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.

More Atonement Talk: Some Clarification and Application

This post originally appeared on The Missio Alliance Blog on June 19, 2015.

According to its founding documents, Missio Alliance is committed to two things regarding the doctrinal issue of the atonement: 

[First, asking] what is God’s salvation in Christ in the world and how might we understand it in a way that honors substitutionary atonement yet places it within the whole context of God’s work to set the world right? [And second,] working out what this means for conversion and sanctification of the individual believer as well as his/her participation in the Mission of God in the whole world.”

It is in this spirit that I wrote my post “Payment or Forgiveness?: Putting the Gospel back into the Atonement.” Unsurprisingly, this wasn’t done to the satisfaction of some. In this post, I’m going to try to make a few clarifications concerning the push-back I have received, and then go on to consider the second task mentioned above, which is to say something about what this doctrine means on the ground for individuals and churches participating in God’s mission.

With respect to Michael Bird’s criticisms in particular, I plan to respond in more detail in the comments section of his post. As far as my own interaction with Bird and knowledge of his work, I listened to the Seminary Dropout interview with Bird about his latest book, which was great, and I recently enjoyed reading an older essay of his in a book about the authority of Scripture. But that is it. We do not know each other, and I sense that Bird read my post with a somewhat suspicious lens. I trust there are reasons for this, but, along with what was probably my own failure to disambiguate some things, I think this caused us to miss each other.   

At the same time, the subject of atonement is at the heart of evangelical and Christian identity, and despite my best efforts to write charitably, the argument in my post was unavoidably polemical.  It is therefore perfectly understandable that someone like Bird would offer a fairly spirited retort. However, Bird did not simply comment on my original post by asking pointed questions or seeking clarification on key issues. Instead, and in a manner that is consistent with the larger phenomenon of people talking past each other on the theological blogosphere, he made significant assumptions and rather sweeping judgments about both my thinking and Missio Alliance in general.

I would like to think our discourse could be a little less accusatory. Assume the best, you know? 

For instance, based solely on Bird’s response, one would think I was unreservedly recommending that everyone in the world should buy and read Tony Jones’ latest book! In actuality, all I did was note that Tony has recently written a book that also emphasizes the urgency of the atonement question. Unfortunately, I haven’t read the whole book yet, so I withheld any further evaluative remarks. So far though, in terms of critical responses, it does look like both Geoff Holsclaw and J.D. Kirk, to name two, have given fair-minded reviews of it.

So I do hope that there is less disagreement between Bird and I than his tone suggested. I also felt that he could have more seriously considered the last three paragraphs of my post, wherein I explicitly name the problem of assuming that “penal” texts (still hate that word!) are somehow self-interpreting. Bird is of course justified in calling attention to several passages that, following the usual evangelical view of them, raise difficulties for a non-penal view of substitution. I just don’t think the mere mentioning of these texts comes even close to settling the matter. The whole question about the logic of Trinitarian forgiveness remains outstanding, which was the primary impetus for my post to begin with. It’s hard not to detect an unspoken, fideistic hermeneutic underlying Bird’s rhetoric, and one that is locked in to a supra-textual line of reasoning. Nevertheless, I’m grateful for the exchange and for Bird’s willingness to engage what I wrote. I also wonder whether some of the discrepancy here can be chalked up under the heading of “why biblical scholars and systematic theologians hardly ever get along.”

Atonement Further Clarified

There was a review of Simon Gathercole’s book Defending Substitution recently in First Things. He was another one of the New Testament scholars that Bird insisted people read before critiquing penal substitution, yet interestingly, Peter Leithart’s review actually says this about Gathercole’s position: “[Gathercole] makes it clear that he is not necessarily defending penal substitution (though he sees some support for it in 1 Corinthians 15:3; cf. 73, fn 33).”

Indeed, while the Christus Victor and moral influence theories stand squarely within the rich heritage of Christian theology, I do believe the atonement has to be substitutionary[1]. According to a number of places in Scripture, the severity of sin does seem to require that Christ suffer a brutal death if humanity’s relationship with God is going to be reconciled. Christ died in our place, for and because of our sin. So whatever culpability the Romans, the Jewish leadership or the crowds had in the crucifixion as described by passion narratives, it was also a divinely orchestrated event.

Yes, Jesus died instead of us! He was divine, he was innocent, and he was righteous, so in him we have justification. This we believe, as Paul and the rest of the New Testament declares.

I simply think, however, that when punishment or payment language becomes the hinge upon which forgiveness swings, the formulation of penal substitution loses its deep theological coherence. Does God do violence to himself, in Christ, in order to forgive us? This is where I believe the intelligibility of penal substitution hits a wall. In other words, penal substitution breaks down when it’s not Trinitarian. [2] It’s easy for New Testament scholars to lose sight of the creedal forest while focusing on the textual trees. A thoroughgoing Trinitarian theology renders penal substitution contradictory at a certain point, namely, where God and Christ are pitted against each other as if they were somehow separate beings with separate wills. [3]

Atonement Proclaimed

Now, in the church’s witness to atonement, there are at least three tasks for the church. Exegesis (informed by biblical/situational context), theological interpretation (informed by reason, tradition, and the grand narrative of the Bible), and proclamation (informed by contemporary context). Exegesis alone will not get you straight to proclamation.

Secondly, the temptation is always looming to smuggle a transactional economy back into a grace-based relationship between God and the world.  Atonement theories are one of the sites where this is most likely to happen. The most frequent example I see of this comes in the form of telling people to love God or follow Jesus “because of what he did for us” or “because we owe him everything.” This is a true, and Scripture concurs in some cases, but ultimately the most compelling reason to love God and follow Jesus is not because we have to, but because we get to. Because we have freely come to see and trust that God’s love for us in Christ is true and good and beautiful in the first place, and that it holds all things together. This is why the logic of forgiveness through atonement, while not fully comprehensible, cannot be contradictory.  

Thirdly, context is everything. And not just New Testament context, but also contemporary context. We are far removed from the world of Second Temple Judaism, as well as the feudal judicial system of the Middle Ages. This does not mean that we are exempt from doing the hard work of understanding and interpreting the passages and theological traditions that have been handed down to us from these times and places, but it does mean that the way we preach the gospel today has to be, while not necessarily palatable, still relatable to modern sensibilities. There is nothing inherently “progressive” about this. Rather, it is driven by the on-going demands of faithful gospel-application in local church settings.

Atonement Embodied

Whatever disagreement we may still have about atonement theory, Bird and others like him will surely agree that atonement must be worked out on the ground in communities — where Christians are striving for unity amid differences and being brought together by the concrete, universal reconciliation and communion that is established by God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.

So, in the work of embodying this atonement in community, the church is called to forgive as God in Christ forgave us. This commitment to forgive, particularly for people of privilege, issues in a refusal to stop suffering, even for the sake of our enemies. We don’t get to demand payment even when it’s very hard not to. We don’t cry out for vengeance or retribution, even when it hurts us deeply not to. This is perhaps above all what it means for the church to be a community called atonement (a’la McKnight), and a community that is different from the world, for the sake of the world.  

Second, in embodying atonement, the church is called to put relationships before the law. Atonement literally means “to make one (again).” In order for this to make sense, one has to see the whole story in miniature. At the most primordial level, throughout the story of Israel, sin was more about breaking a covenant than a rule. Scot McKnight tells the story well:

Sin is a cracked relationship of otherness with God, with self, with others, and with the world.  The redemptive plan of the Bible is to restore humans into a oneness relationship with God, self, others, and the world.  This otherness problem is what the gospel “fixes,” and the story of the Bible is the story of God’s people struggling with otherness searching for oneness. (The Blue Parakeet, 72.)

In the atonement, God is the one who first put relationship before the Law. Now the Church gets to imitate that.

Finally, in embodying atonement, the Church is called to be in solidarity with the poor and marginalized in our midst. There is no atonement apart from this! Whether the reconciliation we are called to seek is across lines of gender, ethnicity, race, sexuality, nationality or class, people of atonement are people who enter into life with those whom society has demeaned or excluded in some way or another. This solidarity is expressed in neighborliness. At times, it may require resistance and advocacy, but only through relationships of mutual submission and that eschew patronizing hierarchies.

And most of all, solidarity and embodied atonement come together not just when we forgive, but when we are forgiven by each other — especially by those in whose oppression we have been complicit, even if unknowingly. The reconciliation of all things that Christ’s atonement inaugurates comes to completion only when these relationships are healed.  

So I’d love to know, how does this sit? What questions does this provoke? What angles or issues still need to be considered?


[1] For the best theological treatise of a non-penal substitutionary theory of the atonement in the Western tradition, to my knowledge, I recommend Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Theodramatics, (vol. IV in particular), which is arguably the greatest systematic theology of the 20th Century, along with Barth’s. I am currently writing a chapter in my dissertation on von Balthasar’s soteriology).

[2] Perhaps no one stressed this more in the European-American theological tradition than Jurgen Moltmann in The Crucified God. The Patristic and classical tradition would have some questions for certain aspects of Moltmann’s theology, but one does not have to be a full-blown Moltmannian to appreciate his contribution.

[3] For a telling example of what I meant by “the most popular understanding of substitution,” I recommend this short sound bite from Acts 29 President and Village Church pastor, Matt Chandler:

Payment or Forgiveness? Putting the Gospel Back into the Atonement

This post originally appeared on The Missio Alliance Blog on June 8, 2015.

By now it has become fairly common for many evangelicals to have expanded their understanding of the gospel to include the good news about the Kingdom of God, and about a new way of life that is made available in the Spirit because of Jesus’ incarnation, death and resurrection. This should be celebrated! And the message still needs to be proclaimed throughout our culture and the whole earth, for that matter, but it is really great that there has been some headway made on this front in many churches, thanks to scholars like N.T. Wright, Scot McKnight, and many others before and after them.

At the same time, a problem remains within these same evangelical circles concerning the way we think about the gospel. The “Kingdom-of-God critique” does succeed at making the gospel bigger and more contextualized. It reveals that the good news is for all of creation, and not just human beings, and it situates the story of Jesus within the larger history of Israel as its climax and completion. This is very good, but we still need more.

Because, despite this welcomed and necessary expansion of the good news, it is not fundamentally corrective enough. Which is why it has been picked up fairly easily and simply “added on” to the “forgiveness-of-sins-gospel” – what Scot McKnight calls the “soterion gospel.” [1] It’s kind of like when preachers say, “The gospel isn’t just about going to heaven when you die.” To which everyone then replies in their minds, “well, sure, but if Jesus had to pay for my sins in order for God to forgive me, isn’t it still the most important part?” And based on that logic, the answer is “Yes, it is.” Which is why the logic itself has to be challenged. The question is, how is the forgiveness of sins understood in the first place?

Tony Jones has recently written a book entitled, Did God Kill Jesus? Searching for Love in History’s Most Famous Execution. This is because Tony thinks that this is pretty much the most important question facing Christian theology right now, and I agree with him. Tony calls the dominant atonement theory in many churches the “payment model,” more commonly known as penal substitution. In this post I want to very briefly compare and talk about two ways of imagining a substitutionary model of the atonement. In short, what I think we need is a substitution model that isn’t penal. Because, for one thing, without substitution, I think we lose something central and essential when it comes to our reasons for being Christian altogether. And for another thing, “penal” sounds way too much like “penis.”

The most popular way of understanding substitution goes something like this: using a courtroom analogy, we owe God a debt or payment for our sin as punishment for it that we ourselves cannot possibly repay. Therefore, God sends Jesus to take our place and pay it for us – namely, by suffering the punishment for our sins. And it is because of this that God is able to forgive us.

In an interview with Gary Moon a number of years ago, Dallas Willard said this about penal substitution: “It is true that human beings have sinned, and this sin is ultimately an offense against God. The question is how this can be set right.” [2] The problem with penal substitution, for Willard, is that it “presents God as someone who never [really] forgives.” Because “if you get off the hook, it’s because someone paid for it,” Willard explains – not because you were truly forgiven. It takes the gospel out of the gospel! If someone owes me a debt, and a friend pays it instead, I may very well decide to call it even, but that does not mean I have forgiven anything. In fact, the whole exchange has still taken place according to the law.

One of the most damaging outcomes of this kind of theology, in my experience, has been how it can lead people to feel, whether consciously or unconsciously, like God doesn’t really love them. Now, some well-known pastors in neo-reformed churches are fond of the rejoinder that God loves us exactly as we are right now – not some future version of us. True enough, but the theology of many of these preachers doesn’t jive with this statement. It would be more correct if they said, “God loves you just as you are right now, because when God looks at you, God sees Jesus – not you.” No wonder this logic can leave people afraid of God and moralistic in their practice of faith!

The other way to understand substitution, as “non-penal,” might go something like this: God is indeed grieved over our estrangement from right-relationship with him. God is angry when we hurt each other and when we idolize impermanent things. God’s love has been wounded, and for this God is rightfully “wrathful” toward our sin. But in God’s love through Christ, that sin is “paid for” by God simply eating the cost of it, so to speak — not by having someone else pay for it. This is not cheap grace. It still comes at a huge price to God. It is “paid” by God stepping in to take the blow that we are levelling against ourselves and against God. God does not kill Jesus. We do. Our sin and violence does. And the performative demonstration of this is the cross, which is the ultimate expression of injustice, alienation and betrayal of God and others. It is both the symbolic and the real history of what God has always already been willing to do, which is not to demand payment, but to incur the debt of sin into his own being. In this way the “debt” is vanquished.

I find the way Brian Zahnd has put it here to be illuminating: “At the cross we discover a God who would rather die than kill his enemies. The cross is where God in Christ absorbs sin and recycles it into forgiveness. The cross is not what God inflicts upon Christ in order to forgive. The cross is what God endures in Christ as he forgives” (emphasis added) [3].

Of course, some will understandably ask where this alternative theory comes from in Scripture. And I would first point out that the payment model isn’t spelled out in Scripture either. It too is a theory. Many times when we read about sacrifice, ransom, the shedding of blood for forgiveness, or Christ’s “dying for our sins,” we assume we already know what is being said because we’ve been taught a particular theory as the one true meaning. So we aren’t able to hear anything different.

Secondly, a genuinely Trinitarian understanding of God is what allows for an enriched and more biblical, as well as more traditional, concept of grace and salvation. God in Christ (their agency can never be divided!) takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29), to use John the Baptist’s words, and then converts it into a peace offering (John 20:21). This is actually what it means to be loving, to live life in the Spirit, and to live in the Kingdom of God: to become the kind of people who are able to transform for others what they cannot transform for themselves. All of their resentment, negativity, fear, and hate is consumed and swallowed up rather than reciprocated. And so God in Christ subsumes our evil and does not return it. By this we are enabled both to be freed from it, as well as to free others from it – which is also a good job description for the church!

But maybe nowhere in the Bible is forgiveness better illustrated than in the parable of the Prodigal Son. When the younger brother abandons his family and asks to receive his inheritance only to go and squander it, the costliness of the father’s consent to this request is unimaginably high. The burning passion he must have felt against his son’s rebellion and dishonoring behavior was surely inexpressibly painful and enraging. And yet, at the center of all the conflict within the father’s heart remains an unconditional offer of forgiveness even before the son decides to return. What the return activates is simply the process of relational reconciliation, not the efficacy of payment for the debt that he owed. The father has already “paid” the debt with his love in all his time of waiting – love which is big enough to “satisfy” the sin and grievances of seventy times seven sons! Technically though, it is not payment of debt, as many of our praise songs would suggest, but forgiveness of debt. This difference makes all the difference.




Trinity Sunday Sermon: Nicodemus and Life in the Spirit

[This is the manuscript to a sermon I preached this past Trinity Sunday, May 31st, on John 3:1-17. The audio can be heard here.]

When we talk about life in the Spirit, we are essentially at the same time talking about life in the Trinity, because the Spirit is that relationship that is shared between the Father and Son that we too get to participate in.

God the Father, who is called father not because he’s male — God transcends the categories of gender and is also “female” — but because “father” says something about the intimacy that Jesus has with God. The “Father-ness” of God also tends to point to God’s attributes as great, big, beyond, eternal, infinite and Creator, who is vast, transcendent and more immense than the universe itself. While on the other hand, the Son, Jesus Christ, we could say, is that particular, near, close, concrete, historical, embodied, human side of God. And everything between them, that relationship itself, is a field of energy charged with love, communion, interconnectedness, and movement. And that field of relationship is so dynamic, so alive, so strong, so intimate, so mutual and so deep, that Christians started to regard it as having its own personality in God — not separate from God, but distinct in the way we experience its presence.

And so the central Christian claim is that right in the middle of the Father and the Son, in that field of love, relationship, movement and energy — that’s where we get to live. When we wake up to this, when we become aware of the fact that the Spirit is living inside of us, and we’re living in the Spirit, then we actually start to see ourselves as children of God. This is what Jesus and Paul are both talking about in today’s readings.

The truth of the Christian story is that everything has its beginning and end in God. But we’ve been given just enough finite freedom to ignore this and grow unaware of it. And so a lot of the time we’re going about our business and our lives thinking that we live in some other reality that either we’ve created or our in-group believes in — our family, our company, our culture, or nation — rather than living in tune with that truth: the truth that comes from being attuned to, being synced up with the Spirit that is all around us and in our midst.

One of the things I realized is that I think many of us in this church, me especially, are a lot like Nicodemus. At this point in John, Nicodemus does seem to revere and respect Jesus. He’s taking him seriously. It’s kind of like how even though people respect Christianity or “church” less and less in our culture, sometimes for good reason, many people still seem to respect Jesus — and I’m talking about even non-Christians — they still find him intriguing, or think his teachings are profound.

Nicodemus was probably similar. He may even, like many of us, have come to the point of believing in Jesus’ identity — that Jesus was sent from God, that he was God’s Son. But that doesn’t mean Nicodemus really believes in Jesus as Lord, or that he was ready to put his trust in him. He wasn’t. He wasn’t prepared or willing to surrender his life to Jesus, and to let go of the security system he trusted in and that was supported by the very religion Jesus came from. This is why John also tells us that Nicodemus came to Jesus in the night, playing on the light and dark imagery, and suggesting that Nicodemus was still living in spiritual blindness.

And because he’s thinking in very literalistic terms, Nicodemus misunderstands Jesus when he starts talking about birth at a deeper level than the merely physical. Jesus says, you must be born of the Spirit, to see the Kingdom of God. In the Message version, it reads this way:

“Unless a person submits to this original creation — the ‘wind hovering over the water’ creation, the invisible moving the visible, a baptism into new life — it’s not possible to enter God’s Kingdom.”

Now let me just make a side comment here: Those of us with Protestant backgrounds have inherited quite the preoccupation with the question of if and how are sins can be forgiven. And the Reformation gave us a great gift of renewed understanding about this at a time when the church desperately needed it. But we lost sight of something else as a result.

John’s Gospel is not even thinking about the forgiveness of sins. In fact, it’s only mentioned once. The Gospel of the Gospels, and of the Gospel of John — especially at least in this passage — is about the availability of life in the Kingdom of God, which is the same thing as life in the Spirit and life in the Trinity and life lived by grace through faith. Which means: we can still be on the path that leads to destruction even though we’re forgiven, because the Gospel is bigger than forgiveness. It’s about being set free from that path to live by the Spirit. The Gospel is bigger than the forgiveness of sin.

Now, the Nicodemus encounter in John comes right before another exchange Jesus has in the next chapter, with a very different person: the Samaritan woman at the well. For John and the Samaritan woman are probably intended to be a stand in and a representative of a whole group of people, and even beyond that, a certain type of person, and how they tend to respond to the Gospel. We’re not going to read the “woman at the well” story, but you may know that the Samaritan woman, unlike Nicodemus at this point in the story, does finally — even though there is some initial skepticism — she does finally leave her water bucket and run to tell people about what she’s seen and heard and come to believe about Jesus, and as a result of her testimony, others are led to faith in him.

So why is it that Nicodemus remains resistant to what Jesus is talking about? Nicodemus was almost certainly a good man — honest and well-respected in the community, and open enough even to come to Jesus to ask questions. But, he was also likely very prominent, wealthy and powerful. He had status. This puts him in an entirely different place compared to the woman at the well, for who Jesus’ words were liberating and good news. For Nicodemus, however, they were scary and confounding words.

Nicodemus had accomplished a lot. He was successful, and he probably did what people expected of him. And for the Jewish leadership in particular, ensuring the future of your people is a most precious and important thing. as well as protecting and preserving your religious identity. To throw his lot in with Jesus would have been terribly costly for Nicodemus and his family, because Jesus was challenging all of this. Jesus was practically making the Temple itself seem obsolete, which was the sacred symbol and institutional structure of the whole Jewish way of life.

This is why I say we’re like Nicodemus, because we see this all the time today: that some of the biggest barriers to discipleship can actually be family, cultural norms, careers, and social standing — things that aren’t inherently bad, but it’s stuff we’re loyal to that just doesn’t matter very much in the Kingdom of God. Then we don’t see. Our lives get so cluttered, and then we miss the life of the Spirit…

This talk about spiritual rebirth makes me think of when as a youth minister right out of college, I was in seminary and we were having one of the first youth lock-ins that year, and some of the parents were volunteering, and since I was new, we had a get-to-know-your-new-youth-pastor moment, you know, ask him whatever you want — that sort of thing. Pretty amusing.

But one of the questions I got was fairly expected, especially for this particular church. A parent asked me, “tell us about when you were saved. Talk about your “born-again” testimony.” I recall struggling with my response to the question a little bit: do I give an answer that they want to hear, or do I just honestly say, I really don’t know when that happened for me? I did end up talking about how I was baptized at age 10, grew up in a Christian home, had a good group of friends in high school, never really doubted my faith in any really major way… maybe some of you can relate to that faith background.

I think I did finally have something happen to me that was a little bit more like spiritual rebirth later on in college, but I think one of the challenges with this concept is that we’ve reduced it down sometimes to a transaction, and to a single moment, as if yesterday we were one way and today we’re totally different.

It’s kind of like asking someone to describe what it like to have a baby by only talking about the day the baby is born, ignoring the culmination of so many other moments that were necessary to get to this One. Some people do have radical conversion experiences — you’ve heard the testimonies. For most of us though, new birth is more of a process. It’s like if any of you know the song by Texas singer Pat Green: “it came upon me wave on wave.”

Or, maybe you’ve heard the phrase paradigm shift. To me this is the closest parallel concept I know of to what being reborn is like. Sometimes in the scientific world, for instance, there’s build up with all these little advances and discovery that one by one add up, and the finally there’s one more, that stands on all the others, but it’s that one that leads to a total transformation in the outlook on the subject altogether. There’s no going back, because a totally new horizon has been opened up.

And Nicodemus is a great example of this, because as you may know, he actually shows back up at the cross to help with Jesus’ burial during the middle of the day. It’s as if in order to understand what Jesus was talking about, he had to see it played out in front of him in Jesus’ life, bit by bit, until it come that dramatic, tragic, and earth-shattering moment of his death, when Nicodemus witnesses the horror of his own people conspiring against the Son of God to have him killed. It was unthinkable before, but maybe now he can believe in a crucified Messiah.

It’s difficult to believe that the way God loves and saves the world is through suffering love. It’s the great mystery of the Gospel, that salvation comes through death. And then that we’re called to pick up our crosses too? As Paul says in Romans 8, we are God’s children by sharing in Christ’s suffering!

Now, this doesn’t excuse the kind of suffering that comes in the form of poverty, abuse, war, violence, betrayal — in fact, the cause of all that is usually people’s unwillingness to suffer and care for each other in the first place. And the world is in a big mess because of this.

So the only way God can save a world in this kind of mess, it would seem, is by stepping right into the middle of it, taking it head on, and going through it, and then taking it away! As John the Baptist says in John 1: Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!

This is the good news of the Christian faith: not that your sins can be forgiven (if you do this or believe that). But that your sins are forgiven. They’ve been taken away. Now though, will you dare to live like that’s actually true? To trust Christ and the Spirit who enable you to live like that’s true? That your sins are indeed forgiven, and so are the sins of others!? (which is often even harder to accept…)

In C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity which we’re revisiting in one of the groups I’m part of, Lewis says:

“We are all like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.”

In this same section of the book, Lewis goes to say that it’s almost impossible for most of us to hand over our whole selves to Christ, to truly die to ourselves and give our lives over to him, because that means giving up on most of stuff we dedicate our lives to. But what we are trying to do instead of giving our lives to Christ is even harder! Because we’re trying to serve two masters. We’re trying to do what we want, and also to be good at the same time. Which is impossible.

I felt this way about halfway through my senior year of college. It was time when I was just figuring this out. I thought I might still be able to basically just do I wanted and be a Christian. Whitney can tell you, because she almost broke up with me! Nope, it doesn’t work. Thankfully I had some friends in my life at the time who had the courage and care for me to tell me that it wasn’t going to work. And that really was a kind of new beginning for me, a “mini” new-birth.

Now once you hatch, you’re not even close to mature, but you are on a new trajectory, and that’s what life in the Spirit is all about. You get set on the second-birth path. And even though you still have a long way to go…it means you’re living in way that is consistent with reality — that your life really does exist in God, in the Spirit, in the Trinity.

If you’re unaware of this, or unattuned to it, it’s not so much that you’re so bad. It’s just that you’re not true. You’re lasting. You’re not whole. Paul calls it life in the flesh, which is really just the life of the ego or the life of the self. It’s a distorting of the truth of who you really are. Who you are becomes clear when you subordinate yourself to that original Creation and Spirit – the Trinity itself.

One final observation about John 3 to close as we prepare to move into communion: The infamous verse 16! For God so loved the world, Jesus says to Nicodemus, that he came into it himself, as a person, that whoever trust in him — trusts in Christ — will not perish but have life that whole, real, true, lasting, abundant life in the Spirit.

Isn’t it surprising that this is where a verse like John 3:16 shows up? I mean just based on the way we tend to use it, you’d think it was right smack in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount or at least addressed to a large group of people, but instead it comes in this quiet, late evening conversation with a single lonely Pharisee — someone more familiar with “church” or “God and religion” at that time than we are now!

I don’t know what to make of this except that maybe sometimes it isn’t the world “out there” that needs to hear this message about God’s love the most. Maybe we — the people who happen to be in church today, who are familiar with church, who consider ourselves to be Christians — maybe we are the ones that really hunger for it, because sometimes we are the ones who are perishing and desperately need the reborn life of the Spirit.

Seeing Truth after Modernity in the Gospel of John

[This post appeared first on the Missio Alliance blog here.]

This last month I started teaching a class at our church called “Jesus in John.” In surprising ways, I’m finding that the season of Easter and the celebration of the resurrection is especially brought to life by the fourth Gospel. Immersing myself in a study of John again has alerted me to how much I’ve sometimes let the biases of modern scholarship creep into my thinking about Jesus’ teachings and self-understanding. In spite of all the light that historical criticism may shed on what we can confidently say about the biographical details of Jesus’ life, I’m reminded of the extent to which a focus on merely measurable truth can seriously limit our imagination and capacity for perceiving truly human and transcendent truth.

In the passion narrative of John’s Gospel, Pilate infamously asks, “What is truth?” I say he “asks,” but it is hard to know if Pilate is really asking anything. Does Jesus simply refuse to respond, or is John taking us into Pilate’s inner monologue? Pilate is conflicted. He has no measurable reason for believing the claim that Jesus has been given authority that is greater than the Emperor’s. In the end, for Pilate, the truth of power wins out against the weak truth of his own blurry vision of Jesus, who for John is truth made visible, because he reveals the Father (1:18).

Philosophy in the so-called postmodern age is perhaps most notorious for exposing the troubled relationship between truth claims and power plays. This has thankfully opened our eyes to much of Western history’s dark underside. Without fully realizing it, however, I think it has also lured many of us into a place of suppressed cynicism — Christians and non-Christians alike.

One of the most distinguishing markers of the age we live in is the weakened confidence we have to place in truth that is knowable beyond the political and the material. As I try to observe what matters most to people, and even people in church — based on what they are willing to put their time, money and energy toward — it is clearly those things which are likely to ensure material success that take precedent. Obviously, I often succumb to the same thing, but what I notice as a pastor is the absence of trust in the reality of a different kind of life that is available to us. We sing about it, we sort of hope for it, and we maybe even feel a longing for it, but we don’t ultimately believe in it. I know there are many reasons for this, but one that jumps out to me is a loss, or at least a limit, of language that can speak faith well after modernity. This may be where John can help.

There is a deep connection in John between the truth as something in which we place our trust, and as something which we have to let ourselves get put into a position to “see.” Seeing and knowing are interchangeable, and both words have a double-meaning for John’s Jesus. Many of the people who see Jesus and even witness what he does remain fixated on only that which is immediately visible and materially knowable. Nicodemus asks, “how can someone be born when they are old?” (3:4) The woman at the well tells Jesus to “give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty…” (4:15). They do not yet perceive what Jesus is re-presenting to them. The profoundly aesthetic dimension of truth to which Jesus points escapes their notice. They are still thinking and seeing with eyes “from below” — that is, in terms of the material and the political.

John is not belittling the material and the political though. Rather, the evangelist is going to great lengths to show how Jesus validates and re-sacralizes it, “from above” (“The words I say to you, I do not speak by my own authority” (12:49)), by coming into it. He does this by engaging the political not with concern for securing his material well-being, but by witnessing to and imaging God’s alternative, wise (“Logos”) order.

God’s wise order shines light in the darkest places of our corrupted orders, but people still hide from it. They refuse to let it in. It is only when these two orders are placed right next to each other that we begin to see both of them for what they are. This is how truth gets revealed: when the real ugliness of how the world is gets honestly disclosed by the beauty of what it can be. Then, by way of what the radiant form of Christ makes known and visible, those with eyes to see respond by refusing to disbelieve in the world’s redeemability.

Modernity gave us confidence in the truth of what can be measured. This truth is not insignificant. But measurable truth does not offer freedom. Measurable truth does not bring wholeness. Measurable truth cannot restore.

 The highest kind of truth is not measurable. But nor is it merely hoped for, forever deferred and always “to come.” The typical postmodern view of truth might go something like this: we see traces and glimpses of truth, and we taste it in unexpected ways. It touches us, but then it leaves. We never really see it. We can’t point to it and say, “there it is.” Meaning itself, therefore, is undefineable, or at most very malleable. The aim and quest for truth, meaning and redemption is too weak to reach across the distance between us and that which we think we love, desire or are searching for. The best we can manage is authenticity, but authenticity about “we do not really know what.” So we’re left with an irreducible plurality of possible meanings. And that’s it. There’s no approachable meaning outside the constructed one, and again, we’re forced back down to the power plays of the political and the material.

By contrast, we must search for a faith, not that rejects, but that transcends the postmodern impasse. This is the all-important difference between a pre-critical and post-critical posture toward truth, which is similar to the difference between what Paul Riceour called the first and second naïveté, the latter of which is our “wish to be called again,” beyond the rational desert of criticism — not for fear of criticism, but because we believe there is something glorious that still remains after criticism.

If there is a deficiency in our reception of the revealed truth of the gospel, as postmodernity might insist, it is not because fulfillment is lacking, but rather because it comes to us in excess. The good news of the resurrection overwhelms us by its proliferation of meanings, its radiance of beauty, and its surplus portion of goodness.

For postmodern thought, the truth is something totally other that cannot be present or presented, because it has not been seen, and has not come. What we lay hold of as Christians, however, is the promise, the testimony, and even the experience, that truth has indeed been seen, and has indeed come. This does not mean truth is stuck in past or future-tense, but that it can be seen with the eyes of faith, and that it is we who make it visible, illuminating it by the splendor of the One who, though crucified, lives again, and offers to us the resurrection life even now.


-John D. Caputo, “Apostles of the impossible: on God and the gift in Derrida and Marion,” in God, the gift, and postmodernism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999), 199.

-Jean-Luc Marion, Robyn Horner and Vincent Berraud. In Excess: Studies in Saturated Phenomena (New York: Fordham University Press, 2004), 34.

-Paul Ricoeur. The Symbolism of Evil. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967), 349.

-N.T. Wright on The Work of the People: “Truth Happens.”

Good Friday Sermon: Participating in the Crucifixion and Denying our Discipleship

Text: John 18-19

At the Palm Sunday service this past Sunday, we read this same passion narrative, but from the book of Mark. There were a number of different readers throughout the congregation, each one speaking out as a different character in the story. It felt very real to me for some reason. I was moved, but I was also unsettled by it, especially when we were all asked to responsively say together, “Crucify him, Crucify him!”

Because everyone takes part in the crucifixion at some level. The Pharisees, Pilate, the disciples, the crowd… they’re all committing sins that, together, condemn Jesus. And Jesus in turn takes on those sins, and absorbs them fully, on the cross, rather than retaliating, and as Christians we believe that this is what allows us to be reconciled to God.

The thing about the sins in this story too though, is that they are more than just the sum of the act or acts committed by a few individuals. The sin that kills Jesus are evidence of deeper and more systemic problem with society. There is a kind of invisible quality to it that pervades the very social structures of civilization — as well as the minds of the people in the crowd. A herd mentality appears to take over them. Like Judas, they’re infected with a demonic spirit, for what else could possess them to build up such hatred and contempt for an innocent man in such a short period of time?

It’s true, you really can’t pinpoint systemic sin on any one person or group. We want to, so bad. We want it to be easy — throughout history, one group thinks the problems in the world are another group’s fault, so that justifies trying to kill them. I mean whose fault is it, really, that Jesus dies? Pilate’s? The crowd’s? Maybe most of all, the religious leaders, but they had a lot of help! And their fears that motivate them to plot against Jesus are brought about by many factors beyond their control, namely, a whole history of domination by foreign empires, and Jesus calls into the question their very security system — the Temple.

The cross means that we are all in the same situation regardless of our differences, because what happened on Good Friday is that when God personally met us as a human race, face to face, it was for practical purposes the unanimous decision of that representative company that he must be destroyed. — Lesslie Newbigin

There’s no flag-waving alongside the cross, in other words, by one group against another. We are all unmasked as enemies of God. At the same time, God also identifies with the victims who have themselves been crucified in history.

You know in our justice system today in the United States, before DNA evidence was allowed to be introduced into the courtroom, it’s been estimated that as many as one in nine people who were put to death in our country were innocent. And it’s by no means a perfect system now. But who’s fault is it that the system did this? Who gets blamed for that sin? Who gets to pay the price, when an innocent person already has? Or, as I think about crowd-led executions in our country’s history, how do you prosecute a lynching mob, for example? That’s what the religious leaders and Jewish crowd sounds like to me: a lynching mob.

A the Fourth Century Christian monk named Telemachus who sensed God’s call one day to venture into the city of Rome, taking a pilgrimage away from his life of prayer and solitude for a time to engage society. As he entered the city, Telemachus came upon one of the Roman Ampitheatres, the Colliseum, where the Gladiator games were being held. Horrified by what he witnessed, Telemachus proceeded to step into the arena himself, and tried to stop one of the fights. He pleaded with two of the soldiers, but angry voices eventually drowned Telemachus out and demanded that the spectacle continue. Finally, the order was given by the official of the games for Telemachus to be killed.

Tradition tells us that the crowds were so shocked and moved by Telemachus’ brave protest after the fact, that the games ended that day in silence, and soon after in the year 405, the Emperor put an end to the gladiator fights altogether.  The sobering lesson about Telemachus is that his life was worth much more after his death. See sometimes it takes the suffering or death of innocent person to expose the sin of society, to wake people up to the corruption of their deeds, and to enable their transformation. Telemachus bore the sins of the crowd that day, you might say, much as Jesus bore sins of Jerusalem on Good Friday.

Obviously, as Christians we know and believe that the death of Jesus is supremely significant. But on this Good Friday, if only today, and maybe tomorrow, on Holy Saturday, I invite you to stay in the story. Remain immersed in what the disciples must have felt, and Peter in particular. In John’s Gospel, unlike the other gospel accounts, it does not say that Peter denied knowing Jesus, or that Peter denied even being with Jesus — as he does in Mark, for example. What Peter denies in John, is being a disciple of Jesus…. It is probably fairly unlikely that any of us will soon be put in a situation of such great danger that confessing our faith would lead to our death. But you and I are in a position every day to affirm or deny your discipleship.

Jesus died because of his unwavering commitment to do the will of God, which is basically the essence of discipleship. Jesus died because God’s own nature and faithfulness was fully present and operative in him. Jesus died because he exposed the moral bankruptcy of all human kingdoms and revealed the hypocrisy of religious self-righteousness. And as Jesus died, he held up a mirror to all of our own deceitful, self-serving hearts. As Rachel Held Evans commented this week, “whatever you believe about Jesus, it’s clear that humanity gave him the very worst it had to offer, while he gave us the very best he had to offer.”

Now, despite appearances, I do not think this story is not intended to overwhelm us with guilt — though that is often what it’s used to do. It is intended to open our eyes though, not just to by allowing us to see our own sin in the sins of those in the story, but to open our eyes to the depths of God’s loving and relentlessly faithful character.

And The good news is that this story of Peter’s denial of his discipleship does not get the last word, and it’s not the last word in our life either. I don’t know what the crosses are in your life that God is calling you to bear, but I do know you’re not to fear them. Rather, you’re to be encouraged, for Christ has already born them ahead of you, and promises to always be there to bear them with you even now.

The (Im)Possibility of Christian Kindness

[This sermon was preached at Saint Peter’s Church on March 22, 2015, reflecting on Jeremiah 31:31-34 and John 12:20-33. You can hear the audio here.]

So we’ve been going through the fruits of the Spirit these last few weeks, and this Sunday we come to kindness… It feels little bit cliché and even boring honestly to be talking about kindness in Church — I guess because it’s so expected. And everybody tries to claim it!

Pretty much every major world religious tradition says something about the importance of kindness and compassion, such that the Dali Lama can say, “my religion is kindness; kindness is my religion.” And even among non-religious people there is a widespread acknowledgment of the value and desirability of kindness.

This is what’s tricky about kindness: there are some very self-serving reasons for trying to be kind. We could talk about the golden rule. It’s one of the first things we teach children. It’s necessary. It makes sense. Treat people the way you want to be treated. Not only will people probably like you more, but there’s actually studies that have been done, indicating that showing kindness makes you a happier person!

But where does kindness come from? What is true kindness for us as Christians? Does it come from simply trying harder to be kind?

As we’ve made our way through many of the fruits of the spirit: Love, joy, peace, patience — we might sense that Paul is sort of unpacking the components of love, and so we begin to see that these fruits of Spirit, while not an exhaustive list of the virtues of the supernaturally changed life, these fruits can’t be separated from each other. We find that patience, for example — longsuffering — is linked with kindness in at least two other lists in Paul’s letter (2 Corinthians 6:6; Colossians 3:12). So you probably can’t be kind without also being patient.

The Bible talks at length about kindness in the Old Testament, as well, where it’s frequently preceded by the word “show!” So kindness is a practical outworking of love. It’s love in action, we could say. Sometimes the word for kindness is translated “compassion.” And other times you might see the word “loving-kindness” used to describe God’s character.

And in the story of Israel, you see a pattern of growth and development of the people of Israel’s understanding of kindness — both of God’s kindness, and the kindness God expected from them. But we see this kindness most of all, of course, in Jesus, who, looking upon the multitudes of people with all their problems, sicknesses and confusion, was moved with compassion (Matt 9:36; 14:14; 18:27) — a synonym for kindness — compassion is the feeling that prompts kindness, you might say.

But we’re also aware of how easily kindness can be perverted or distorted, and we would probably admit that we’re tempted to do this ourselves — to practice corrupt or counterfeit forms of kindness.

In the culture of the ancient Mediterranean, in which much of the New Testament is imbedded, there was what has been called, usually, an honor-shame system in place. It’s still around in parts of the world today, especially in the East, and we even see traces of in our culture, but not in quite the same way. Since we live in a capitalist society, money is really the ultimate commodity in America, so we’re not quite as tied to the cultural power of honor and shame. Now in parts of Charleston, there is still last name still matters, or where you live, how long you’ve lived here, what business your family is in, that sort of thing. But for most places in the U.S., that’s really not the case anymore. If you’re rich, famous, then you’re in. That’s all it takes. And that’s why today you see that certain celebrities can be very admired while at same time getting away with completely shameless behavior. Maybe the shameless stuff even helps their reputation — helps them make more money!

But in Jesus’s day, rather than money and capital, the most precious possession someone could have was honor. Because whether you could be rich and powerful and admired depended largely on how much honor you had attached to your name. Honor was the most valuable commodity.

You could maybe relate honor and shame culture to what we sometimes associate with the word propriety — do you know and do you do what is proper, what is polite, what is customary, traditional, respectable — especially when it comes to showing hospitality to esteemed guests or in special ceremonies, for example.

The honor shame system wasn’t as prevalent in Jewish culture, but even the Jews had been living under Greek influence for hundreds of years at this point, so one of the other big problems with the Pharisees, in addition to their tendency toward legalism, was that they had bought into this culture of honor and shame, and they would seek the honor of the people by flaunting their piety in public. This is why we see Jesus saying in Mark 12:38-39:

“Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets.”

But another important component of the Honor-Shame system was the Patron-client relationship. One of the ways you could gain honor was to do something for someone who had more honor than you: flatter them, serve, host them, give them a gift, and the way the system works of course — and again, this isn’t totally foreign to us — is they would be expected, implicitly, to return the favor by out-honoring you. This was a way to advance yourself.

It’s why you see some Pharisees initially showing respect and deference to Jesus, at least in public, until he wounds their honor. Then they really get upset! In the passage in John right before ours (ch. 11), it says:

47 Therefore the chief priests and the Pharisees convened a council, and were saying, “What are we doing? For this man is performing many signs. 48″If we let Him go on like this, all men will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.”

At this moment in history, the Romans still perceive that letting the Scribes, the Pharisees and the other Jewish leader have their little enclave of power — this little kingdom within a kingdom — because as long as the people respect, look up to and submit to the authority of the religious leaders, it benefits the imperial security interests of the Romans. But all of that is being challenged by Jesus. And the Pharisees know that if they lose sway with the people, Rome will take away their privileged status as a special religious group in the Empire.

Mark 15:10 – “For [Pilate] knew that the chief priests had handed [Jesus] over out of envy.”

And what’s fascinating is that the Church has traditionally said that the sin opposite the virtue or fruit of kindness is envy. Because if kindness is acting for the benefit of others before ourselves, then envy is wanting the benefits enjoyed by others for ourselves.

The moment you take self-interestedness out of the kindness equation, it becomes almost impossible to be kind. Jesus’ is exposing the counterfeit kindness that the world is running on! And he warns us: “don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.”

Now how in the world are we supposed to do that? To show true kindness?

In John 12:24-25, Jesus says:

12:24 “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

Paul says much the same thing in Galatians 2:

“I am crucified with Christ so that it is not I but Christ that lives in me! This life is no longer ours, but rather is one in which we live by faith in the One who loved us and gave himself for us.”

In the Anglican Common Worship Calendar, it is noted this week that 34 Years ago tomorrow, on a Monday Mass in San Salvador, the Archbishop Oscar Romero was murdered while celebrating Communion. The day before, on Sunday, he had just preached one of the most provocative sermons speaking out against the poverty, injustice, assassinations and torture that was being propagated by the Revolutionary Party in power during the Salvadorian Civil War. For the three years that he served as Archbishop in El Salvador, Romero lived and worked with the poor of his country. He had opportunities to flee the country, but refused, after being inspired by the death of another Jesuit priest and friend several years earlier who had also been publically criticizing the persecution of the church and of non-violent resistance groups.

Romero was known for his radio broadcasts each week that would announce the most recent reports of disappearances, tortures and murders that he knew about, since the mainstream news was being totally censored by the current military regime. The day before he died, Romero had called on Salvadoran soldiers, as Christians, to obey God’s higher order and to stop carrying out the government’s repression and violations of basic human rights. It is reported that over 250,000 people attended Romero’s funeral, which was interrupted by attacks and riots, leading to the death of as many as 50 people.

To this day, Romero is remembered for his devotion and kindness to the poor and the oppressed of his country during a very dangerous time, and widely considered the Saint of the Americas. Pope Francis announced just last month that the Catholic Church would finally move forward with Romero’s canonization, which is scheduled to take place in May.

I share this story with you all, not just because we’ve come upon the anniversary of Romero’s death, but because it illustrates as well as any the necessity of death and suffering for producing fruit, and growing kindness. It’s very hard for affluent people, like you and me, most of us, to enter the kingdom of God, because there’s comfort and convenience in our lives at every turn. And so we can spend quite a bit of our time successfully avoiding suffering. But here’s the irony: for healthy and wealthy people, especially, suffering is the great teacher!

This is the garden principle, you’ve been hearing about if you’ve been with us these last few weeks: We have to die before we die. And suffering of some sort seems to be the only thing strong enough to destabilize our counterfeit kindness in the meantime.

It goes against the very programs of our minds. Not just because there’s pain, but because there’s surrender, and that’s what’s so counterintuitive. You can’t achieve it, you have to let it. It’s like anti-American.

Now, this doesn’t mean we’re all supposed to go looking for martyrdom. Probably our circumstances are different from that of Romero’s. And there’s also a difference between good suffering and bad suffering here. I’m not talking about the suffering of torture, war, sexual abuse, or certain deadly disease, for example — that’s debilitative suffering. And God doesn’t want that for you. But because of human sin, it happens. Which is why Jesus takes on that kind of suffering on the cross, suffering caused by sin, and defeats that sin and suffering — takes it away!

By contrast, the kind of suffering we’re called to on a daily basis is a good suffering. Richard Rohr defines this kind of suffering as basically what we experience anytime we’re not in control. That should sufficiently broaden the definition for us.

Basically, you’re faced with the opportunity to suffer all the time. You’re suffering when you’re getting the kids ready for school or church. You’re suffering at the job you don’t like. You’re suffering when you’re waiting in line or in traffic. The question is, what are you going to do with that suffering? Because you have a choice. We either transmit it, or we let God transform it. See most of the time we transmit it to other people, in the form of criticism, complaining, resentment, or retaliation.

Why was Jesus able to endure and face the bad suffering so well? Because he had already voluntarily embraced a life of good suffering to prepare him for the bad. 40 days of fasting in the wilderness, that’s what we’re commemorating right now in the Season of Lent! That’s what y’all are doing too right, fasting for 40 days?

But seriously, for whatever reason, I don’t think some of us still don’t realize what we’ve signed up for. Some of us still think that because Jesus suffered, died and gave up his life, that we don’t have to. That’s not the gospel. That’s what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called cheap grace.

Not to mention, people today are more skeptical than ever and will see right through that sort of self-serving religion. God does give us an abundance of grace, but that grace is given to precisely for loving and suffering.

So, as a church, if we are to be a garden for growing this kind of kindness, how can we do this? What are some of the good suffering practices that we can adopt? I’ll mention a few things before wrapping up:

  1. First, we can stop hiding our problems. Our problems are one our deepest resources for discovering and practicing kindness. And accountability and correction in the spirit of love can be one of the most powerful demonstrations of kindness. It’s not easy kindness, or fun kindness, but it is real kindness, and real Christian friendship, for that matter.
  2. Second, we can accept that fact that church is never going to be full of the people you’d prefer to hang out with. Church isn’t your high school cafeteria, would be another way to say it — where you look around and find the table the cool kids are sitting at and try to sit with them. The whole section in Galatians on the fruit of the Spirit comes right after Paul is basically just talking about serious conflict in the Church. We’re going to have this! We should be brought together who would have very little reason to be in relationship if it weren’t for the cross of Christ. As Tim Keller says, in spite of our many differences and disagreements, as the Church, we’re united by kindness as social incompatibles.
  3. And finally, we can unbusy ourselves.  Busyness kills our capacity for kindness.Look at the way Jesus handles busyness. I don’t we don’t normally think of Jesus as being busy, but he was tempted to be, in that crowds were always following him around and wanting him to do things for them. So what is Jesus’ discipline? He moves, from the city, the desert. From the people, back to God. from service and kindness, to prayer and solitude, constantly practicing this rhythm of rest and engagement, Sabbath and interaction.

Friends, if we don’t learn to die before we die — practicing spiritual disciplines, opening up about our problems, befriending people who we wouldn’t normally befriend, un-busying our schedules — then we’re not going to grow and produce the fruit of the Spirit, we’re not going to be kind, and we’ll go to the grave kicking and screaming.

There’s still good news though. What did we read in Jeremiah 31? The Lord says,

“I will put my Law in their minds, I will write it on their hearts” — that is, on their wills! “They will be my people, and I will be their God.” There’s not going to be new stone tablets, with more commandments. We didn’t keep our end of the covenant, but God says, “I will forgive you, and remember your sin no more.”  God comes in Christ to demonstrate and accomplish his loving kindness once and for all, and God comes by way of the Holy Spirit — to sanctify us! To produce in us the Spirit’s fruit, and especially the fruit of kindness.

So with each of us, may the fruit of kindness continue to blossom and grow. Above all, may we strive to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, the one by whom may know and receive your loving-kindness, and the one who bids us come and die to that we might have true life. Amen.


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