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.

Thinking, Feeling and Doing: Three Kinds of Repentance for the Truly Human Life

[This post originally appeared last week on the Missio Alliance blog]

In the Christian liturgical year, Lent is a season especially dedicated to spiritual discipline and repentance. The purpose of this discipline is movement toward the resurrection life that is made available to us in Christ, and we repent because the path we naturally follow doesn’t lead to this life. But repentance is a hard thing to manufacture. If the prompting doesn’t come from a place of genuine conviction, discipline is likely to either be motivated by guilt or to produce self-righteousness. In either case, the outcome doesn’t sustain real change.

Three Kinds of Repentance

This is why the repentance that the Christian life calls for is more than behavioral. In Hebrew, there are two words for repentance: שוב shuv (to return) and נחם nacham (to feel sorrow). In Greek, the word metanoia is used, which basically means “to change one’s mind.” So shuv refers to doing differently, nacham to feeling differently, and metanoia to thinking differently.

Thus, repentance, and the change that follows it, touches on all three of these dimensions of human life: thinking, feeling and doing. Those who use the enneagram as a tool for spiritual growth might speak of these three dimension in terms of personality groupings or centers: head, heart, and body. Obviously, everybody engages in all three of these activities, but we are usually most dependent on one of the three – especially in stressful situations. For most people, one center is dominant, another is suppressed, and the third is idle. Much spiritual flourishing, therefore, depends on awakening our idle center in order to resurrect the one we suppress.

Our Greatest Strength and our Greatest Weakness

One big challenge for people on their faith journey then is figuring out which area needs work and how to work on it. It’s actually easier to resurrect the suppressed center than it is to discipline the dominant one. Why? Because the dependent center is not only the activity that is dominant, but it’s also the part of us that other people tend to like the most (if and when they like us). It’s the part of us that we’re known for. It’s the part that’s closely connected to our personality – our small self, as some would say (which is the same thing as the ego-centered self). Paradoxically, this self is called “small” because it tends to be strong, but only when it comes to survival and success in the world.

So the small self “strength” is actually at the same time a weakness when it comes to living a truly human life. This is one of the ways in which the gospel is “foolishness to the Greeks.” Jesus’s call is for a different and more abundant life that inevitably runs counter to the world’s expectations, but it is unexpected not only in terms of the end but also the means. As God says through Isaiah 59, which Paul later quotes in 1 Corinthians 1, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” Jesus brings this prophecy to a head with the command to die to or lose ourselves, pick up our crosses, and follow him.

Some people are feeling or doing-dominant. Figuring out which center you live out of is not very difficult, but it’s not always totally straightforward either. Consulting a spiritual director or counselor is a good idea. In my case, I am thinking-dominant. I deal with anxiety by gathering information and trying to gain understanding. The mind is the “control tower” of the thinking-centered person. As stress increases, I become more detached from reality by retreating into my thoughts. This leads me to stop feeling and suppress doing. So instead of doing whatever needs to be done, I fall into a mode of passively thinking about what’s happening, rather than engaging it in a relational and active way.

Fear not, Judge not, and Peace be with You

It’s interesting that the New Testament and Greek word for repentance starts with the call to change our minds. The majority of people in the world are thinking-dominant, but they are also fearful, and Jesus’s most common command comes from the “fear not” genre. Most people who depend heavily on thinking do not think productively, wisely, or contemplatively. They think anxiously. As such, fear may very well be the biggest human barrier to repentance. The Pharisees were almost certainly a very fearful group.

For others, anger or shame are the great hurdles to overcome for repentance to take place, and Jesus speaks to these as well. Jesus never shames people who are shamed by others. Instead, he takes their shame away by forgiving and healing even the most shamed people in Jewish culture (tax collectors, Samaritans, Roman Centurions, and the sexually or physically unclean). With respect to anger, Jesus only rebukes those whose anger arises from a place of judgment or resentment rather than righteous indignation. To the angry, Jesus says “peace be with you” and “blessed are those who are persecuted.”

A Path to Repentance

We all have strengths and gifts based on our personalities. The trouble comes when we equate our strengths with our identities or use them to chart our path to truly human life. In the market place, good employers hire people based on their strengths — as they should. By contrast, good spiritual leaders, for instance, identify over-dependence on those same strengths, and put forward an alternative program for repentance that disciplines our center of strength.

One of the practices for the thinking person’s repentance is daily silence, meditation or contemplation for about twenty minutes. Over time, this discipline enables the suspension of critical thinking and movement into a more peaceful, trusting state. Another helpful practice for the thinking-centered is reading or listening to stories of others who have done meaningful, courageous work for those who are in need. Stories awaken feelings and move us to new action. They empower us to feel differently and act differently, ultimately causing us to think differently. This is why teachers like Richard Rohr are fond of saying, “We don’t think ourselves into new ways of living; we live ourselves into new ways of thinking.”

The Role of the Church

Because there are at least three different ways that people need to repent, and many more than three different kinds of people, one of the church’s mistakes when helping people along in their Lenten journeys has been to preach only one kind of repentance (usually behavioral) to one kind of person (usually the person who struggles with shame). It’s common, for example, for churches to prescribe one model of mission or growth, or to draw primarily on one theological stream or tradition (the liturgical, evangelical, charismatic, etc.). Is it any wonder, then, that churches are some of the most homogenous communities in our culture today?

The truly human life is about a transformed way of thinking, feeling and doing in the world, freed from fear, shame and anger, and supported by a community who takes courage, trusts and forgives together in the way of Jesus. The whole sweep of Scripture testifies to how God’s grace redeems the full range of human experience, and the gospels bear witness to Jesus’s call for repentance in all dimensions of human activity. Let us as the church, then, be bold and creative enough to make room in our theology and in our practices for the gospel to reach every aspect of people’s lives.

Proclaiming the Message: Evangelism, Discipleship and the Temptation of Constantinian Christianity

[This is the transcript from a sermon that I preached yesterday (Sunday, Feb. 8th) on the New Testament lectionary readings, 1 Corinthians 9:16-23 and Mark 1:29-39. The audio is available here.]

I started teaching a class two weeks ago that some of you have attended called “Christ and Culture,” and at the beginning I basically posed this question: “how do we as Christians, and as the church, understand and relate our message, our good news, to a society that increasingly does not recognize the authority of the Christian faith?” Both of the readings today speak to the importance of proclaiming our message of good news. Jesus proclaimed the message, Paul proclaimed the message, and we’re to proclaim that same message. In many ways, there’s hardly another activity commissioned for Christians to do that produces more anxiety or reveals more insecurity than that of evangelism. Maybe it was easier in the past when a higher percentage of people in this country were going to church. It felt more natural to talk to people about faith, because it was a more routine and normal part of the national life! Of course, that is changing.

It’s important to remember though that when Jesus and Paul were proclaiming their message, people didn’t recognize the authority of a Christian faith at that time yet either. So despite some big differences in our situation and theirs, we may be able to learn more from their example than we might expect about not just the nature of the good news message itself, but also how to share the gospel even in our situation today. We’re going to look at the two passages that were read, but first, I think we can also learn something from Church history about this.

As some of you are probably aware, until the 4th Century, Christianity was growing rapidly in many places, but it was still a marginalized movement with a minority status the Greco-Roman world. It didn’t have political or social power. So when the Emperor Constantine claimed to have this vision and became a Christian, legalizing Christianity and eventually making it the official religion of the Roman Empire, this initiated a radical cultural change. Positions of church leadership acquired real public status and influence. Many local churches acquired substantial property and land. They didn’t have this before. Christian laws were put into place. And this sounds kind of good, doesn’t it?

“The paradox of the church, was that it was a religious revolutionary movement, yet without a conscious political ideology; it aimed at the capture of society throughout all its strata, but was at the same time characteristic for its indifference to the possession of power in the world.” — Henry Chadwick

“Before Constantine, one knew as a fact of everyday experience that there was a believing Christian community but one had to “take it on faith” that God was governing history. After Constantine, one had to believe without seeing that there was a community of believers, within the larger nominally Christian mass, but one knew for a fact that God was in control of history.” — John Howard Yoder

So before Constantine, the church was perceived as subversive to the dominant culture. Afterwards, it became representative of the dominant culture. So the question is, after Constantine, did the church capture society, or society capture the church?

And then, maybe we should bring this question to the present, and ask it of our own church as American Christians in this culture. That’s the question I want us to have in the back our minds as we look at these two texts for this morning. Because this question also serves to help us answer the first question: how do we as a church relate the gospel to a society that doesn’t know or trust it? By trying to control society or have power over it, or by the way Jesus did it? 

“Evangelism is living together as followers of Jesus in such a way that would not make sense if the Gospel wasn’t true.”–Dorothy Day

In this way, the gospel will fascinate people. It will capture their imaginations. We don’t have to capture political power or strive for cultural dominance.

Ok. In Mark 1, first we read that Jesus performs these healings. In the First Century, it was very common for people to believe that having a disease was a result of sin or even God’s punishment of sin. Only God could control this stuff. So when Jesus demonstrates power and authority over disease and the spiritual realm, the power and authority of God is associated with him.

This leads people to react strongly to him — one way, or another. This is a common occurrence in the New Testament when the Gospel spreads, especially in Acts. Initially, the crowd’s response to Jesus is very positive. They embrace him. They want this good message and healing and deliverance that he’s bringing. They need it and long for it.

We always should notice that Jesus’ healing and miracles were appealing to an outcast and impoverished class. This was the group he was identifying with, which if you’re in a position of imposing foreign government on people and this is going on, you know it probably spells trouble. And Jesus knew he was on a collision with both the religious elites and the security-obsessed power of the Roman Empire. So it says in Mark that he prevents the demons from speaking about him! And presumably, for two reasons:

  1. One, it might have led to the crucifixion even sooner than he intended before having the chance to fulfill his teaching and prophetic mission.
  2. But two, and more importantly I think, Jesus could have easily continued to impress and heal more people. He could have tried to capture society and probably succeeded. This is certainly what the crowd wanted from him, but he doesn’t give in to the temptation to please and earn the admiration of others. He already resisted this temptation from Satan in the desert. He’s not exploiting his potential to achieve fame and influence.

And what was especially unique to First Century people less the miracles themselves but what they were used for and by whose authority. Other miracle workers in the ancient world were trying to do seek after the acclaim and financial gain that came from it. Jesus had no interest in this sort of thing. What made him unique was less that he was doing the miracles, and more about what they meant.

And, Jesus knew that God’s power is not revealed solely through miracles, but through sacrifice and suffering, as the crucifixion will show, so he didn’t stick around to continue to do the same miracles for very long. He had to keep preaching the Gospel.

The word “gospel” or, good news, as y’all might know has the same root as the word evangelism in English – it’s the Greek word evangelion, and this word was known to people in the First Century, but it was associated with something completely different. It had political and military connotations, and it was thought, for example, that Caesar Augustus’ birthday announcement was “gospel” news, or the report of Roman victory in battle was “gospel” news. So Jesus takes concepts that people are already familiar with and transforms their meaning. Jesus and Paul both do this when they use the word “gospel.” They use it to proclaim different good news – better good news – and to pose an alternative to the dominant cultural’s way of life in their day, and we’re to do the same Gospel in our day.

And this Gospel that Jesus preaches throughout the book of Mark, is about the availability of the Kingdom of God! The Kingdom of God is another word for God in action, and that action is grace – grace for new life now, forgiveness for sins, yes, but even before that, it’s deliverance from sin, you see. It’s the availability of a transformed way of living.

And it’s the promise that, even though the world makes it very hard to believe this sometimes, and we take this on faith, but it’s the promise that God is good, and we have a future in him, no matter what suffering and death we might face. And if we’re honest, we doubt sometimes — I doubt this sometimes — which is skeptics and seekers should be welcomed into our community and into this conversation about the Christian faith.

But this is one of the greatest challenges for the church today, and always has been: It’s the challenge of getting the message right, and understanding what the good news actually is! We struggle with cheapening or distorting it.

For one, too many people, even when they hear the gospel, it doesn’t sound like good news. It sounds like bad news. Or maybe just good advice. Sometimes our own sin shows up in the way we tell the good news.  We water it down, or we even project our own fears on to it. I think it’s common for many Christians to still think that God is just tolerated us because of something Jesus did on our behalf. But that’s not what we believe. The good news is that God is like Jesus. They have the same character. And because God is like Jesus — not because Jesus pacifies God — we have a hope in healing, hope in the forgiveness for sin, deliverance from sin, and a future even in the face of death and suffering. We have this hope because Jesus is good, and God is like Jesus.

Another thing that sometimes happens that distorts and cheapens the good news is the separation of evangelism from discipleship, or conversion from discipleship, that we saw after Constantine. Where it becomes acceptable to be a Christian and believe certain things, going to church from time to time, but to continue seeing Jesus’s teachings as basically optional.

At the same time, this doesn’t mean we have to be perfect in order to call ourselves Christians.

A disciple is a person who has decided that the most important thing in their life is to learn how to do what Jesus said to do. A disciple is not a person who has things under control, or knows a lot of things. Disciples simply are people who are constantly revising their affairs to carry through on their decision to follow Jesus. — Dallas Willard

Look what happens to the first person Jesus heals in this story – this is easy to miss. (It’s also easy to miss the detail about Jesus’ life and practice of prayer, but that’s another subject). It tells us

“Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they immediately told Jesus about her. 31 So he went to her, took her hand and helped her up. The fever left her and she began to wait on them.” Mark 1:30-31

Unfortunately we don’t get a name for Simon’s mother-in-law, but that’s how it goes sometimes for women in the Bible. Though it always seems like women are the first to pick up on things, and in this case it’s no different. What does Simon’s mother-in-law do once she’s healed – she serves!

This is what happens when people experience God’s grace and healing in their lives. It’s a picture of discipleship and evangelism at the same time. Disciples want to give away the grace they’ve received because they know they’re never going to run out of it.

This is a very different response to Jesus than what the crowds tend to have. The crowds want more healing, more miracles, more exorcisms, and they’re never going to stop asking for them. Now, it’s not exactly the same thing, especially when we consider the socio-economic differences, but it’s kind of like the way some people view church. They come to church to get something, and the church makes religious consumers out of them…

This is because we’re always being discipled by something. When we’re not in church, or in a posture of prayer or service with God and others, we’re likely getting inundated with the liturgy of the culture around us, which is a culture of consumerism, individualism, and fear. It’s a culture that longs for worldly security. Which gets us back to the question: Is the church capturing society, or is society capturing the church?

Like many Christians after Constantine, we’re tempted to make the same mistake the crowds did, and that many of the Jews did. We want Jesus to stay in one place with his healing power and authority from God, and to restore our worldly Kingdom. This Constantinian Christianity is still around even today.

And when it comes to evangelism, one of the other things the church has to do is not just be honest about our doubts, but be honest about the sins of our past as a church. We’re sinners, and because of that, the institutional Church has committed and will continue to commit sin in this country and throughout the world. We’ve hurt people, we’ve been complicit in injustice, and blind to abuse at times. We have to own this history — not brush it under the rug. We’re not trying defend our religious group or its history. We’re trying to preach the gospel that we need as much as everybody else needs. And, yes we do this with boldness, but we do it with great humility, and when necessary with confession and repentance. We’re not trying to impose our faith on others.

Jesus’ message is always an invitation, never an imposition. He is always pursuing but never coercing. Are we trying to control and manipulate, or can we intrigue and fascinate? If it’s true, if the gospel is true it will entice people without us having to try so hard.

I heard a story told recently by Shane Claiborne about a rancher who was saying that there two ways to herd cattle:

  1. The first way is to build fences. This is labor-intensive. You have to monitor the fences, repair the fences.
  2. But the other way to get cattle to do what you want, which this rancher said is the best way, is to have a good, central food source. It achieves the same outcome as a fence, but in a much less tiresome and coercive way.

That’s what we’re doing in evangelism. We’re just leading people to the source. We’re not hoarding around the source like the crowds. We get life from the source, and then we share the source — like Simon’s mother-in-law.

So much of our evangelism in the past was just trying to get people to come onto our side of the fence: by either trying to convince people our beliefs or are true or to see them conformed to a particular set of rules — instead of leading them to the source of grace for daily life in the Kingdom of God.

Constantinian Christianity wants to build and police fences. Gospel Christianity takes people to the source.

Now, postmodern religion, individualistic or relativistic religion, call it — you know, anything- goes or cafeteria-style religion — that’s kinda like free range grass fed cattle herding, roaming around with neither fences nor a central food source. I’m all for grass-fed, free range chicken and cattle — just not when it comes to our faith. We don’t need to build fences, but this free range stuff won’t do either.

You know, we’ve been talking about other religions some in the Christ and Culture class, including “religions” like secular humanism. Most of the other ideologies that are out there in the world — most of them aren’t evil. We don’t have to fight or fear them. Some of them are saying some good and true things, especially when they’re at their best. They’re just not saying gospel things.

  • Buddhism teaches some compelling things about the self and what’s causing our suffering and discontentment, much of which Christians can agree with, but Buddhism ultimately says that the best thing that could happen to you is basically for you not to exist as an individual person anymore. I don’t find that to be especially good news. It doesn’t follow from this that Buddhism is “wrong,” and the Gospel is “right,” but they are two different messages.
  • Islam teaches that’s there’s one God who is holy and just, and that we should love that God and our neighbor. That’s good and true stuff, and it lays out a way for us to do this. But instead of the Gospel, instead of grace of God made available through his coming to us, Islam puts forward a Law that humans have to submit to, and inevitably, people fail to measure up to that.  So as a faith, it is sometimes in danger of perpetuating either guilt or self-righteousness zeal.

Look at the way Paul evangelized. He spoke to differently to Jews and Greeks in the book of Acts. These are the two groups to whom he was trying to be “all people.” “All people” in 1 Corinthians 9 really just means Jews and Gentiles — in this case, for Paul, that was everyone. Paul isn’t telling us that we should just change ourselves or our message according to every environment or every person’s demands, and obviously Jesus wasn’t willing to do that either.

Now, there will be differences though in how we talk to different people and where we start. Paul and Jesus both demonstrated this. The Gospel for the Pharisees sounded a little different than the Gospel for the woman caught in adultery.

Paul was able to be all things to both of these groups because he wasn’t doing any of it for selfish gain, and because Christ had moved into the center of his life:

“I didn’t take on their way of life. I kept my bearings in Christ—but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view. I’ve become just about every sort of servant there is in my attempts to lead those I meet into a God-saved life.” 1 Corinthians 9:20-23 (The Message)

I know it’s Paul talking here, but the passage actually just makes me think of God. In truth, God is the greatest evangelist of all, who literally did become all things to all people, by becoming a human being who endured all things and overcame all things to get to us — going to the greatest possible lengths, experiencing the depths of human suffering and rejection. And so it in this way, Paul means to imitate God’s activity in Christ.

That’s our same commission. That’s how we understand and relate the Gospel to the society around us: By imitating God himself and what he did through Jesus, as Jesus. And if we communing with each other, as we are about to in a moment, then extending that same communion to others who aren’t yet disciples will be the natural outcome.

Exodus, Exile and Resurrection: Living Beyond Tribalism and Individualism

[This post originally appeared on the Missio Alliance Blog.]

The beauty of the Bible has as much to do with what it tells us about human nature as it does to do with what it tells us about God. Indeed, the story of salvation only makes sense when we see the various dimensions of the human person and experience with all of its flaws and struggles that Christ has come to redeem. It starts with the most simple and obvious needs and moves to the deepest and most mysterious longings.

Exodus: The Cry of the Poor and the Oppressed

As human beings, we simply cannot flourish apart from certain basic material provisions. Food, clothing, shelter, a balanced life of work, recreation and sleep are essential. Beyond this, we also crave relational connectivity with others to feel secure and known. These material needs cannot be separated from our spiritual lives, but they are distinct and usually prerequisite for most people to live with a higher sense of identity and purpose.

Thus, it seems fitting in retrospect that the most formative narrative for the Jewish faith and memory was that of the Exodus. If not a liberator for slaves and the oppressed, then what is God? This is an absolutely central aspect of who God is, and Jesus confirms this with his first public words in Luke 4, reading from the Isaiah scroll. So we see that freedom from material bondage is the most foundational and urgent dimension of salvation.

The problem is that one can be liberated, politically and economically speaking, and still have a prideful, tribal consciousness. The Exodus story paints a picture of an enemy in the Egyptian people, and for good reasons. And God seems to have given Pharaoh plenty of chances, but was killing the first born of every Egyptian really necessary? It shouldn’t surprise us then that long after the Exodus, well into the period of conquest, judges and kings, Israel continues to have enemies whose blood stains the hands of their God more often than we would like to admit. We learn that if material liberation is not accompanied by spiritual liberation, even God’s people can start to look like Egyptians. Maybe imperial ambition and violence are a human phenomenon, and not just an Egyptian one? This is what brings downfall upon the Jewish monarchy and ultimately leads to the period of Exile. God’s response to the cry of the poor and oppressed came around full circle through the prophets to judge even the chosen people themselves.

The sobering lesson is that victims can all too easily become victimizers, and the oppressed become the oppressors. This doesn’t lessen the force of the cry of the poor and the marginalized in the face of injustice. We should always be people of Exodus. What it does, however, is reveal to us that human beings need something more to live for than political empowerment and economic well-being.

Exile: Losing and Finding our Identity and Purpose

Exile is scary not just because of the loss of power and privilege, but because with these losses also comes the threat of a much greater loss: the loss of identity and purpose. This again reveals the inadequacy of meeting merely material and even relational needs. For humanity, there is also a deeper sense of yearning for identity and purpose that can only originate from something beyond the concern for self, tribe or in-group. Many people and many Christians, however, fail to see that the identity and purpose to which they are called is bigger than this. Naturally, then, the loss of privileged identity and power of purpose produces special cause for human lament.

For the last few decades, Christians in the modern Western world have begun to experience what I think could be called a time of Exile. The Enlightenment did not deliver on its promises. Rather, it has had a dark side all along that in the 20th Century finally started to plainly show itself, and Christendom itself has collapsed with it on all sides.

One of the effects of this exile is the rise of individualism. The cohesiveness of group belonging is undermined, the purpose of the collective is muddled, and individuals are left to seek out meaning and identity for themselves instead of being told who they are by their tribe. In our context, these are outcomes of both globalization and postmodernism. What might it look like then for Christians to flourish in exile or come out of it living as a resurrection people?

The Resurrection Life

There are at least three ways that Jesus calls us beyond both a tribal and individualistic identity, and to a greater purpose in God’s Kingdom:

  1. First, against tribalism, God called for the inclusion of Gentiles in Christian communion. As non-Jews, it’s easy for us let this one slide assuming it doesn’t apply. Much like the Jews who were afraid that their religious identity was already under too much attack, however, we too as Christians have a tendency to circle the wagons and put up barriers so that outsiders do not interfere with our ways of doing things. So who are today’s Gentiles that our churches are excluding? For whom are we making the life of faith and discipleship such an undue burden?
  2. Secondly, for the individualist, the cross bears witness to the social and corporate cost of even seemingly insignificant, individual sin. It was not just the sins of the brutal and dominating Roman Empire that put Jesus on the cross, or the hypocrisy of the ruling, religious elite. It was the betrayal of his friends and the fear of otherwise good people falling into complacency (disciples sleeping in the garden), the fickle movement from fight to flight (Peter), and the love of money or comfort (Judas?) that delivered Jesus over to his killers. It’s not that any of Jesus’s friends could likely have prevented the crucifixion, and Jesus himself knew what was coming and even offered himself up willingly. But the point about the root of apparently harmless, individual sin still stands. It’s all caught up in the web of forces that ultimately lead to the worst of suffering and injustice. From the silence of churches in Germany during the Holocaust and the apathy of moderate, white Christians during the Civil Rights movement, to evangelicals uncritically supporting a “War on Terror” in the name of national security, which led to the killing of thousands upon thousands of Iraqis who had nothing to do with 9-11, individual sins once added up prove to be much more egregious than we normally realize.
  3. And third, Jesus tells us all, in our in-groups and as individuals, to love our enemies. This is not something that the Israelites had heard before. They had been told to seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God, and they had certainly been given very specific instructions about caring for the poor, the orphan, the widow and the immigrant, but loving enemies raised the Jewish law to an unprecedented level, and it revealed for the first time the heart of God in a final and unanticipated way.

So powerful is God’s love for us that it didn’t stop even when we became his enemies. God is not giving us a commandment that God himself hasn’t kept. God didn’t send someone else to die for us. In Christ, God in person came on a rescue mission, bearing the weight of the world’s sin that was directed at him by his own. It is only this kind of love that is stronger than death, and only this kind of life that leads to the resurrection. Maybe, then, this kind of love, and this kind of life, is what it means to be truly human.

Naturalism is not Enough: Or, Why Transcendence is not the Problem

[This blog post originally appeared at, and was written in response to the podcast linked below. LeRon Shults graciously responded on his website, and we continued to dialogue in the comments section there.]

There has been a great discussion in the comment section of the latest TNT episode where Tripp talks with LeRon Shults and Barry Taylor, both of whom I admire. Shults defends a form of radical theology and at one point even uses the term “atheist” to describe himself. His ontology is a strictly “naturalistic” one. It reminds me of Kester Brewin’s recent criticism of Rob Bell’s benevolent conception of the universe. Several people commenting in response to the conversation have asked why process philosophy or theology isn’t more attractive to Shults, or why it doesn’t pass the science test. This is a great question and a discussion worth having, but I want to make another observation.

atheismIn the podcast, Shults characterizes religion or traditional theism as basically any belief in an infinite, disembodied agent or intentional force that authorizes an in-group. So for him there is an intimate and intrinsic relationship between “God” and “my tribe.” I think this is generally true, and sociology of religion seems to confirm it.

Because of this, for Shults, religion, or belief in God, frequently serves to reinforce prejudices of various kinds, and so should be rejected as inherently problematic or even antithetical to the advance of anything like the common good for society — or at least that’s how I interpret him. (Admittedly, I have read some of Shults’ earlier work, but here I am drawing only on the recorded conversation, and not from his books, which is probably a little unfair.) Shults does not preclude the possibility that religion can by contrast at times promote the common good, but he seems to suggest that when it does this — whether intellectually, activistically or mystically — the ianti-monotheism1nfinite, disembodied agent or intentional force-dimension to religion remains only superfluous if not an impediment. We can strive for justice, peace, the good, etc., without any transcendent referent, he would say. So Shults encourages us to “go all the way” with our criticism and not stop short at the boundary of “orthodoxy,” “theism,” or whatever. And this is the main part of his position that I want to question.

First of all though, while it was only a brief summary in the podcast, I think Shults conflates Christian mysticism with another kind of Christian intellectualism that simply appeals to mystery when it hits an intellectual wall. That is not Christian mysticism. Shults probably knows this, but this characterization makes sense given how much Shults has studied Pannenberg, who was hardly a mystic. A theologian like Hans Urs von Balthasar, for instance, who constructs his epistemology primarily on the basis of aesthetics and narrative, rather than on modern, foundationalist grounds, does not have this problem (Callid’s interview with Cecilia Gonzales-Andrieu highlights this difference well). That is, for Christians like Balthasar, the truthfulness of Christ’s beauty and goodness neither depends on nor contradicts empirical verification. And with regard to Christian mysticism — not unlike mysticism in other religions — it is about non-dual thinking and union with the divine through transformation of the mind into a less egocentric consciousness. Such a life vision is not some new idea that can be tried on for size until one becomes “post-mystical.” It takes months and years of practicing spiritual disciplines to see any fruit.

Secondly though, as one who tends to fall more into the activistic or liberationist camp in my own thinking, my counter-claim to Shults, or any other atheistic theology, is this: what stands in the way of the common good for society is not humanity’s belief in an infinite or transcendent, disembodied intentional agent. What stands in the way are people in general who want authorization of their in-group in the first place.

Most human beings live with and derive meaning from transcendent or absolute horizons. Pannenberg says as much in his anthropology. This may be too universalistic of a statement, but there’s pretty good evidence for it. The key question then isn’t whether, but what kind of transcendent horizon we are talking about. This insight is not original of course. Tillich and others have essentially said the same thing. Religion is merely the byproduct of the fundamental human tendency to make some-thing an ultimate concern. In other words, what is the ultimate good that informs and directs a people’s living and organizing? That is religion.

The Free Market, for example, is one such transcendent horizon or ultimate good. The difference is, it’s a transcendent horizon claiming a total immanence that nothing else can transcend. This was Tripp’s point in the discussion. So Hardt and Negri make their infamous case in Empire about the triumph of global capitalism, whose “soft” power of capital in contrast to the overt dominance of the nation-state subtly but no less powerfully reigns now in place of modern, national sovereigns. If Karl Schmidt’s Political Theology deified the sovereignty of the state, today we’ve done the same with the Market.

In their book Beyond the Spirit of Empire, Rieger, Miguez and Sung actually argue that the ideology of the Free Market is not transcendent enough. It is in fact atheistic. Its utopia is too weak, and so it closes off other options that might imagine a world where sacrificing the well-being of major segments of the population for the benefit of a few isn’t tolerated. For these authors — two of whom are bringing non-Western and post-colonial perspectives to the fore — to renounce transcendence, even in the name of good things, is to be left with no standpoint for a radical critique of history.

Christians confess that Jesus is somehow the immanence and the human embodiment of the Transcendent. Based on what Christians believe Jesus reveals about God, then, the danger is not, I submit, belief about the existence, intention or agency of God, so much as the disembodiment of these beliefs. I’m reminded here of this great Pete Rollins’ bit on denying the resurrection (– by not practicing it!). Because if Jesus is the full embodiment of this infinite agent’s intention, then the manner of his embodiment is always contrary to the “authorization of in-groups.” In fact, it should always un-authorize in-groups. The only thing more potentially empowering than eradicating a transcendent referent is to say that the Transcendent identifies with the excluded and oppressed peoples of the earth. I know this is a bold faith move that sometimes feels like wishful thinking, but unlike imperialistic depictions of God, it has the unique advantage of not being very convenient for the dominant and leisure classes of the world. Furthermore, if Jesus’ way isn’t ontologically authorized, from whence does resistance to in-group thinking come? Preference? Intuition? Reason? Buddhism?

LeRon Shults has obviously thought about his position very carefully and over a long period of time, so I’m not accusing him of reactionary thinking. And again, maybe it all comes back to science for him. I just have a hard time understanding how science makes the idea of an infinite, disembodied, intentional force so necessarily problematic, unless a scientific discourse is either confused with or unduly privileged over a metaphysical one. More importantly, I fail to see why atheism, full immanence, etc., is any more compelling than a transcendent theology that challenges prejudices and calls for an embodied abolition of insider-outsider ideology. This is exactly what a “Jesus religion” should do — abolish insider-outsider ideologies. And we don’t have to stop praying and reading the Bible, or believing in God to do it.

How to Fear Not and Love Your Neighbors: Church Barriers to the Gospel and the Great Commandments

This post originally appeared on the Missio Alliance blog yesterday.

I heard it said once that the heart of Jesus’ teaching is pretty well summed up in these two commandments: Don’t be afraid, and love your neighbor as yourself. Of course, simple as this sounds, we soon figure out that nothing could be more difficult. This is all the more true given the way that Jesus defines neighbor (i.e., even your enemy), and given that fear is often more deeply rooted than we care to admit.

It starts with subtle worries about every day things from bills to pay, job security, and health to retirement, but then grows deeper into anxieties about rejection, loss, pain, loneliness, failure and the absence of purpose. The root of this fear is that as both finite and free, human beings have natural limitations, but infinite expectations and pretensions. This leads us to become self-conscious about our insecurity, which in turns produces the anxieties just mentioned. Anxiety inclines us to seek control of our own lack of certainty and security, of which there is never enough, and so we are driven to chase after these things to the detriment of others. Generally we either 1) abuse our freedom by grabbing for power, or 2) flee into our finitude via sensual indulgence (these are the sins of the older and younger brother in the Prodigal Son parable, respectively). In other words, fear and anxiety are what stand in the way of us actually loving our neighbors.

But this still leaves the question of “what is the remedy?”

This is one of the reasons that Jesus went to the cross. In order to set us free, Jesus had to demonstrate that the fear that comes from all the suffering and death that the world can cause is ultimately misplaced. Jesus faced these fears. His will was one with God’s, and thus the faithfulness and love of God were fully incarnated and lived out in him.

So great was this love that it overcame sin, death and suffering, and without conditions. God’s grace was made manifest and available in such a powerful a way that not only humanity’s future, but that of the whole cosmos, changed course. This is the incredible good news that Christians claim. And let’s not pretend that it isn’t a bit outlandish. It can’t be rationalized. For many, it’s an offense and a scandal.

It shouldn’t surprise us then that some people are only interested in Jesus for his teachings rather than who we as Christians believe he was and what he did. But the truth is, the teachings of Jesus are simply not enough to set us free. They are indispensible, but not sufficient. “Fear not” and “love neighbor” are beautiful sentiments and ideals for which to strive. Even non-Christians seem to know this, which can only be attributed to the image of God that remains somewhere latent in the nature of every human being. But as mere intentions, fearlessness and love will never be realized apart from a hope and transformation that comes only from God.

For this reason, the church that fears not and loves neighbor has to also be the church that believes in and trusts the good news. You can’t have one without the other. Jesus’ life is not just a moral example, even if it is also that. The problem though is that so many Christians are left to choose between either

  1. a church whose gospel is only good news to a few, and whose version of love only manages to suppress fear rather than overcome it — either because it’s too exclusive, or because the kind of love it portrays is little more than a courtroom deal with sin;
  2. or a church that equates the gospel with Jesus’ teachings and hence tries to care about the things Jesus cared about and obey his teachings, but fails to do this because of sin, and therefore doesn’t really have good news at all.

Because of this, the door is wide open in these times for a church that believes in the kind of love that actually casts out fear and, set free by the real good news, enables the love of the world and everyone in it. There are barriers to this though, as I’ve suggested, and I will mention two of them.

First, for churches, there is always the barrier of idolizing church growth. The temptation to pander to the consumer is as prevalent in churches as it is in the marketplace. In Protestant churches in North America, we’ve seen this played out in two major ways. In an effort to reach a generations burned out on denominational church, initially there was the rise of the seeker-sensitive church. This was a deep, deep cultural shift in evangelicalism — so deep, that even when many emerging church leaders broke away in disillusionment with it to do something different, many of them ended up making the same mistakes, only this time they did so by catering to millennials rather than Gen-Xers. In both cases, discipleship was in many cases too quickly sacrificed on the altar of reaching culture.

Some Christians interpreted this phenomenon by deeming it a yet another instance of theological liberalism. I do not think this is the real issue. Theologically speaking, conservative and liberal Christians are, as best I can tell, equally prone to neglect discipleship and real spiritual discipline — the former by holding on to personal morality in the area of sexual purity and finances, and the latter by directing efforts outward toward social justice and identity politics (race, gender, sexual orientation, etc). Neither of these emphases necessarily lead to a mature Christian life.

So in addition to the idol of church growth, churches have erected the barrier of theological ideology. This does not mean, however, that Christians should stop caring about all the things I just mentioned (sexual purity, social justice, etc.). What it means is that we have to change the way we care about those things, and, to become more sensitive to the things we should care about in addition, and that we’ve neglected.

Now, some churches might think that they’re immune to these issues because they’re more “moderate” or “diverse.” Except in churches that are skilled at good listening and mutuality through real dialogue though, much evidence of moderation and diversity tends to be superficial. Deep moderation and diversity means really dealing with and talking about these issues. It means growing in self-awareness and epistemic humility. Many churches that think they’re moderate or diverse remain that way only because they tend to avoid hard conversations.

As one might expect, both of these barriers, idolizing church growth and avoiding hard conversations, have their origin in fear, which keeps us from truly loving people. It is indeed very good news, then, that the gospel gives us the power to break down both of these barriers by fearing not and loving our neighbors.

Dissertation Question and Description

I get asked about my dissertation a lot, and I’ve posted about it before (abstract here, and theological significance here).  I’ve definitely made some headway in the past six months, but things have been slow as I’ve been adjusting to a new full-time job and have taken on a few other small writing projects.  Those are done now though, so 2015 promises to be a very productive writing year…  Anyway, to get back into it, I rewrote a description of my topic for a fellowship application, and here it is.

Core Question:

Seen within the context of the phenomenon of globalization, I am examining the Christian understanding of salvation with respect to the violence and impunity that has occurred as a result of the U.S.-Mexico Drug War. To do so, I ask: what is the good news and hope that the Christian faith promises to those who suffer in this conflict, and what kind of engagement and response does such a promise demand from North American churches in light of the difficulty that our Mexican neighbors are facing?

Project Description:

Even though this project constitutes a theology of the church, as a political theology it nonetheless must begin with a study of the political, historical and cultural context in question. This requires a social-scientific look at the phenomenon of globalization as it has affected the U.S.-Mexico region in general and the drug war in particular. In sum, my argument is that several of the key features of globalization serve to exacerbate but not necessarily cause the drug-trade-related violence.

To fully appreciate the situation in Mexico, however, I will also rely on Latin American political philosopher, ethicist and historian Enrique Dussel to characterize the experience and viewpoint of the victims in this conflict. Accordingly, Dussel will help to sensitize the Christian doctrine of salvation to the specific concerns of what he calls history’s “colonial underside.” In this way, it is hoped that my North American perspective on this issue will be less colored by a eurocentric, modern or postmodern hermeneutic. Hence, the term “trans-modern” has been chosen to describe my approach.

With regard to the doctrine of salvation, I will draw on the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar, his aesthetic epistemology, and his depiction of history as a drama on the world stage of God’s redemptive performance. Furthermore, Balthasar provides an understanding of salvation from the social location of the church. Recourse to formal political avenues for ethical response by Christians may be considered, but the formulation of ecclesial identity and a theology “from below” will be operative from the start so as to guard against the risk of absorption by any state-centered or imperial program.

Finally, based on what is set forth by both Dussel and Balthasar — epistemologically, politically and soteriologically — I will construct an ecclesial ethic that is marked by neighborliness and resistance for a North American church engagement with this crisis.


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