Generosity, Stewardship, and Living in God’s Economy

This sermon was preached on Sunday, Oct. 19th at Saint Peter’s Church.  The audio can be found here.

We’re going through this series right now that started last week on the Generosity of God, and our response to it, and we’ll be continuing in it for the next month or two. If you missed this past Sunday, then please try to find time to listen to the audio of TJ’s sermon on the website, because each message is going to build on the previous one somewhat. We know where this is ultimately pointing – to a generous God, and a merciful God, who we know through Jesus and who through Jesus demonstrates radical generosity, as TJ talked about last Sunday. And the appropriate response to God’s generosity was illustrated by the tax collector, who humbled himself before God, in contrast to the Pharisee, who exalted himself. But today, we’re going to begin at the beginning, with Creation itself, what we learn about God’s generosity in & through Creation, and what that tells us about our role as stewards of Creation, and what that means we’re supposed to live for.

Psalm 8:3-4 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?

So first, that God is Creator: we live in a universe — not just a world — 99 percent of which is nothing but empty space, stretching across billions of light-years and including billions of galaxies and stars. The universe was around for a long time without the earth, and the earth was around for a long time without human beings, and human beings have been around for a long time without us. Our smallness, compared to the universe’s bigness, is humbling. And God made the whole thing!  We see that God is the reason for existence, and we’re not at the center of the universe — not even close. And humility is the appropriate response! Just as it was for the tax collector.

Secondly though, and just as important, we learn in this Psalm that human beings have a very special place in created order. Here’s Psalm 8 again, picking up in v. 5:

You have made them[d] a little lower than the angels[e]
and crowned them[f] with glory and honor.
6 You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,

So despite our smallness, our apparent insignificance, human beings are set apart and given a unique role. God gives us dominion over the earth and we’re to be stewards of it. It’s been entrusted to us. We’re to be a stewards, meaning we’re to be managers or overseers — caretakers — which means our responsibility is to do exactly what the owner wants us to do with the things that are not ours but Owner’s. The things that are God’s. So as it turns out, in spite of some obvious limitations, we nonetheless possess a certain degree of great power and freedom — and — responsibility, as stewards. Because Human beings have the capacity to do things that no other creatures can’t do.

Here’s what happens though. And you all know the story. We take this privileged place that God has put us in and given us, for granted, and we abuse it. We go from having stewardship to entitlement, from dominion, to domination and even exploitation.

Look at the quote in your bulletin from Tim Keller:

If you have money, power, and status today, it is due to the century and place in which you were born, to your talents and capacities and health, none of which you earned. In short, all your resources are in the end the gift of God.

We had no say, and no control over what century we were born in, what country, or what family. Just taking an example that’s close to home for some of us at St Peter’s: What if you were born in Honduras, in Flor del Campo, where our team is going next month, where our missionary partner and fellow church member, Suzy McCall lives? Suzy’s actually here with us this morning, so come give her a hug after the service. We obviously have a lot of successful business men and women in our community. Think about just starting a business in Honduras, if you’re a citizen there instead of here. If you’re trying doing business in Flor del Campo — you may be paying taxes to drug cartels, they might kill you and your family. I know that kind of intense and not very fun to think about it, but we need think about it. It should humble us. It should make us grateful. And remind us even more of our role as stewards.

But that’s not our nature, and that’s not what a lot of our culture says. We want to celebrate the independent, self-made individual, as if we have enough power, and enough control, to deserve all the credit when success comes our way. Or, maybe we know better than to be too direct with our boasting about success and achievements, so instead we master the art of the humble brag. I think if you took away the humble brag, Facebook stock would completely crash.

Or, how about even our health — something else we like to boast in, or something else we think we control. You can exercise, you can be super fit, eat all organic food — and still get cancer. I just watched this great movie the other night, “The Fault in our Stars,” about two teenagers dying of cancer. We just do not have as much control as we think we do. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas has said this: “Nobody’s getting out of life alive.” And then he asks, “So what are we living for?”

In this movie, The Fault in Our Stars, the main character, Hazel Grace is her name, she’s upset, because her parents have had to make their whole existence all about taking care of her, and she’s afraid that when she dies, they’re not going to have anything else to live for. And so there’s moment when she tells them that this is her biggest fear. She’s come to terms with the fact that she’s going to die. She’s been terminal for a long time. She’s not afraid of death. When she tells her parents this, her mom says, honey, losing you will hurt more than anything we’ve ever experienced, and it will be the hardest thing we ever go through. But we’re gonna keep going. We’re going to live with our pain. You of all people have taught us that we can do that. And then, her mom says, I’ve been social work classes, and I want to start an organization that helps parents whose children are dying. I didn’t want to tell you this though, her mom says, because I was afraid that you’d think we’d given up on you, or that we had decided to move on without you. Hazel Grace bursts into tears, because she’s so happy. See Hazel had lived with pain and suffering long enough, even at age seventeen, that she figured out the only way to overcome that pain, was to fear it, avoid it, or numb it, but to live for something more than herself, and actually grow in her concern for the lives of others. And then, her parents learn the same lesson, about stewarding their lives, and living for something more than themselves. “Nobody’s getting out of life alive. So as Christians, as stewards of Creation, what is God calling us to live for?”

Let’s look at David’s prayer from 1 Chronicles 29, and see if it might answer this question. Keep in mind that David has just taken up an offering for the Temple that God has said Solomon will build, and David’s giving out of his own treasure before asking other leaders to do the same:

11 Yours, LORD, is the greatness and the power
and the glory and the majesty and the splendor,
for everything in heaven and earth is yours.
Yours, LORD, is the kingdom;

This may sound familiar, because some of this is the basis for Lord’s prayer! Jesus knew the Jewish Scriptures of course, and he draws on this prayer! as a Son of David. So it shows up again: “Yours is the Kingdom, Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” According to David, and according to Jesus, this something that we’re supposed to be living for is God’s Kingdom. A more contemporary word in place of Kingdom could also just be God’s economy. Living as stewards, living generously, means that we live in God’s economy.

Jesus gives some instructions about life in this kingdom, life in this economy, beginning in Matthew 6:31. Jesus says,”do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom (God’s economy) and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Don’t worry about tomorrow.”

So here we see how close a relationship there is for Jesus, as there was for David, between generosity, and life in the Kingdom of God – life in God’s economy. What joins these two things together, is trust. Trust in God. He says don’t worry, don’t be anxious. You don’t really control any of that stuff anyway, so stop chasing after it. Stop living for the world’s economy. It’s not reliable. You’d think we would have learned that by now. A life without anxiety, with open hands, without clinging to our wealth, our status, our security — that’s what enables a generous life, and that’s what enables life in the Kingdom of God, life in God’s economy.

But let’s pause and try to put life in our own economy into perspective for a minute, at the global level. The 12 percent of the world’s population that lives in North America and Western Europe accounts for 60 percent of private consumption spending, while the one-third living in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa accounts for only 3.2 percent. It’s been estimated now that it would take something like three more planets to sustain us, over our lifetimes, if everyone on the planet consumed at the rate we do over the course of their lifetimes. And that’s of course assuming that the population of the world stays the same, which it clearly is not.

Maybe you’ve heard the saying, “there’s enough in the world for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.” That pretty much describes our situation. Obviously, this is not good economics. This is not good stewardship. Let’s look at the rest of First Chronicles 29:

12 Wealth and honor come from you;
you are the ruler of all things.
In your hands are strength and power
to exalt and give strength to all.
13 Now, our God, we give you thanks,
and praise your glorious name.

This prayer, is a model for stewardship and generosity. It contains the the clue to the cure for the human disease I’ve just been trying to describe — this independent thinking that gives credit to ourselves, like we’re the ones most responsible for our own success or prosperity. It’s a disease of individualism. It’s a disease of consumerism. But this prayer is the counter-story. It’s tells the truth that we ignore, and it exposes the entitlement and domination in our thinking, and calls us back to stewardship. David is simply proclaiming that, because God is Creator, because of God’s generosity, everything we are, everything we have, everything we benefit from, and even everything we give away, is God’s.

This is what Jesus was teaching. It’s what Paul was saying, especially in Philippians, which we just finished studying earlier this month. And here’s what it boils down to: despite what we naturally think, we are actually more fulfilled, more content, more grateful and therefore more generous, when life is not their own — when we’re willing to give up ownership. And, conversely we are more miserable, more frustrated, more fearful, more discontent, when life is all about us, and we’re unwilling to give up ownership.

So, here are three final things about stewardship and generosity in God’s Kingdom, in God’s economy. First, when we imitate God’s generosity, Jesus’ generosity, it makes God’s grace visible to the rest world. When people see the people of God living with an open-handed understanding of all they have and all they are. The church is doing its job, when we see ourselves not as the owner of anything but as stewards all that God has given us.

Secondly, God is not threatening to punish you if you’re not generous. The absence of generosity in your life is its own punishment. Greed and sin are their own punishment! This is what Jesus is trying to tell us. It feels like you’re more in control at first, like you’re answering to yourself, and getting what you want — like you’re free. But you’re not. You become a slave to it, and it will rob you of peace and joy in your life. So this kind of Generosity is always an invitation.

And here’s the last thing: you can’t do it by yourself. You can’t do it by yourself. Some of us want to be more generous, but we feel constrained by our jobs, our commitments, and our schedules with family, social obligations, or whatever. Eventually, we discover that the patterns of our culture, a culture of entitlement, of domination, of individualism, of consumerism — it’s simply too much to resist by yourself. And the only way for us to resist these things is to have a community around us that’s helping us resist these things. In other words, just like the early Christians did, who we read about in the book of Acts which we studied this past summer, we have to move toward interdependence and a shared life together. This is what life in God’s kingdom and God’s economy looks like. You want a picture of it? Go back to Acts 2 and 4.

The well-known author and professor Huston Smith said this:

“I don’t have any fear of death. I do, however, have an inordinate fear of becoming dependent on other people. To me, that’s the severest test, not death.”

This is what we have to learn though. We have to face this fear. We have to grow into interdependence. We have to help each other ask, “what crowds our lives and keeps us from flourishing?” In the Connect Group that I’m a part of, we’re reading a book by a guy named Mark Scandrette about taking steps toward simplicity and generous living, and he describes generous living as:

“choosing to leverage our time, money, talents and possessions toward what matters most… toward [God's economy].”

Generosity is going to look a little bit different for everyone, but one of the best environments that we as a church can offer you where this can happen is through Connect Groups. We started several new groups just in the last month, and already I think we’re beginning to see some fruit, even in these very early stages. Several leaders of the groups gathered yesterday for a training session and a time of sharing and learning together, and I think we were all encouraged by it.

One of my main responsibilities as a pastor on staff is to champion these Groups in our community. And I wasn’t asked to do this because I’m an expert, or because I have all the experience, but because I believe in them, and because I’m committed to seeing these Groups become avenues for God’s work of transforming our lives, taking our church deeper, and even transforming the culture around us.

So if you haven’t been to a Connect Group gathering yet, go check one out. You can visit as many as you want. We have 8 groups meeting on four different nights of the week, at least once a month, in a number of different neighborhoods. You can find the contact information of the leaders on the website, and there’s also a brochure with more information on the wall outside in the greeting area of the sanctuary.

As we move to communion, in light of the call on our lives to be stewards and to live with generosity in response to God’s generosity, I want us to close with a responsive acknowledgement and prayer together — A prayer for generosity and stewardship (adapted from Free: How to Spend Your Time and Money on What Matters Most:

I am dependent on and cared for by an abundant Creator.
I choose to be grateful and trusting.
I believe I have enough and that what I need will always be provided.
I choose to be content and generous.
I know that my choices matter for myself, for others and for future generations.
Help me to live consciously and creatively, celebrating signs of your new creation that is present and coming.
God, who made me to seek your kingdom and your righteousness,
Guide me to use my time, talents and resources to pursue your Kingdom.
Teach me to be free,
to live without worry, fear or greed in the freedom of your abundance.
Give me my daily bread, as I share with those in need.
Thank you for the gift of forgiveness through your Son Jesus Christ. Amen.

More from E. Frank Tupper’s “A Scandalous Providence”

Previously I shared this collection of quotes from Tupper as well.  The quotes below were part of my reading in preparation for the sermon I preached on Sept. 28th, the text and audio from which can be found two posts before this one.  In particular, I’m always encouraged when a preacher or theologian takes the time to underscore either 1) the hope that comes from God’s solidarity with suffering through Jesus or 2) the mystery of the incarnation itself. In this case, Tupper talks about both.  Most evangelical preaching either ignores these doctrines or takes them for granted, respectively.  This is simply unacceptable, but especially so at a time when Christianity is making less and less sense, and offering less and less good news, to more and more people in North American society. Here is Tupper:

The vision of the salvation of God grasped Jesus with unprecedented boldness and stunning clarity rooted in his sense of the Holy in the midst of the tragic suffering of his people: On the one side, he encountered the incredible, immeasurable history of the suffering of humanity through illness and natural disaster, violence and injustice, military occupation and brutal subjugation, dehumanizing exploitation and excruciating oppression. On the other side, Jesus had from his dawning consciousness a distinctive personal relationship to God, the Abba presence he had lived and breathed all his life, the Holy One in the history of Israel who stands against evil and promises to overcome all the murderous forces of evil (p. 78).

The revelation of God in Jesus Christ does not undercut but intensifies the mystery of God. The incarnation constitutes a mystery beyond “human understanding,” because the Infinite, the numinous, can choose to become a finite human person: That the Infinite can become a finite, frail, human creature radically transcends but comprehends the human category of “person,” definitive of the human being. Thus the mystery of the kenosis of God in creation and Incarnation demonstrates that the Holy is at least “personal” — a crucial analogy neither comprehensive nor exhaustive (from a footnote on p. 79 about Rudolf Otto’s Idea of the Holy).

Death through violence is the companion of oppression (p. 125).

Lesslie Newbigin Lectures, Part VI: “The Last Things”

The Bible is story. It’s the story of all things from the beginning to the end — of the creation of all things, of the fall, of God’s redeeming work, and of that consummation which God has promised: Eschatology.

I. Our Big Stories: there is nothing more shaping of our way of understanding than the story that we tell of ourselves.

A. The Story of Progress: It is the biblical story which has shaped Europe and made it a distinct society from Asia. But the story for these past two hundred years has not been the Bible. It has been the Story of Progress. The doctrine of progress has shaped our thinking for these last two centuries, and it’s very hard to shake our minds of it and realize that

  1. it’s a recent story
  2. it’s not the story told in other parts of the world
  3. it’s not the story that the Bible tells

It is this story which causes us to think automatically that what is earlier is crude, more primitive, less developed, and that what is later that is refined, developed, better. Old is necessarily inferior…

  • It has conditioned us to thinking of our story in the terms of a continuous upward movement. C.S. Lewis called this chronological snobbery.

B. The Story of “the Good Old Days”: And yet of course there is another story that also sticks in the back of our minds: the story of how “things were so much better in the old days.”

  • This is also a very ancient story — the idea of a golden age in the past, and human history descends from that time to the present.
    o This story depends an awful lot on the relative importance placed on old people and young people. In most traditional societies, old people are supposed to be wise, and their point of view is respected.

–> But with the rise of the doctrine of progress, there was a deliberate attempt to take the education of the young out of the hands of parents and the church, and give it to the state. This would inculcate the next generation a different idea of the world. This whole idea in which education is something over which the government should have responsibility is fairly new.

C. the Cyclical Story: Still there is a more ancient story, however. It combines both the idea of progress and the idea of a golden age in the past. This is the way of looking at history as a cycle, which is a natural way of seeing ourselves because of what we see nature — plants, animals, etc.

  • There is a cycle of growth, maturity, death, decay, and rebirth. We have the feeling that we are moving, but in fact we are going nowhere. We are part of the wheel of nature. The most rigorous development of this comes from Indian thought, which has been so fundamental, that none of the great religious movements in that part of the world — Buddhism, Sikhism, etc. — have questioned the idea of reincarnation.
  • And of course the different schools of thought in Hinduism are different proposals for ways of escaping this terrible, endless, meaningless cycle of birth and rebirth — escaping from this appalling prospect of suffering perpetually.
  • This kind of thought is gaining popularity in the Western World nowadays. The Bible no longer controls us, it is said, so we shall return to Asia.

***The narrative of Progress though that is still prominent in our culture has one fatal flaw. However much we may think of history in terms of a glorious future for the human race, there is no denying that we will not be there.

  • This has inevitably resulted in the separation of our vision of the future of society from our vision of our personal future. That is the root of the privatization of religion which we often complain about.
    o Because if the real meaning of history is to be realized far off in the future, then I have to ask the question about the goal of my personal history.

–> And that becomes then a separate thing: the idea of a personal survival after death.

So we have this dividing. There are two eschatologies: a public one, and a private one. And there seems no way of bringing them together, because we all drop out of the story of the world before it is completed.

II. The Biblical Response to these Divided Stories: The unique thing about the eschatology of the Bible and its vision of the end, is that it draws together both the public and the private.

  1. It is both the holy city into which the kings of the earth bring their glory — and it is therefore the consummation of the whole history of civilization (i.e., literally, “the making of a city”)
  2. — and it is the consummation of every personal life. It’s the place where the tears will be wiped from every eye and we shall be with God and see him face to face.
  • How is it that the Bible is able to bring together what our telling of the story keeps apart?
    o It is only because the Bible tells the story of how sin and death — which separates individuals from the human story before it reaches its end – have been conquered, and thus eschatology of both the public and the private.
  • In Revelation, we see that the end does not come as a result of a smooth, upward progress. It comes only after judgment and catastrophe. In other words, the resurrection only comes after the cross.

A. The Personal

o Looking at it as a whole, the Old Testament’s great central theme is that the Lord reigns — the Lord who delivered us out of slavery in Egypt — and in the end all nations will acknowledge him. But for the most part, overwhelmingly, the OT sees the end as something that is in this world (e.g., every valley exalted, every mountain brought low, the lion and the lamb will lie down together, and so on).

*** There are hints of something beyond death, not strongly developed, but present. What seems to have made the decisive difference was the experience of the Maccabean Wars and the Jewish struggle to overcome the tyranny of the pagan rule of the Greek emperors.

  • Hundreds and thousands of loyal Jews were slain because they refused to break the Sabbath by fighting on the Sabbath day. And it became impossible to believe that all these who faithfully died would be excluded from the consummation for which they fought and died. And therefore it is in this inter-testamental period that the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead came to occupy a key place in Jewish thinking.
    o But it was not all of the Jews who accepted this. The Sadducees did not, for example, because they had built a very good relationship with the ruling powers, and the doctrine of the resurrection gave inspiration for revolt and willingness to die for a cause. It was a revolutionary and subversive doctrine. It implied that things as they were are not the last word. (On this issue, Jesus sided decisively with the Pharisees and taught the resurrection of the body.)

B. The Political

  • But if we come to the time of Jesus himself, we know that for centuries the Holy Land has been desecrated by the armies of the pagans, the temple destroyed, the law flouted, the rule of God denied, and God’s people subjugated in a humiliating slavery. The question was always, “how long before God intervenes to fulfill his promises?”
    o And we know of course from the Gospels that Jesus knew himself to be in his own person the presence of the rule of God and the kingdom of God. The central message that he brought was that the rule of God is at hand: the critical moment has come — the moment of judgment and redemption.

***It was clear at the beginning that Jesus sought to summon Israel as a whole to recognize the presence of this hour of judgment, recognize the signs of the times, and to fulfill the vocation to which God had called Israel — to be the suffering servant who manifested the glory of the Kingdom of God.

  • And when Israel rejected his call, Jesus in a multitude of parables and teachings warned that the absolute of destruction of Israel was pending.  And with that would come the crisis for the world.

But it is clear of course that Jesus knew that in the end it was he himself, and he alone, who could fulfill the calling of Israel. Therefore he began to teach his disciples that he must suffer, die and rise again. And that is what he did.

–> It did not turn out exactly in the way that devout Jews had thought. The resurrection of Jesus was not the end of history, even though the disciples thought it ought to be. Jesus tells them they have to wait. The final judgment is “in the Father’s hands.” There is an interim time for preparation, repentance, and sharing the gospel with the whole world. For how long? Only the Father knows. They had to learn that Jesus’ death was not the defeat of God’s kingdom, but in fact its victory.

III. What is the Nature of this Victorious Story?

A. The Kingdom is both immediate and not yet. It is already here, but there are other parables stressing patience and unknowing. There is the image of the watchman in Jesus’ stories for this reason. It’s a combination of alertness and waiting.

  • Many modern New Testament scholars have looked only at the teachings of Jesus suggesting that the coming of God’s Kingdom would be immediate, and therefore have concluded that, since 2000 years have passed, Jesus was simply mistaken. But this is only the result of reading half of the evidence. It is extraordinary that almost unanimously, contemporary scholars talk as if it is impossible to understand why it is that, if the early church already knew Jesus was mistaken, they in fact went on distributing the records of his sayings.

B. So what is the understanding of “The End” that the Gospel gives us? It’s most beautifully summed up at the beginning of First Peter 1:3-9. Here is what has been accomplished:

  • not simply the desire for something to happen in the future, which may or may not happen, but which we want to happen; not hope in that weak sense in which we so often use it.
  • But hope in the absolute confident sense — eagerly waiting for something which is assured — even though we do not know the day and the time of its coming. Hope is a anchor of the soul, unshakeable in its firm solidity.

–> The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the pledge that death and sin are conquered, and therefore we know that the end is the victory of God in Jesus Christ.

IV. A New Narrative Model: Again, the model with which we must understand the future is not our contemporary model has indicated for the last two centuries or so — the picture of a future which we hope will be a continuing progress. And not peering into the unknown of the future while trusting in a technological accomplishments.

  • What we look forward to in the future as Christians rather is advent — someone coming to meet us. The horizon of our anticipation is

not some historical utopia achieved when we progress enough,
nor is it merely my own person survival!

o Instead, to repeat, it is the coming of Jesus as the bearer of God’s final victory and judgment. That’s what we look forward to, and that’s the horizon.

  • This word horizon — what is it that we envisage when we look to the future? It is not our actions are to be understood as creating or building the Kingdom of God. It’s not that our actions directly fulfill God’s purposes for history. We know that our actions are ambivalent, confused, and that even our good intentions often lead to results quite different from what we intended.

No, it means that our actions are to be understood as active prayers for the Kingdom. We pray, “Your Kingdom come,” and we act out this prayer. We offer our actions and ourselves to God to do what God will in God’s providential will.

  • None of the geometrical models are satisfactory: neither cyclical nor linear. As already stated, if it’s a linear pattern, then we have no part in the final victory of God’s purpose. It can only be described in personal terms.

This is because there is no direct path from here to the kingdom of God. It goes down into the depths of desolation as Jesus did. And out of those depths does God raise up the new creation. The resurrection points to this.

From the humiliation and depths of the grave, the resurrection is the pledge, that out of the ruins, so much that we achieve in history God will raise that which is according to his Word. New heavens and new earth, for the former things have passed away. There’s no straight line.

  • And because there is only one perfect sacrifice, it follows that those actions which will be accepted, honored, raised up by God will be those which we undertake in/with/for the sake of/as members of the body of Christ — “acted prayers” through Jesus Christ our Lord. That is the model by which we are to understand the relation of our actions now to those of God at the end of all things.

–> Even in situations which seem hopeless, we act in such a way that accords with what God has ultimately promised. We take actions of love, not because we think they’re going to be immediately effective, but because they correspond to that about which we have been assured. These therefore are the only truly realistic actions. They are acted prayers for God’s kingdom, corresponding to ultimate reality.

VI. More specifically still though, what do we see when we look forward?

1. First, not just an indefinite future, but the coming of Jesus in glory to judge the living and the dead. We cannot eliminate this word judgment from our thinking.

  • If there is no final judgment, then Newbigin argues that the words right and wrong have no meaning. If in the end, right and wrong add up to the same thing, then they are meaningless words.
  • But judgment just means that light has come into the world, and it’s judgment because we have preferred darkness.

The essential point about light is allows things to be seen as they are! This is what the end will be like. In the end, there will be no confusion between truth and lie, right and wrong, etc.

  • In all of Jesus’ parables about judgment, the emphasis is on surprise. Those who thought they were ok found themselves on the outside, and those who were on the outside found themselves inside. The first are last and the last are first.

–> Therefore, we are warned not to judgment before the time. Judgment belongs to God.

2. Second, as our creed says, “I believe in the communion of the saints, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” The New Testament doesn’t say much about what must always be a tantalizing mystery to us: What happens to the believers who die in the faith before the end has come? Where are they? All the emphasis is on the final victory, the resurrection of the dead, and the kingdom come.

  • Communion of the Saints — There are hints here and there, such as in Hebrews 11-12: a great cloud of witnesses surround us, with us, looking to Jesus and waiting for the day of his glory. We should remember this and regularly thank God for those who have gone before us. Protestants are often too silent about this in reaction to Roman Catholicism.
  • The resurrection of the body — that’s the end to which the scriptures teach us to look, and not the pagan idea of the immortality of the soul! The resurrection of the body is part of the whole vision of the new heavens and new earth — a new creation in which all that God purposed for the world and human family is redeemed and consummated in God’s kingdom.
  • The life everlasting — that communion in the life of the Trinity in which Jesus fully participates and prays for on the night before his passion (“that they may be one as I and the Father are one”)

–> We are permitted to enter in the joy of the Triune God and to live forever in the joy of that love. That is something that passes our understanding, and yet it continually beckons us as the true goal of our being.

3. But third and finally, over and over again the New Testament, in the meantime between this time and the second coming, there is given to us the foretaste of that joy — namely, the presence of the Holy Spirit, who is the first fruit and pledge of the kingdom. In the external world of history, we have the fact of the resurrection, and in ourselves the life of the Holy Spirit.

Moved by God Incarnate: A Sermon on Philippians 2:5-11

This sermon was preached yesterday, September 28, 2014, at St. Peter’s Church, Mt. Pleasant, SC.  The audio of it can be accessed here.

The Alpha course started this past week, and Whitney and I are going through it, which I’m excited about because, as I shared with you all early last month, I tend to approach matters of faith from a fairly intellectual place. So I enjoy the kinds of conversations that we get to have in Alpha, and the questions that are asked, like “why is the Christian message any more authoritative and true in comparison to other messages that are out there?” Because there are a lot of alternatives, when it comes to what people think about the world and how they should live. There are a lot of other stories being told — some religious, some not — “what makes the Christian one any more compelling?” That question is on my mind a lot, even as a person of faith, and I’m going to get to talk to others about that every week for the next couple of months, so I’m looking forward to that.

Especially in the modern period of our Western history and culture though, we have tended to approach these kinds of questions largely from standpoint of trying to arrive at the right information. It reminds me of this time when I convinced a friend of mine who was pretty agnostic in his faith to go to coffee with me so I could basically tell him that I thought he really needed to read this book I had on Christian apologetics — that had basically answered all of my questions. I figured that if I could just convince him to read the book, he’d be persuaded just like me that Jesus really was God incarnate, and that the central Christian truth claims were all true.  That is not what happened.

This is partly because, I think, many of these questions about the trustworthiness of the Christian faith cannot be fully approached from the standpoint of thinking. And even with some of the deep reasonableness of the Christian faith that I think we should rightly draw on, some of the questions I just mentioned are very hard to answer simply on the basis of evidence or argument. Remember what the Bible says about faith in Hebrews 11:1, just as one example: “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” And again, that doesn’t mean it’s blind faith. But it’s faith nonetheless.

However, even if we could prove that Jesus was who we as Christians say he is, what would that do? If we could convince all the non-Christians in the world that our faith’s claims were the truest, would the sin and the violence and the hate and conflict in the world just all go away?

The book of James says, in chapter two, v. 19: “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” This really throws into light for our ability as human beings to believe one thing supposedly with our mind, but live out something completely different with our desires and our actions. Nobody really doubts anymore whether smoking is bad for you, but people still smoke. We all know that healthy eating and exercise is pretty much a necessity for most people to be able to live a long life. Nobody’s really denying this. And yet, many of us don’t eat well or exercise.

Because here’s the deal: thinking something is true does not necessarily lead to change in your life. In fact, sometimes it even hinders change. Because our selfish and immature minds that we all have from birth — even when given good information — tend to just want to take security from the idea. This is why Paul says elsewhere in Romans 12, that our minds must be transformed. What is it about this story and this good news that Paul is announcing that can transform our minds?

So as we consider this passage Paul is writing to the Philippians, I propose we look not only at its contents — that is, not only at the information it gives us — but the form in which that information is presented, and see what that might tell us about the nature of Paul’s faith in Christ, and therefore also the way that we’re supposed to have faith too. So let’s look at it.

Notice the way the structure and shape of the passage changes in vs. 5-11, and looks more like a poem than a letter, with stanzas instead of just lines:

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

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

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

There’s this celebratory and dramatic tone that suddenly begins here as Paul starts talking about who Jesus is, and what he did. Why the artistic and exalted prose? It’s like this part of the letter almost leaps off of the page and takes on a life of its own. In just a few stanzas, it tells the story of God’s relationship with the world that God created.

Maybe Paul writes this way because this proclamation, which is different from a definition or a theological treatise, about who Christ is simply cannot be captured in ordinary language. It has to be proclamation, confession, and testimony. There’s something more that gets said when the form of the statement is creative, is beautiful, has rhythmic structure, and musical movement: starts high, moves down low, and then goes back up again. Paul does this to evoke something in us. He does this to propel us into worship with him, and into a posture of being mesmerized by the story.

Because ultimately, the doctrine of the incarnation, which is largely what this passage is referring to — the claim Christians make that in Christ, both divinity and humanity are dwelling together and have been united in God — this doctrine, this announcement of good news is mysterious. Paul doesn’t try to explain the mystery of the incarnation, that Jesus was somehow fully divine and fully human. He doesn’t try to define it. He has to sing it!

There was a Danish physicist named Niels Bohr, who was a friend of Einstein, who puzzled over how something like an electron could simultaneously occupy several different states, assuming multiple positions or momentums or energy levels, and still be one thing. How could, for instance, an electron, be both a particle and a wave, and function both like both a particle and wave, two clearly different things — like humanity and divinity, like God the Father and God the Son. Bohr answered: “We must be clear that, when it comes to atoms, language can be used only in poetry.” Later on he remarked that if you study quantum physics and are not moved to amazement and wonder, then you aren’t studying quantum physics.  So maybe, as Christians — in much the same way — we should say that if you study theology, and you aren’t moved to amazement and wonder by the doctrine of the Incarnation, then you’re probably not studying theology.

But not because the Incarnation is irrational. That an electron can function as both a particle and a wave is not irrational. It’s just incredible. The incarnation is incredible too. But the incredible thing about the incarnation is not just that it happened, but how and why. In other words, it prompts us to ask, what kind of human being does God become, what kind of live does that human being lead, and what does this tell us about who God is, and what God wants for us?

There’s a famous parable told by the 19th century Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard called “The King and the Maiden.” And in it, thinking about this very idea of the doctrine of the incarnation, Kierkegaard talks about how this King has fallen in love with a humble maiden. Her beauty has captured his heart, and he longs to be with her. But because of his status as king, and because of her status as a peasant, and as a commoner, the king is deeply conflicted about how she could ever possibly love him as an equal in a genuine relationship. In some of his concluding remarks after telling this story, Kierkegaard says the following:

The unity of love [between God and humanity] will have to be brought about in some other way. If not by way of elevation, of ascent, then by a descent of the lowest kind. God must become the equal of the lowliest. But the lowliest is one who serves others. God therefore must appear in the form of a servant. But this servant’s form is not merely something he puts on, like the beggar’s cloak, which, because it is only a cloak, flutters loosely and betrays the king. No, it is his true form. For this is the unfathomable nature of boundless love, that it desires to be equal with the beloved; not in jest, but in truth. And this is the omnipotence of resolving love, deciding to be equal with the beloved…

See, God’s not just giving us new instructions. Of course some new teachings do come from Jesus, but other religions claim to have instructions from God too, or at least they claim to have some kind of special insight into ultimate reality. But the God of Hebrew and Christian Bible gives us God’s own very self in the form of a human being — not just a written word and not just a sacred text. And what kind of human? Here’s the really surprising part. A humble, common, ordinary, even lowly person — not a self-exalting one — not a royal, powerful, or highly educated person.

Ok, let’s go back to the question from a moment ago: what is about this story and this good news that can transform our minds, and get us to stop thinking at just a informational level? What is the force of this story that move from the level of understanding and tap into a much deeper, and visceral place where change can begin to take root in lives?

Remember again about how all this talk about humility and selflessness, Christ taking the form of servant — remember how this would have sounded to the Philippians:

For the people living in Philippi, they only know about the Greek and Roman gods, and about Caesar, who is also called a son of God, Lord and Savior. In contrast to Caesar, the New Testament writers give these titles to Jesus, which was a radical and politically dangerous thing to do. But it was also very strange!

The Greek and Roman gods — kind of like Caesar — they basically just do all the things pagans do, but better: they conquer, crush, dominate, win, feast, make love, manipulate and deceive. They get angry, they punish, they fight, they threaten. So how surprising and profound was it for them to hear that, unlike Caesar and the Empire, unlike the Greek and Roman gods, the God of Israel, and the God of Jesus Christ — the Creator of the Universe! — is a God that is generous, Paul says, and is a God that shows compassion and humility.  Not a God that grasps for power and divine status — even though he had the right to!

And then Paul proclaims that Christ became obedient to death, even death on a cross! So if that wasn’t surprising enough, that God is humble and compassionate, now God even suffers and endures humiliation. This is part of what’s so scandalous to the scribes and Pharisees in the gospels.

But we shouldn’t let ourselves off the hook either!  Because we don’t want to humble or have to suffer either. We want our God to come back now and win, and force everyone to do what we think they should do! But that mind, that very attitude, of grasping for power and honor and esteem for ourselves, is what led Jesus to bear the cross in the first place.

See, in Jesus, it is revealed to us, for the first time in history, that God doesn’t put people on crosses like Ceasar does. No, in Christ, God bears crosses. See, the gospel is a story about God taking the risk and the sacrifice of showing up in the flesh. It’s a risk and story that we’re all called to. And without risk, there is no faith.

This risk is one that we all shy away from of course. Because this takes real fearlessness. I heard someone say recently that safety is the greatest idolatry in our culture. I think this is probably true. Paul has bought into a different kind of safety, one doesn’t offer material security at all. What is it about the gospel that gives us the freedom to not put trust in these things? In other words, what is it about this story, and about this gospel, that has the power to transform our mind? I think it’s this: In this this story Paul is telling, in this poem he’s writing, this song he’s singing, we learn that, in Christ, we serve a God who has experienced and gone to the depths of human violence, betrayal, agony and defeat — so that nothing would escape his redemptive reach.

See, our faith won’t fully sink down from our heads and into our hearts if we’ve never received unconditional from someone else. And that’s exactly the kind of love that God demonstrates and extends to us in Christ. No other faith claims something quite like that.  So we believe that this story is not only true: but that it’s beautiful and good and unique and compelling! It’s just something we think. It’s a story that has to be lived, and tasted, and felt!

It’s a story that gives great comfort on the one hand, but a great calling on the other. It’s comforting because, in the resurrection it assures is that, again, whatever is shameful, humility, painful, despairing or oppressive in any situation does not have the last word. But it’s also a calling to live without fear! With the grace and mercy of God is on your side, what is there to be afraid of? Risk something big for something good. Be bold, be courageous! Live with humility, selflessness and be empowered by Christ who loves you unconditionally.

This is one of the reasons we do communion — one of the reasons we return to it, again and again, is that we need to be reminded. If you’re like me, you need to be reminded very often, that these things we’re going through do not have the last word. The grace of God has the last Word, and that’s where we draw our strength.

But before we move to communion, I just want to ask: Where are you on this spectrum between Caesar is Lord and Jesus is Lord? Who is the real Lord of your life? Is it Fear, or it faith? Is it competition and performance, or is it unconditional love and acceptance?  Most of us are probably somewhere in the middle, so maybe the better question is, in which direction are you moving?

Maybe you came in here today fully believing that the story was true, but you’ve been going for a while forgetting that it’s also good, and beautiful, and compelling, and something to trusted in and shared with other! Or maybe you’re new to this whole Christian faith thing or unsure about your commitment to the Church. Maybe you don’t know if it’s true, but you think it’s good and beautiful or intriguing. My encouragement to you then would be to let yourself be moved by this story. Take the risk, the leap of faith, of experimenting with what it would be like to live as if this story were true. Get to know some people in this church. Step into community with us, and see where it leads you. Try living with Jesus as Lord for a while and see what happens.

I want to give us a minute of silence just to respond to this question.  This is a hard question. There’s so much to fear, it seems like. The weight of the world and the stuff going on in our lives can be so devastating. But that’s why Jesus came, and that’s why he says that in him there is peace. In this world we will have trouble. But Christ have faced the world at its worst and at our worst, and you have overcome the world.

May God give us faith then to trust in not only the truth of the story of the incarnation, as an idea, but in its goodness and beauty and mystery — that it would move us, transform our minds, and that we would trust in it as reality, and allow it to become the story of our own lives as well.

Lesslie Newbigin Lectures, Part V: ” The Fall” (Sin and Salvation)

Creation was very good! But this was not the last word… there follows the story that we call “The Fall.”

I. Sin in our Culture:

  • The human race was made in God’s image, and is therefore good, but has fallen and in rebellion. This is a point on which we are very strongly criticized in our culture. To call a person a sinner is like the greatest sin you can commit! It undermines their humanity. People need to be encouraged and told that they have great dignity, deep worth… [true, but not the whole story!]
  • Certainly from the time of the Renaissance onwards, European culture has tried to take an optimistic view of human nature. We have rights! To life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, for example. The middle ages had not expected happiness on earth — only the first taste of it. They expected it to come at the end. From the Renaissance onwards, however, human nature is good. Yes there are bad people, but that is the exception.
  • We have a very strong tendency to identify sin with particular groups. Nazi Germany, for instance [or these days, the LGBTQI community, Muslims, drug addicts] — there has been the suggestion that we dealt with that, and it should never happen again! But of course it has happened again, and is happening.

II. The Bible on Sin:

  • The Bible of course speaks about humanity as sinful, but what grounds do we have other than the third chapter of Genesis? We should also be able to identify this doctrine of sin at the heart of our Scriptures, namely, through the account of the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. To put it very crudely, we know that we are sinners because of what happened on Good Friday. That is the ultimate ground.
  • 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.

o The crucifixion was not the work of a few bad people. It was brought about by those who were and are accounted as the “best” people! The righteous, the priests, the scribes, the governing officials, and of course the crowd in the streets [also the disciples abandoning him!]. So unless we take the view that we are in a very special case, essentially what happened there was that the human race came face to face with its Creator, and its response was to seek to destroy him. That utterly central and crucial moment in universal history is the ground on which we are compelled to say that all of us, the “good” and “bad” together, are sinners.

  • Now of course if that were the last word, then there can be no future for the human race. The only authentic response to what happened would be what Judas did when he went out and hanged himself! What future is there for the human race?

III. The Cross as God’s Response to Sin:

  • But of course it is not the last word, because the crucifixion of Jesus, while it was on the one hand the work of sinful men and women, it was on the other hand the work of Christ, who went deliberately to that meeting point in order to give himself for the life of the world — so that at that point where we are judged and condemned without distinction, the cross cannot be used as a banner for one part of humanity against another. It is the place where we are all unmasked as the enemies of God.
  • But it is also the place where we are offered the unlimited kindness and love of God, so that while that in a sense the first reaction to the cross is a sentence of death upon all of us, it is also a gift of life. For, as Paul says, 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 Son of God who loved us and gave himself for us.
  • That is why we preach the doctrine of original sin. We can only know that we are sinners because we have been forgiven — because it is sin itself that blinds us to sin! It is only the forgiven who can truly repent. So we do not speak of sin because we are in a position to pass judgment on anybody else, but because we are all in the same situation.

IV. Fall and Redemption for Fully Expounded:

  • Romans 5-6 — our solidarity in sin. In Adam, we all sin, and in Christ, we are all made alive. This statement though, as has been grievously misunderstood, partly as a result of some words by Augustine. When “death passed from to all people,” the sin of Adam did not automatically make us all guilty. The true text means that it is because we have all sinned that we are in solidarity. Sin is not transmitted through the act of sexual intercourse, as Augustine came near to saying. This corrupted Western thinking about both sin and sex.
  • Apart from those individual choices about which we are conscious and for which we are responsibility, we are also part of a network in which, from the very beginning, we become victims of sin, collectively (wars, poverty, environmental degradation, etc.). We are all together in this web of sinful relationships. It was there before we are born, and we are incorporated into it in the way that we are brought up into this situation.

o Original sin in this sense is much more intelligible. And in addition to this, any parent who has had to cope with a small child having tantrums because it doesn’t get what he or she wants understands very well what is meant by original sin.

–> The answer to this is “a righteousness from God by faith.” In other words, it is the gift of a relationship to replace the one that we had broken.

A. Theological Anthropology: What does it mean to be human?

  • Our thinking has been very much shaped by the Greek conception of substance — the idea that behind everything we know, there is a kind of underlying substance, which is the real thing, and that everything is to be understood as its essential substance. But the truth in the Bible is that what we are is constituted by our relationships. We are human beings by virtue of the fact that we are related to others and to God. Human nature does not exist except in a pattern of relationships.
  • In physics, for centuries, people have sought to identify the atom as the essential unit of matter — the ultimate substance that underlies everything. But of course we know now that the atom is actually a network of dynamic relationship between particles of electrical charges. Moreover, on the other end of the cosmic scale, it is proper to the Christian faith that when we use the word God, we are not speaking of some kind of divine substance. We are referring to a pattern of relationships of total and complete communion between three persons (Trinity).
  • From this point of view, we can see that the fall is essentially the attempt by human beings — whose only relationship is one of dependence upon God — to establish for themselves a reality independent from God, which allows them to make up their own minds about what is good and evil, and not simply to stand in a relationship of love and obedience to the Creator.

o This is why the answer to the appalling fact of sin is the establishment of a new relationship — the righteousness of God by faith, and not our own righteousness. It is a righteousness constituted by the fact the God has accepted me in Jesus Christ, and in faith, we believe and accept. That relationship between Holy God and sinful us which constitutes the only righteousness that there can be. How is this brought about though?

B. Old Testament Background: The Old Testament is full of terrible stories of the wickedness of human beings — from Cane and Abel through all that leads to the flood story and the tower of Babel, which was another instance of human beings trying to establish their own authority. The response of God is the passion of God, which is a theme of the whole Old Testament, for sinful humanity:

  • God invites a people to learn to live a new life simply by faith, called to leave home, rescued out of slavery, brought into a good and pleasant land. But that family defiled that land and rebelled again and again against its loving Creator. God responds in agony, sometimes threatening and apparently following through with terrible punishments — and then again repenting and wooing them back as his bride. We see this from the unconditional love but also anguish of God as expressed in Hosea and the Servant Song in Isaiah — the Servant who should be Israel fulfilling its true calling of bearing the sin of the world in its own heart.

C. The Culmination of the Story of Israel: And finally of course we come to our Lord himself, in whom all these signalings of the passion of God and prophecies are made flesh and blood in the life a human being. We see Jesus Christ calling Israel to fulfill that role to which it was called, to be God’s servant people for all the nations. And when that calling is denied, Jesus goes alone to the cross bearing the passion of God for a sinful world.

  • And so, the one who is Lord of all is humiliated, cursed, cast out, executed with the execution of a criminal and a blasphemer, and cries out in desolation, “My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?” going down to the greatest and darkest depths, so that nothing would escape his redemptive reach.
  • God raised him from the dead, to new life, and exalted him to heaven as Lord and sent forth the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost to fill the church with the knowledge that this is the Lord, this crucified man, rejected by the world. And so the church goes out to proclaim the mystery of salvation.
    –> The point that Newbigin is especially trying to bring out by narrating the gospel story is that, this fact of God’s victory, is a fact of history before we come to our attempts to explain it. By the coming of the Holy Spirit, the church was given the assurance to preach this to the world, that the righteousness of God has been given to us, so that we, the unholy, may live in the love and fellowship of the Holy God.

D. Three Traditional Theories of Atonement, and Newbigin’s Signal Toward a Fourth: Newbigin is confident that when we talk about the atonement, we are speaking of something that we can never fully explain in human language, because we are dealing ultimately with that which is the contradiction of all reason, namely, sin. And if we could incorporate sin into a coherent rational structure of thought, it would no longer be sin. Our attempts to comprehend the atonement will always fall short of the truth of it. They can only point us toward this truth. And if one takes some of the great metaphors of reconciliation that are used in the Scriptures:

  1. That of ransom, which draws on the experience of the redeeming of a slave from its master by the generosity of another, and was a metaphor of enormous emotional weight for a society in which slavery was so common. But of course if you push this metaphor to its conclusion, you have to ask, to whom was the ransom paid? So some early theologians said to God, and some said to the devil. Neither of them can be accepted, however, because to say that it was a ransom paid to God implies that God had to be placated in order to forgive us, and this sets an antagonism between the Son and the Father, which is wholly contrary to the Christian faith.
  2. There is, secondly, the metaphor of substitution, in which another has died in our place, and that again has an element of deep truth in it. And yet it cannot finally explain what happened because it is so very clear that in the teaching of Jesus himself — although he goes before us, he alone can meet the ultimate enemy in that final battle – yet it is not in order that we may be excused from that encounter, but precisely in order that we may be enabled to follow him, to take up the cross and go the way that he has gone.
  3. And again, there is the metaphor of sacrifice, which is so fully developed in the letter to the Hebrews, and so clearly fulfills the Old Testament regulations with regard to sacrifice, so that we see Jesus as the ultimate sacrifice to the father. But yet again, we must be careful not to state that in such a way as to make it seem that there is a relation of antagonism between the Son and the Father as though, once again, the Father needs to be placated [i.e., a punishment/penalty satisfied].

• It’s one of the little features of the Old Testament use of the word expiation or atonement that that Hebrew verb, which is so constantly used in relation to God is never used in the form which puts God as the object. It is used when Jacob wants to placate Esau who is coming to meet him with an armed band, and Jacob sends gifts ahead of him. There the word is used, he is trying to placate his brother. But that word is never used with God as its object. It is always that God has provided a sacrifice to make atonement concerning your sin or whatever it may be. It is used always in that subtle, indirect form, so that there is no question as it were placating the Father. On the contrary, the atoning work of Christ is also the work of the Father.

  • And yet all these different metaphors help us, at least to come a little nearer, to the center of this mystery. Newbigin thinks that one of the most helpful of them is the one in which the Old Testament Hebrew word for mercy seat, the place where the sinner could be received by the Holy God is used, translated in Romans 3 as the place of propitiation. Surely here we come near to the heart of what was done there.
  • It has created a place where we who are sinners, still sinners, can nevertheless, be in fellowship with God who is Holy. Because in this act in which the son of God in loving obedience to the Father has taken his place right where we are in our lost state and therefore made possible a communion in the Holy Spirit in which we share the very life of God himself — sinners as we are.
  • This word koinonia/fellowship/communion, is actually a word that means common sharing in a property. It’s a shared participating in the actual life of the Spirit. And that place is the church, where we gather in the name of Jesus, we hear his words, and in the sacrament he ordained we partake — his dying and his victorious resurrection ad victory over death. And there is the place where we know justification and sanctification.

E. Justification and Sanctification:

  • Justification, that is to say, being recognized by God not because we are in ourselves just or righteous, but because in this act in Jesus Christ, he has accepted us as just, as righteous. It is a righteousness on the one hand that is the sheer gift of God and on the other hand that is accepted in faith. It is never in our possession but rather something we receive moment by moment by faith in what God has done for me in Jesus Christ.
  • And here also is where we know sanctification. But here sanctification does not mean a process by which we gradually become holy in ourselves, as though we could have a holiness which was not simply God’s gift, but was our characteristic. That would be a contradiction at the very heart of the gospel.

–> It is interesting that when Paul puts the words justification and sanctification together, it is sanctification that comes first: “You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified.” Both the words sanctification and justification refer to a relationship with God, not to something that we possess in our ourselves. And the holiness, which is the proper mark of the a disciple of Jesus, is not and can never be something that we possess in ourselves, so that we can say that holiness is so to speak a designation of myself. That perfect holiness is simply the relationship of faithful dependence upon the sanctifying grace of God.

F. Reclaiming the “Good News” of the Doctrine of Original Sin:

  • And all this adds up to a very joyful preaching of the doctrine of original sin. G.K. Chesterton talked about the “good news of original sin.” If the whole lot of us are nothing more than a bunch of escaped convicts — and that is what we are, basically — then there is room for an enormous amount of joy in the church. We don’t have to go around pretending like we are righteous people.  And that is good news.
  • We are forgiven sinners. We have been embraced, accepted and loved by the holy God. That is something which can only lead us to singing and dancing. We are delivered from the unbearable burden of trying to be ourselves, and in ourselves, righteous. We have only one thing to do — to give ourselves moment by moment as a thank-offering, to the one who has loved us and laid down his life for us. That’s what the Christian life is.

Christian Wiman Quotes: “O Thou Mastering Light”

I share the following quotes that struck me as I was reading Christian Wiman’s book, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. They come from the chapter entitled “O Thou Mastering Light”:

mybrightabyss“Life is always a question of intensity, and intensity is always a matter of focus. Contemporary despair is to feel the multiplicity of existence with no possibility for expression or release of one’s particular being” (p. 48).

“You can certainly enjoy life . . . you can have a hell of a time. But I would argue that [if] life remains merely something to be enjoyed, [then] not only its true nature but also something within your true nature remains inert, unavailable, [and] mute” (p. 59).

“Spiritual innocence is not naivete. Quite the opposite. Spiritual incense is a state of mind – or, if you prefer, a state of heart – in which the life of God, and a life in God, are not simply viable but the sine qua non of all knowledge and experience, not simply durable but everlasting” (p. 64).

“The void of God and the love of God come together in the mystery of the cross” (p. 68).

“The frustration we feel when trying to explain or justify God, whether to ourselves or to others, is a symptom of knowledge untethered from innocence, of words in which no silence lives, of belief occurring wholly on a human plane. Innocence returns us to the first call of God, to any moment in our lives when we were rendered mute with awe, fear, wonder. Absent this, there is no sense in arguing for God in order to convince others, for we ourselves are not convinced” (p. 71).

“The minute you begin to speak with certitude about God, he is gone. We praise people for having strong faith, [but] strength is only one part of that physical metaphor: one also needs [the strength that is required for] flexibility” (p. 71).

“Perhaps the relation of theology to belief is roughly the same as that between the mastery of craft and the making of original art: one must at the same time utterly possess and utterly forget one’s knowledge in order to go beyond it” (p. 72).

“This is how you ascertain the truth of spiritual experience: it propels you back toward the world and other people, and not simply more deeply within yourself” (p. 75).

Lesslie Newbigin Lectures, Part IV: “Creation”

I. Genesis 1 is an absolute beginning. In the beginning… God. In Colossians, St. Paul spells that out more fully when he says all things in heaven and earth, visible and invisible. There are been many futile arguments that have resulted from forgetting the doctrine of Creation.

  • For example, the theological question of “whether a thing is right because God commands it, or God commands it because the thing is right?”: This question implies that there is something called right which exists before or apart from God, but the phrase “all things invisible” protects us from that idea. We think of concepts like right and wrong, beautiful, or coherent, as if they have a timeless existence. But that is not so. All things have their sole source and origin in God.

Newbigin draws out five points that are brought out in those first chapters of Genesis:

  1. There is an emphasis on the distinguishing of things, one from another, the separating of things — light from darkness, sea from land — and the different species of animals and plants. In general the distinctness and specificity of everything that is created.
  2. Secondly, the created world is given a kind of autonomy and life of its own to reproduce, distinct from God (though not separate).
  3. The whole created world is created as a home for the human family. On the fourth day, when the sun, moon and stars are created, these words were almost certainly written during the time of the Babylonian Captivity — working as powerless slaves under the shadows of the enormous palaces of their foreign rulers. The sun, moon, and stars were considered divine and part of the heavenly bodies by the Babylonians. They were even worshiped and prayed to. But on day four of the Creation Story, we get a different account of these “heavenly bodies.” They were placed in the sky by God for the home that God has made for his family. The meaning of the whole creation is that of home for God’s family.
  4. The human family is given a particular responsibility. It is to cherish the creation, to bring the creation in the perfection which the Creator desires. This has an important message for our whole ecological concerns at the time. Moreover, it is not God’s intention that the world should be mere a wilderness. it is the be a garden, and the human family is to till, nourish and cultivate it. The human is given the responsibility of naming the animals so that we have a relationship with these animals. It’s part of the human responsibility to bring animals to their fullest potential as God created them to be. Take, for example, a well-trained dog in comparison to a wild one.
  5. God looked at everything he had made and said it was very good. This contrasts so sharply with much of human religion which has regarded the world as a bad, dark and dangerous place. The world was created, in John Calvin’s words, to be a theater in which God’s glory is reflected.

II. “Pagan” (or just non-Christian) views of the Created World in Contrast:

  • Nature itself is in some way divine and is the ultimate reality. This is expressed in both primitive and mystic forms, in which the physical world is seen as a place where divine energy rests. In Hinduism, for example, the sheer natural powers are identified with God. The power of human sexuality, for instance, is glorified.
  • And things are seen as transient. Most of nature is marked by change, passing away, and dying. So there’s a strong tendency to feel that the ultimate reality must indeed be trans-temporal — something timeless and changeless to be grasped by the mind (thinking of Plato and Greek/classical philosophy here), rather than the fleeting things that we know by our senses.
  • Plato said that the ultimate realities are ideas, non-material things. And everything in this world is merely an imperfect, shadowy imitation of the perfect, invisible world (Plato’s Allegory of the Cave). Aristotle makes the similar distinction between substance and accidents. All we really know and experience are accidents (characteristics). The substance of things remains hidden.
  • So there comes to be this sharp distinction between what the Greeks called the sensible world and the intelligible world, and between the material world we touch on the one hand, and that we grasp with our contemplation and spirits on the other hand. And so the way to ultimate reality is thus declared to be via the mind, not the body. We must bypass the accidental happenings in history that cannot give us ultimate truth — either by the powers of human reason, mystical contemplation, self-transcendence, and to pass beyond to the eternal invisible.
  • Therefore, history cannot have real significance! It may appear to be going somewhere, but it’s really just going around in circles. Now the Christian gospel was launched into a pagan world in which these were the dominant ideas! During the period in which Christianity was a persecuted minority, struggling for its life and advancing through its testimony by the martyrs, there could not be much mature discussion between these two ideas: the Christian gospel and these pagan views. But once Christianity was acknowledged as a permitted religion and as the religion of the Empire, the way was opened for vigorous discussion, which took place especially in the great intellectual center of Alexandria. In the 4th and 5th Centuries, these two worlds engaged each other.

III. The Christian Response: One of the convictions of the Christians was that you cannot build on the classical philosophy — the gospel builds a completely new starting point. If the Divine has indeed appeared in the person of Jesus Christ, then that has to be the starting point for all our thinking. Based on this conviction, and in light of the Greek philosophy it was encountering, several definitive thoughts arose that have been central for Christian theology ever since:

  1. Since the world is the creation of a rational God, and since God has created us in his image, there is therefore rationality in the world which in principle our reason can grasp. Thus, we can take it as a matter of faith that the universe is ultimately, in principle, comprehensible — even though we don’t know everything about it yet. This is the foundation upon which modern science has been built.
  2. Since Creation is not an emanation, this created world has a relative (not absolute) autonomy — a measure of independence. In Aristotle’s thought, everything that moves, moves because God is moving it. And this is followed by Islam even to this day. But for Christians, everything that happens is not the result of the direct action of God.
  3. But how much autonomy does the world have? It’s possible to go to one extreme and say that it has almost complete autonomy. This is the image of a clock that has been wound up by God, and God no longer needs to interfere. This is called deism, which was very dominate in the 17th Century when Isaac Newton was working. Perhaps from time to time God would move in and adjust when necessary, but this “clock maker” model eventually becomes merely redundant by the time of the 19th Century in much of philosophy and science, which still has such a large influence today.
  4. The other extreme, which we call pantheism, is when the world is understood as being totally dependent upon God all the time. The world is impregnated with God, and God is in everything, but God is not more than or independent of everything. On this view, you cannot distinguish God from the world. God is identified with nature. This thinking reasserted itself during the Renaissance. The New Age spirituality of today is an example of this same view. (So Christianity has always had to find itself in between these two extremes, deism and pantheism – more below)
  5. Lastly, because of the Incarnation, it is permissible to think in terms of material means for our salvation. Whereas the Greeks had developed the science of medicine to a consider degree, and the practice of medicine, the Hebrews rejected it. Healing is the direct work of God and answer to prayer. There is no place for medicine. But the early Christian theologians argued that, since in the Incarnation, God had used the actual material life of Jesus Christ to bring about the salvation of the world, we cannot reject the material world as a means for salvation.
    o Medicine then, for instance, was accepted. And a whole healing ministry has been developed out of it — not to mention the wider developments of technology ever since, which Christians are certainly entitled to utilize and celebrate. Francis Bacon and others stated that we must development science and technology for the good of humanity.

–> But sadly of course we also know how technology can become an instrument for terrible evil.

IV. How do we answer this question about Autonomy, without falling into either extreme? How is the created world related to God? This is perhaps one of the most difficult and inescapable problems in all Christian thinking about the world.

  • The reason why Islam has to reject the central Christian doctrine of Christ’s death on the cross as simply impossible is because Islam believes Jesus was an apostle of God, and that God could not have killed his own apostle. And since everything that happens in the world is a result of the direct action of God, it is incredible and preposterous to believe that Jesus died on the cross.
  • But the other extreme is to claim total autonomy for the world, to see it as a closed system, entirely controlled by the laws of cause and effect (19th Century Positivism).

–> In both of these cases, there is no place for intercession, miracle or divine providence. We cannot ask God to interfere in a world that is quite independent, nor in a world that is utterly dependent from him. In sum, Newbigin doesn’t think that there is a metaphysical/philosophical solution to this problem. It depends rather on faith in God’s grace as revealed to us in the Bible.

But what might illuminate this further, however? How far does God “interfere” in the workings of the natural world?

  1. God does not act arbitrarily or whimsically. There is an orderliness. Science helps us with this too, with the laws and regularities of nature. Without that, human freedom would be impossible. We can only act responsibly if we know that the world is not an arbitrary place.
  2. Human beings have the responsibility and therefore the freedom to obey and disobey God. We can sin and repent. So certainly everything that happens is not the direct will of God. Human beings are able to do things that God does not will.
  3. We can look at the world like a machine — how a machine works is different from what it is for… (this is also from his other lecture on “How do we Know?”)
    o There’s a hierarchy of levels of knowing a thing — atomic, molecular, mechanical, biological, etc. You cannot replace biology with physics, chemistry or mechanics, for example. Questions of purpose, however, are of a totally different nature.  While the world can at one logical level be explained as a self-operating mechanism, that is in no way a total explanation of the world. To attempt to understand the world apart from the purpose of what/who has created the world is a logical mistake. It is to misunderstand the difference between these logical levels.
  4. Having said all of that, it still remains for us a mystery that God does give us this freedom to disobey him, that God does give to the world this kind of regularity which we cannot ignore or reject, and that yet God does “work all things together to good for those who love him” (Romans 8:28). It is only by grace through faith that we understand that. And that understanding begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus.

–> Because the cross is, from one point of view, the most complete contradiction of God’s purpose, and yet has become the most complete expression and action of God’s purpose. The cross and resurrection of Jesus are the place where by faith in response to grace we can believe even if we cannot completely explain, that, in spite of the relative independence God has given to the world, that nevertheless he does overrule all things for good to those who love him.

V. What does it mean to seek the truth: if we know what it is, why do we seek it? If we don’t know what it is, how do we recognize it when we find it? This is the conundrum of Plato (also from previous lecture on “How do we Know”).

  • The passion to know, and the passion that leaves unwilling to accept mere confusion, which drives us to seek patter, order, beauty, coherence — in all the multitude of things that face us — that heuristic passion isn’t something which simply arises from below, but is the response to the grace of God who has made us so that we might feel after him and find him.
    o And if that is true, it brings our knowing and our being together, because we would have to understanding that it is that same grace of God calling of all creation to its full perfection, which also brings about the developments in nature. Evolution of living creatures in the world, not simply by blind forces from below, but rather by the response of the creation to the calling of its Creator. It is in us as human beings, finally, that this response becomes a conscious response, such that in all our hearts we struggle to grasp the meaning of this wonderful and perplexing world in which God has placed us.

–> And if that is our understanding, then we will also be able to understand what we call the Fall. We know that the human story is not the story simply of our faithful search for the truth and of our growth toward God’s purpose. If this picture above is true, then we can understand the Fall exactly as Genesis 3 portrays it, namely, as the struggle to know, perverted into the desire to have power for oneself. The serpent deceives Adam and Eve by temping them to try to know rather than trust. This is the essence of the fall, which explains why our use of science and technology, our stewardship of nature — which is suppose to serve humankind — can and has become so corrupted and self-destructive.

V. Finally, we are talking about not only the visible world, but the invisible world: invisible things, which are nevertheless real and powerful (e.g., structural and systemic sin — not just invisible sin).

  • Sometimes in the Bible this is the political/imperial power, or the Jewish Law in Galatians, or Greek philosophy in Colossians 2. Sometimes it is the whole establishment that put Jesus on the cross (Pilate, the crowd, scribes, Pharisees, priests, etc.).
    o Caesar, for example, is the present embodiment of an invisible worldly power and ideology — a spiritual reality — that is represented temporally in human beings and human institutions.
    o Some individuals in positions of great earthly power nonetheless feel relatively powerless due to the institutional constraints and limits of the power structures in which they find themselves (capitalism, socialism, political parties, government branches, etc).
    o There can obviously be a good purpose within political power and economic order and so forth, but these are still fallen powers. They have also become part of this fallen Creation. They have sought to absolutize themselves. In this way, therefore, they can also become agents of evil against which we have to struggle.
  • But as the New Testament reminds us, in his dying on the cross, Jesus has disarmed these powers. He has dethroned them! The prince of this world shall be cast out! They are not destroyed, but they are disarmed. So we live in the time in which these powers, which still exist, and still threaten us, have yet been robbed of their final authority.
  • Therefore, we can, as Paul says, put on all the armor of God, and fight not against flesh and blood — not against other human beings — but against these principalities and powers — these invisible realities, which are part of the creation — God’s creation, a fallen creation! — but one that is nonetheless ultimately redeemed by the power of Christ.

–> And so we live by grace through faith in the confidence that God, who in the beginning created all things visible and invisible, will in the end reign in glory over all things, and that the earth will indeed be a theater of his glory

Lesslie Newbigin Lectures, Part III: “Authority and the Word of God”

This lecture was given at Holy Trinity Brompton Church on May 11, 1995, by bishop Lesslie Newbigin:

On the whole, we tend to regard authority as a bad thing. This is because our culture was born out of a revolt against freedom. This is sacred to us. We are children of “The Age of Reason,” or the Enlightenment, which declared freedom from external authority. True authority, as it goes, must be internal, not external — found through freedom of thought and of consciousness, and the responsibility that each of has to find out the truth for ourselves.

I. But of course, freedom of thought (internal) cannot be the last word. Authority has to be both external and internal. For Christians, the external side of authority is of course the Bible. For Catholics, it’s the Bible and Tradition. And for Anglicans, there’s a tradition that says it’s the Bible, the Tradition and reason. More on this later.

1. For Catholics: The Bible, or at least the New Testament, is subsequent to the church. There was no New Testament yet at the beginning of the Church.

  • This concept of tradition is closely related to idea of apostolic succession. But of course the apostles are not coming up with their own ideas. They are handing down what was given to them by word of mouth. The gospels were traditions treasured in the different churches in the earliest centuries by those who had actually heard and seen Jesus’ words and deeds!
  • But the relationship between the book and the community is a two-way relationship. Both of them create each other. They are reciprocally related.
    o The first apostles were always careful to say that what they were saying was the true interpretation of the Scriptures — namely, the Old Testament — and that the coming of Jesus has now made it possible for the first time to understand the true meaning of the Prophets and the Law.
    o The heart of the tradition is that, according to the Scriptures, these things which we’ve seen and heard and are telling you about, actually happened.
  • The final fixing of the canon of the New Testament was indeed decision of the Church. There were some books about which there was long debate and doubt. Some were included only with great hesitation. 2nd Peter barely made it in, for example, while the Gospel of Thomas was excluded.
    o In one sense, the fixing of the text is the work of the church, but on the other hand, by that very process, the church recognized that it was not free to choose whatever it wanted. There was a tradition and original message to which they were trying to be faithful.

II. What then does it mean for us to speak of the Bible as the Word of God?

The Word of God is used in three respects in the New Testament:

  1. Jesus Christ
  2. preaching
  3. the written Scriptures

1. The fundamental use is with reference to Jesus himself. The is the Word made flesh, presented as a human life. We cannot stress this point too much.

  • Thinking back to the previous lecture on “How do we Know,” this should be compared to the vision of truth which was given to us by Descartes. Descartes, remember, saw the human mind as a disembodied “I”, and therefore took as the model of truth, what was called an objective view of subjectivity — that that reality is outside of the mind, as if the “I” could be totally objective, and the subject can be uninvolved.

In absolute contrast to that, in Jesus we have a man in a particular time and place, is called truth — in his bodily reality, he is the Word of God. So the Word of God is not detached or mental. It is Jesus himself.

2. Secondly, there is the Word as preached, which is also active and alive.

3. And thirdly, the Word is written.

  • All the writings have been Scripture from the very beginning. It is not the case that they “became” Scripture after being canonized. They are the record of God’s actual involvement in the life of the World! There is no pre-scriptural phase. The record of the testimony of the prophets and apostles.

III. But Newbigin adds a fourth: The Bible inside, and now outside the church:

  • The Bible was heard, not read, for the first 1400 years. It was known through the liturgy of the Church. It was part of the testimony of the church about Jesus Christ.
  • The printing press changed everything, because someone could then read the Bible outside the context of a worshiping community. It was still in Christendom, true, but it was liberated from the control of the church — a control of which had become in many ways, obscuring.

With the great intellectual conversion of Europe, however — Enlightenment — the Bible begins to be read as one of the many books in the world, rather than as Scripture, and rather than within the tradition. It’s read within another tradition — the tradition of modern science.

  • In the modern period, this classical Greek philosophical idea became popular again: Eternal truths are transcendent of history, beyond, beyond time. In other words, accidental happenings of history cannot prove eternal truths. Newton’s cosmology, if you like, is one of the eternal truths of reason. It’s timeless and not based on any historical happening.
    o But the Bible is a story of happenings in history, and therefore the Bible may illustrate some eternal truths. But the Bible cannot be the source of our knowledge of truth, because, once again, remember Descartes — truth is something known as the objective reality of the mind, which contemplates the world from outside.

IV. How was the Church to respond to that situation?

Broadly speaking, there are two alternatives: Liberal and Fundamentalist.

  • Newbigin doesn’t like the labels, because they become ways of justifying not listening to the other person’s view, but they are still helpful and necessary.

The liberal response (a very evangelical one, in fact): The question was, “How do we get the modern world to listen to the Bible?” How can we make the Bible intelligible to the modern world?

  • The Father of the whole Liberal Protestant movement was Friedrich Schleiermacher, who said that deeper than all the findings of science and metaphysics, there is something fundamental in human nature, which tells that we are all ultimately dependent on God. We are not our own sovereigns. There is a sense of absolute dependence on a greater reality. This was the standing ground from which he thought he could convince the rationalists of his time that the Bible has something to say. This brought into our world the word “experience” as an equation with all religion — not just Christianity. So the Bible is valued as a marvelous treasury of religious experience.
    o But if you begin to ask the question of the truth of the Bible from the point of view of the Enlightened modern world, then you begin to ask questions from what is called the “historical-critical view” of the Bible. This view used a method based upon a whole set of assumptions of what is possible. And on the basis of these assumptions, drawn from another source — not the Bible — you decide how much and what can be accepted.
  • But also, and this is a very positive fruit, there is a very serious effort to disentangle the sources that have brought together to make the Bible as we have it now, to examine the various oral and written traditions.

Perhaps it is only now that we can see though, that the question, “how can we make the Bible intelligible to the modern world?” was the wrong question. The question that we have to put to the world instead is, “how can the world make any sense at all without the gospel?”

Fundamentalist: Also shaped by the Enlightenment (it’s impossible not to be!)

  • If the Bible is the Word of God, then it must have that kind of objective certainty that Descartes has taught us to regard as the criteria of truth. And it must therefore be affirmed that the Bible is verbally inerrant in every statement, and it must have that kind of objective certainty, which Descartes regarded as the only real knowledge.
    o But this means that we are imposing on the Scriptures a concept of truth which is foreign to the Scriptures. This does violence to the Scriptures. If we want to know what the Word of God is, we must not begin by deciding what we think it is or must be, and then imposing that on the Scriptures; we have to find out from the Scriptures themselves what the Word of God is and how God speaks to us.

The fundamental mistake here is that it forgot the great insight of the Reformation — that our knowledge of God is by grace through faith. This is not what Descartes was advocating.

V. Now we can come back and look at the Anglican Triad: Scripture, Tradition and Reason.

But reason is not an independent source of information about what is the case. Reason is the faculty by which we make sense of the data that are given, of the material that we have, and all reasoning/rational discourse has two characters:

1) it has to take something for granted, something given

  • The Christian use of reason is that exercise which takes as the given the fact of the Gospel, which takes the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the starting point, dogma.

2) it is always operative within a tradition/language

  • within the tradition of Christian believing which has developed from that beginning.
  • But if reason is invoked in the tradition of the Enlightenment, and takes the facts that are available for empirical observation by modern science, it just means that two different traditions are being brought into play. One is used to critique another. It is the independent exercise of reason (e.g., Kant’s Religion within the Limits of Reason).

VI. So we have two models of Authority:

1. Islam: where the Bible is understood to be the actual verbatum dictation by God in the Arabic language to be accepted, whether you understand it or not, simply as God’s revelation of the truth.

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

2. By contrast, we look at Jesus: The parallel is not Quran and Bible but Quran and Jesus — because it is Jesus who is the Word of God, in the primary and fundamental sense.

  • Jesus did not write a book. He gathered a company of disciples, and he called them friends, making the things of God known to him. Jesus in the Gospels shows us an apprenticeship to a tradition.
    o Apprenticeship means much more than reading a book. This is why we have different accounts of Jesus’ words and deeds in the four Gospels. We don’t know exactly what Jesus said or did. From Descartes’ point of view, we have no reliable certainty. And that is a charge that is brought against us by Muslims. That we have four gospels is used by them to prove that we have last the original Gospel.

But this is not something to regret. It is fundamental to our faith — that this is the way that God has made his revelation to us.

And now, finally we come to “The Work of the Holy Spirit”: It is only if we understand the Christian teaching about the Holy Spirit that we have can overcome this dichotomy between objective and subjective which has so paralyzed the thinking of our modern world.

  1. The work of the Spirit in communicating the Word of God through the mouth of the Prophets
  2. The Great Event of Pentecost, enabling the Apostles to communicate the Word of God in Jesus to their contemporaries.
  3. The great passage in St. John: Jesus’ words – the Spirit of Truth, when it comes, will guide you into the truth as a whole, taking what is mine — all that is the Father’s — and showing it to you.

o We see the disciples beginning to learning and go beyond what Jesus told them, guided by the Holy Spirit. The test of the Holy Spirit leads to the confession that Jesus is Lord. The Spirit illuminates the world in the light of the revelation of Jesus Christ.

  • Does this make us sectarian? No, the Spirit’s work is much wider than this talk about Jesus. “All that the Father has is mine.” Everything that exists belongs to Jesus, and it is the work of the Spirit through the church down the ages in new continents and cultures, to illuminate the world in the light of Jesus Christ — so that all the truth, in its fullness, is seen to be present in Jesus Christ.

This object/subjective divide is healed because:

  1. Objective/Particular: There is the objective given of Jesus Christ who belongs to a particular moment in history and a particular culture.
  2. Subjective/Universal: And there is at the same time this working of the Holy Spirit in our hearts which enables Jesus to illuminate the whole of our experience as we move on through the history of the world and across all nations and cultures.

The Easter Orthodox Church puts it this way: the Word and the Spirit are the two hands of the father. This is one place where the doctrine of the Trinity is not a puzzle but the solution to the puzzle: the divide between subjective and objective.

VII. Finally, how then in practice do we read the Bible?

  1. that we recognize, as we read the Scriptures, we are apprentices in a tradition with much to learn. It is not that we should take it as the Muslims do the Quran. We open our hearts and minds to what is given here and seek in our total daily life to grasp more fully what it means. It is both an external and internal authority. And we must allow it to shape our practice.
  2. We must do this in the context of actual discipleship, that is, worship and obedience. There is no apprenticeship by just reading. The Bible has been taken out of the Church and lodged in the University. The Universities may help us, but the real understanding of the Bible can only be in Church in the context of the tradition, worship and obedience.
  3. We have to use our reason in reading of the Bible, but a reason based on the tradition of the Bible itself — not some other tradition.

Discrepancies in Scripture: Obviously, when we read the Bible, the are some great tensions.

  • Put the book of Joshua, for example, alongside the sermon on the Mount, and you have a mind-blowing contradiction.
  • Many places, like St. Paul vs. James, on justification by faith, or Romans 13 vs. Revelation 13: in Romans, the state is the power ordained by God, and in Revelation it is the beast out of the abyss.

How do we deal with these?

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

A simple illustration of this would be, for instance, St. Paul’s acceptance of slavery:

  • Can we therefore not trust Paul? But of course, slavery was an integral part of that society, and you cannot jump out of your society. Similarly, usury is an integral part of our society, and very few Christians are going around condemning it, even though it is condemned all throughout the Bible. We still practice it, because we cannot jump out of our society. So when, in Philemon, Paul has an encounter with a slave, he sends him back to his master rather than encouraging him to flee as a runaway — but with a new identity, as a representative of the Apostles, so that he has introduced into the institution of slavery something which must eventually completely transform it.

By reading Scripture in light of its cultural context, then, we can see where Scripture is pointing in contrast to its culture, rather than by simply trying to place is straight into our context.

But the ultimate tension in the Bible is the tension between the holy wrath of God and the holy love of God — a tension which lies at the very heart of the being of God. And that is a tension which in this life we will never fully overcome. We have to take both with the greatest seriousness. As human beings, we cannot hold this tension.

But it is in the atoning work of Jesus Christ, and in the cross, which is both the judgment of the world and the salvation of the world, that the clue lies, by which we can hold this tremendous tension within the Scriptures.

Jean Vanier, “From Brokenness to Community”

The following is adapted from a talk that Jean Vanier gave at Harvard for the Herold M. Witt lectures. The transcript was published in 1992 by Paulist Press.

jean vanierIt is my belief that in our mad world, where there is so much pain, rivalry, hatred, violence, inequality and depression, that it is people who are weak, rejected, marginalized, and counted as useless, who can become a source of life and of salvation for us as individuals, as well as for our world…

Community is a wonderful place, it is life-giving; but it is also a place of pain, because it is a place of truth and of growth — the revelation of our pride, our fear and our brokenness.

Jesus says to his followers: “Now go! Go out to the world and bring the good news the others; do not keep it for yourselves. Heal, liberate and bring life and hope to others, especially to the poor, the weak, the blind and the lame…

When we talk of the poor or of announcing the good news to the poor, we should never idealize the poor. Poor people are hurt; they are in pain; they can be very angry, in revolt or in depression…

When such pain becomes too much, people tend to slip into a world of dream.  Reality is just too painful. The world of dream or of psychosis can in someway be easier to bear. The greatest pain is rejection, the feeling that nobody really wants you “like that.” The feeling that you are seen as ugly, dirty, a burden, of no value…

Many people in our world today are living in deep inner pain and anguish because as children they were not valued, welcomed, and loved.  My experience has shown that when we welcome people from this world of anguish, brokenness and depression, and when they gradually discover that they are wanted, and loved as they are, and that they have a place, then we witnessed a real transformation — I would even say resurrection.  Their tense, angry, fearful, depressed body gradually becomes relaxed, peaceful, and trusting.  As they discover a sense of belonging, that they are part of a family, the will to live begins to emerge. I do not believe it is of any value to push people into doing things unless this desire to live and to grow has begun to emerge…

To love someone is not first of all to do things for them but to reveal to them their beauty and value. To be in communion with someone also means to walk with them… For many people in pain there is no solution…

It is a liberating experience for them to realize they do not have to conform to any preconceived idea about how they should be.  Communion in fact gives freedom to grow. It is not possessiveness. It entails a deep listening to others, helping them to become more fully themselves.

People have been teaching me that behind the need for me to win, there are my own fears and anguish; the fear of being devalued are pushed aside; the fear of opening up my heart and of being vulnerable or a feeling helpless in front of others and pain; there is the pain and brokenness of my own heart.  I discovered something which I had never confronted before — that there were immense forces of darkness and hatred within my own heart.

Elitism is the sickness of us all. We all want to be on the winning team… The important thing is to become conscious of those from brokenness...forces and us and to work at being liberated from them and to discover that the worst enemy is inside our own hearts, not outside.

I think we can only truly experience the presence of God, meet Jesus, receive the good news in and through our own poverty, because the kingdom of God belongs to the poor — the poor in spirit, the poor who are crying out for love.

The love and support of community gives you the certitude that you are loved just as you are, with all your wounds, and that you can grow through all that. And not only are we loved, but we too are called to heal and to liberate. This healing power in us will not come from our capacities and our riches but in and through our poverty. We are called to discover that God can bring peace and compassion and love through our wounds.

When someone has lived most of his or her life in the last place and then discovers that Jesus is there in the last place as well, it is truly good news. However, when someone has always been looking for the first place and learns that Jesus is in the last place, it is confusing!

Jean Vanier, From Brokenness to Community

What is Communion?

“The Church does not perform the Eucharist. The Eucharist performs the Church.” – William Cavanaugh

What is the Purpose of the Lord’s Supper/Communion/The Eucharist?

That we might feed on Christ, be reconciled to God and to each other, and be strengthened for the living of the Christian life.

Some key Scripture: Luke 22:19-20; 1 Cor. 10:14-17, Matt. 26:27

o In our worship service, while preaching and the pastor plays a key part, it is not at the center of what we do. Rather, communion is, and this is what the whole service is built around. The Bible has a very similar, progressive and narrative structure, building up to and culminating in the Gospels. The Eucharist represents this same center of the redemption history and story of the people of God.

o Secondly, through communion — literally, “common union” — we understand ourselves as a people who are called into a new society, a new brotherhood and sisterhood, which is called to have a starring role in the drama of God’s communication of God’s redeeming love to the world. Our society is a society in which there is a great loneliness and in which it is difficult for people to have experiences of community and solidarity. Communion subverts and offers an alternative to this.

The Roots of Communion

Passover: was called the “Feast of Unleavened Bread.” Leaven or yeast was always a symbol of corruption to the Jews, and this very special Passover bread was to have no leaven in it. It symbolized the purity of Israel, redeemed by God’s grace. Then there was wine — a symbol of life and blessing.

“This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me . . . This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me” (1 Cor. 11:23-25).

“Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body eat and drink judgment against themselves” (1 Cor. 11:27-29).

That is why the “passing of the peace” was introduced just prior to receiving Communion!

What is a Sacrament?

  • “Visible sign of an invisible reality,” or “outward sign of inward grace” — a reality that doesn’t depend on us, but that includes us nevertheless! Ordinary things, everyday things, are being transformed by God into the means of God’s self-communication. Sacraments are about God being present in and among and through the ordinary, transforming and fulfilling, not destroying it.

Table or Altar? (Transubstantiation, real/spiritual presence, or Memorial?)

  • It is significant that the doctrine of transubstantiation did arise until 800 years after Christ!
  • This is not a transaction (transubstantiation), but nor is it merely a ritual (memorial).  Here we gather, acknowledge the real presence of Christ in a powerful metaphor (consubstantiation), receive what is always available in plenitude, and are sent out.

Five Big Communion Themes:

I. The Incarnation: why Communion is a celebration of our embodied-ness/physical life (all five senses)!

  • solidarity/relatedness, suffering, non-dualism, sacred and profane joined

II. Dependence on God: how Communion is a celebration of our life-source

  • God is our food! (John 6:48, 53, 54) to participate in abundant life, first here and now, but also hereafter

III. Christ’s self-emptying example: Communion expresses how we are to live in the world as servants

  • goes back to the incarnation, but this particularly stresses modeling the way Jesus lived

IV. Journey of Thanksgiving and Response

  • with humble, repentant and grateful hearts for what God has done and is invites us into

V. Shalom! Communion celebrates being restored to right relationship w/ God through Christ’s incarnation, life, death and resurrection.

  • We know that our relationship with God, our fellow human beings, and the rest of God’s Creation, is not as it ought to be
  • Shalom means not only the absence of violence and oppression but also the satisfaction of every spiritual and physical need. The time of the Messiah and the Kingdom of God is one of healing, of sight to the blind, of the lame walking, of the poor being fed.

We are called (gathered) and empowered (sent) to witness to the Kingdom of God (God’s will done “on earth as it is in heaven”). The Eucharist is the hinge upon which this going and sending turns. So the life of the church, especially its worship and Eucharist, is a foretaste of the Kingdom that is to come.

Leander S. Harding, In the Breaking of the Bread:

“The existence of humanity in the Garden was a priestly existence, an existence of grateful offering to God. We fell from that vocation. We forgot who we were and what we were made for. We began to crave the world as a thing in itself. The Creation became an idol instead of a means of feasting on God’s love. Jesus has come to restore us to our original vocation. In and through him we now bring the world again to God, and the Creation, beginning with the bread and wine, again becomes the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation. ” (p. 48).

“God wants all of life to be Eucharist for us. God wants all relationships, all human transactions, all our work, all our interaction with the rest of Creation to be Eucharist, a partaking of the life of God that causes thanksgiving to well up in us and draw our hearts to God and t a new unity with each other.” (p. 34)

“In this peace, the natural divisions of race, class, age, and social status that keep people apart are overcome. Even the categories of righteousness and unrighteousness, of decent and indecent people, are overcome.” (p. 43)

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