner, a manager or an investor, and the only thing you’re asking about in your work is how to maximize profit within the limits of the law, you’re not asking enough questions. That’s disembodied business that falsely separates personal life from professional life.
  2. Concerning fornication: It’s embodied and engaged by how we look at other people, men and women – ok. What the largest illegal commercial industry in the world right now? The sex trade, human trafficking. And we can say oh that’s awful. But what am I supposed to do about it? Well, for one thing, men, and I’m not taking to only men, but this does tend to be a male issues — if you objectify women with your eyes, you’re complicit in the culture and in the economy that markets and profits from sex. That’s what Jesus says — if there’s lust in your heart! The inside and outside can’t be separated. They’re always integrated.
  3. When it comes to food, food sacrificed to idols, what are the idols that our food is sacrificed to today? We want to be convenient, we want to be affordable, and we want it taste sweet, so we have a diabetes epidemic. We’re a fast food nation. And we don’t care where our food comes from or whether it’s in season — as long as we can get it cheap, and we get it whenever we want. We’re disembodied from it. Most of our food (and clothing!) comes to us from people who aren’t getting paid enough to harvest or make it, or it comes from companies that put stuff in it to make it their process more efficient and more profitable at the expense of our health. Those are our gods! Cheap, tasty, convenient goods. On a related note, think about our relationship to trash and waste. We throw stuff away and don’t care where it goes or how it affects the environment or other people. And we pay for things to get shipped from thousands of miles away at tremendous but hidden energy costs (because it’s in bulk!) – creating a demand that fuels some of the world’s costliest conflicts and tends to lead to violence.

That’s the thing about these prohibitions. They’re not arbitrary. God doesn’t forbid certain behavior because it’s a rule. It’s forbidden because it’s not good. Because it’s harmful. When children are little, they have to be told not to do things before they fully understand why. And God has to treat us like children sometimes. But you all are not children anymore.

A growing Christian is one who learns to understand God’s character and the reasons for God’s instructions. Because they’re good for us, and they’re good for others. As the Psalmist says, oh how I love your Law! I meditate on it day and night! (Psalm 119:97)

And y’all know that doing what we naturally want isn’t ultimately fulfilling to begin with. It doesn’t work! It may feel like freedom at first. There’s a line from song sung by Jeff Bridges in the movie “Crazy Heart”: “Funny how falling feels like flying, oh for a little while.” It’s amazing how often God speaks through country music! But we know this: sins of the flesh, so to speak, feel good in the moment, but leave us emptier and worse off than we were before. They enslave us.

The great paradox of the Christian life is that real freedom comes full bondage and submission to Christ’s service. God’s commandments are in fact not burdensome, but bring true life. Jesus exposes us with a piercing gaze, with eyes like a flame of fire (v. 18), and says, “Come into the light! It will be painful, but it’s the only way to be healed, to be free, and to be holy.

And it’s the only way for the church to be a holy people for the sake of others. Disembodied people don’t care how their behavior affects others. The church is called to be a blessing to others — on all that it does! — that’s what holiness is.

So the question is, how do we participate in a holy and embodied way, in a society that has very different commitments? Well, the first thing is that we can’t do it by ourselves. We need relationships of accountability. It’s hard enough to live a holy and embodied life when we do have relationships of accountability. Without these relationship, it’s impossible.

So with that, let’s just be quiet for a moment, and leave room for the God’s Spirit to speak. and then I’ll pray for us.

God we do know you are holy, and we are not, but you empower us together by your Spirit, to be made whole again, to be healed, and to stand firm in the face of so much opposition to your Way. So we need you to show us this way again and again: a way that is holy, embodied, and that transforms our desires and consumerism into blessing and into good news for those around us. May we follow you on this Way. Give us the eyes to see it and ears to hear your voice. Amen.

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