About Me

Arborg, Manitoba, Canada
Married to the love of my life with whom I (and God - all three of us) have co-created three incredible sons. Interested in philosophy, theology, and how to live Truth. Love music but couldn't carry a tune to save my life.

Monday, 7 December 2009

2nd Sunday of Advent 2009


Malachi 3
1 "See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come," says the LORD Almighty.
2 But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner's fire or a launderer's soap. 3 He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, 4 and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the LORD, as in days gone by, as in former years.

Luke 1
68"Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has come and has redeemed his people.
69He has raised up a horn[a] of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David
70(as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
71salvation from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us—
72to show mercy to our fathers
and to remember his holy covenant,
73the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
74to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
and to enable us to serve him without fear
75in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
76And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
77to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
78because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
79to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace."

Philippians 1
3I thank my God every time I remember you. 4In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy 5because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, 6being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.
7It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart; for whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God's grace with me. 8God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.

9And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, 10so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, 11filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.

Luke 3
1In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert. 3He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 4As is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:
"A voice of one calling in the desert,
'Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.
5Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
the rough ways smooth.
6And all mankind will see God's salvation.' "

Before the days of cameras and camcorders, camera phones and the internet, before the days of books and even before the days of written communication, God created the heavens and the earth, the sun, moon, and stars and all the planets, the plants and animals, all things that are, and God created humankind in the image of God, male and female God created us. In that beginning, we are told, God used to come walk with us in the cool of the evening, talking with us, presumably about the things we had seen and done that day, communicating and being in relation with us, and all was well in all God’s green earth.
But then –and those are never good words to hear after the creation of an idyllic scene– but then we decided we wished to be more than we understood ourselves to be. We wanted to be like God ourselves. However, it is always and inevitably the case that when the mirror wishes to be the image it reflects, disappointment is the only possible outcome, and the broken shards that result from those shattered expectations, fantasies, and desires quickly become life threatening.
For a time we wandered, we thought alone, and as we became increasingly infatuated with ourselves, our predicament grew ever more intolerable and our existence and our relationships became ever more fractured. We experienced the Flood that washed our world but could not cleanse our hearts. Because we still wished to be gods unto ourselves we built a city that became a Babel that only exacerbated our alienation from God and each other.
All the while, unbeknownst to us, God was working for us, and the frustrations we experienced were an integral part of God working out a salvation for us, because when the mirror wishes to be the image it reflects, that fantasy must be shattered in order for the dream of a mirror that truly, though never flawlessly, reflects the beauty of the creator, to have a prayer.
God called Abraham and promised him a family, descendants as numerous as the sand on the seashore and the stars in the sky. This was in the time when large families were equated with more wealth, and wealth was a matter of survival rather than a vain and tawdry status symbol in the rat race to keep up with the Joneses. God had to intervene to prevent Abraham’s slaughter of the only child through whom Abraham hoped to realize this Promise. In spite of Abraham, the family grew to become a nation, and always this family/nation halted between seasons of worshiping God, peace and prosperity, and times of selfish idolatry that justice could only answer with judgement on them and their families.
And so for thousands of years people have been looking for God in all the wrong places. For generations people have looked for peace and justice, for prosperity and love, and almost invariably found themselves at odds with each other and God regarding what constituted peace and justice. Their legitimate desire for God morphed into a perverted quest to install themselves as God, and the result was intractable struggle and fractious contention that revealed the depravity of their souls as they, lacking the understanding that they were mirrors who were to reflect God in their lives and in themselves, tried to make themselves gods, a project which could only result in broken mirrors, broken dreams, and broken lives.
Prophets have come and prophets have gone. Along with the prophets who spoke God’s word were myriads of prophets who spoke words that the people wanted to hear, rather than the words they needed to hear. By Malachi’s time most of those voices had been silenced. The most active period of prophecy according to the written record had occurred some 200 years earlier, and by Malachi’s time the silence had been deafening for generations. In Malachi’s time there is a short period of renewed hope as Ezra and Nehemiah prod the people to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple. Even that hope, however is bittersweet, as those old enough to recall the magnificance of Solomon’s gold plated temple see the meager results of the current effort to rebuild the monument of Israel’s hope that is taken to be the House of Yahweh, their God.
It is into this context that Malachi’s words come, both as a Promise and a warning. The Messenger whom you seek will come, but who will be able to stand when He comes? He will come with refining fire, and even the Levites, the only one of the twelve tribes who could enter the inner sanctum of the temple to intercede before Yahweh for the people, even the Levites would require excruciating refinement. There are in Malachi’s words both the promise of hope, and the dire warning of judgement that no one could hope to survive and yet, the end result will be people who once again will bring offerings of righteousness. In the end we will not only survive, but we will once again see the best of the good old days. We will be restored to the relationship we enjoyed in the Garden, the relationship for which we were created and without which we cannot survive and, even if we could survive without the relationship, such survival would be worse than extinction.
Then we read the words in which Luke records Zechariah’s prophecy of the Promise fulfilled. Malachi’s hope is realized! The Messiah is here! The Lord has come and has redeemed His people! The One we desire has come and He will bring salvation! And it is because of the tender mercy of God that the rising sun comes from heaven and shines on us who live in darkness, on us who live with the shadow of death looming over us, and He guides our feet along the path of peace! The fire that consumes is the fire that gives life. And all of this has happened. Our salvation has appeared and the Messiah is here! Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel!
As we move to Paul’s words in Philippians we encounter another subtle shift in tone. Paul is excited about partnership of the Philippians in the gospel. Paul is confident that the One who began the good work of salvation in the lives of the Philippians will continue to work out that salvation “until the day of Christ Jesus.” Wait a minute! Hasn’t He been and gone? Didn’t Zechariah say that our salvation had come and that the Jesus who was here and is now gone would bring salvation for us all? Then what’s this about the good work being completed in the day of Christ Jesus as a future thing? Paul’s understanding is quite clearly that we are all in this together and that we are still looking forward to a future realization of hope and consummation of a good work begun and, what’s more, that the Philippians, and presumably we, have a role to play in this good work. What is our role in this “partnership in the gospel?” In the context of Philippians 1 Paul is consumed with spreading the gospel. Even though Paul is in chains, he is excited that the gospel is being preached, whether from good motives or bad does not matter to him, as long as the good news of the grace of God, which is the gift of God, is spread to all peoples.
Luke fills us in on the context of John the Baptist’s partnership in the gospel. First he pays attention to the people and the times of John’s ministry. He tells us where John preached (in the country around the Jordan) and what he preached (a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins). What has not changed is that the good news includes warning. The good news does not, and cannot, gloss over what needs to change.
However, if we keep Paul’s words in mind we must recognize that this partnership in the gospel begins with us as “our love abounds more and more in knowledge and depth of insight” and we are “filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ.” Our partnership in the gospel is a radical life change (repentance) that is the salvation that has come. Our very lives are the proclamation of the gospel. It is our lives lived in the mundane context of our existence implicated in political, geographical, meterological, social, religious concerns that bears witness to the salvation that has come, is coming, and, we hope against all odds, will come.

The Message
Malachi 3:1-4
1 "Look! I'm sending my messenger on ahead to clear the way for me. Suddenly, out of the blue, the Leader you've been looking for will enter his Temple—yes, the Messenger of the Covenant, the one you've been waiting for. Look! He's on his way!" A Message from the mouth of God-of-the-Angel-Armies.
2-4But who will be able to stand up to that coming? Who can survive his appearance?
He'll be like white-hot fire from the smelter's furnace. He'll be like the strongest lye soap at the laundry. He'll take his place as a refiner of silver, as a cleanser of dirty clothes. He'll scrub the Levite priests clean, refine them like gold and silver, until they're fit for God, fit to present offerings of righteousness. Then, and only then, will Judah and Jerusalem be fit and pleasing to God, as they used to be in the years long ago.

Luke 1:67-79
Then Zachariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied,
Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel;
he came and set his people free.
He set the power of salvation in the center of our lives,
and in the very house of David his servant,
Just as he promised long ago
through the preaching of his holy prophets:
Deliverance from our enemies
and every hateful hand;
Mercy to our fathers,
as he remembers to do what he said he'd do,
What he swore to our father Abraham—
a clean rescue from the enemy camp,
So we can worship him without a care in the world,
made holy before him as long as we live.

And you, my child, "Prophet of the Highest,"
will go ahead of the Master to prepare his ways,
Present the offer of salvation to his people,
the forgiveness of their sins.
Through the heartfelt mercies of our God,
God's Sunrise will break in upon us,
Shining on those in the darkness,
those sitting in the shadow of death,
Then showing us the way, one foot at a time,
down the path of peace.

Philippians 1:3-11
3-6Every time you cross my mind, I break out in exclamations of thanks to God. Each exclamation is a trigger to prayer. I find myself praying for you with a glad heart. I am so pleased that you have continued on in this with us, believing and proclaiming God's Message, from the day you heard it right up to the present. There has never been the slightest doubt in my mind that the God who started this great work in you would keep at it and bring it to a flourishing finish on the very day Christ Jesus appears.
7-8It's not at all fanciful for me to think this way about you. My prayers and hopes have deep roots in reality. You have, after all, stuck with me all the way from the time I was thrown in jail, put on trial, and came out of it in one piece. All along you have experienced with me the most generous help from God. He knows how much I love and miss you these days. Sometimes I think I feel as strongly about you as Christ does!

9-11So this is my prayer: that your love will flourish and that you will not only love much but well. Learn to love appropriately. You need to use your head and test your feelings so that your love is sincere and intelligent, not sentimental gush. Live a lover's life, circumspect and exemplary, a life Jesus will be proud of: bountiful in fruits from the soul, making Jesus Christ attractive to all, getting everyone involved in the glory and praise of God.

Luke 1
1-6 In the fifteenth year of the rule of Caesar Tiberius—it was while Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea; Herod, ruler of Galilee; his brother Philip, ruler of Iturea and Trachonitis; Lysanias, ruler of Abilene; during the Chief-Priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas—John, Zachariah's son, out in the desert at the time, received a message from God. He went all through the country around the Jordan River preaching a baptism of life-change leading to forgiveness of sins, as described in the words of Isaiah the prophet:

The Message Revised Contextualized Version
1-6 In the fourth year of the rule of Stephen Harper—it was while Greg Selinger was premier of Manitoba; Harold Foster, reeve of Bifrost; Randy Sigurdson, Mayor of Arborg; during the Papacy of Pope Benedict XVI, and Richard Klassen was Moderator of the EMC—a small and unremarkable group of people, out in the desert at the time, far to the north of where any habitation should be found, were listening intently for a message from God, as others were doing, and as has been done since the dawn of time, even before the world began. They went all through the country around the Icelandic River preaching a baptism of life-change leading to forgiveness of sins, as described in the words of Isaiah the prophet:

Thunder in the wilderness!
"Prepare God's arrival!
Make the road smooth and straight!
Every ditch will be filled in,
Every bump smoothed out,
The detours straightened out,
All the ruts paved over.
Everyone will be there to see
The parade of God's salvation."

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

You're gonna have to serve somebody

In Romans 6 Paul makes clear that we must choose whom we will serve. We can serve good or evil, sin or grace, life or death, God or the devil, but we’re “gonna have to serve somebody.”
Last time we were listening to Paul in Romans 5 he was waxing superlative and doxological about the incredible grace of God that brings a salvation that exceeds the devastation wrought by sin. If the many are condemned by their sin, by their propensity to choose for themselves rather than for God, how much more will these many be blessed by God’s stubborn choice for them at God’s own expense. Even the law comes as a blessing as it is intended to highlight our sinfulness and bring it into stark relief against the holiness of God. Because of the law our sinfulness becomes painfully evident, our desperate need for grace is shown to be even more than exponentially greater than we could have understood, and yet, even as the enormity of our sin blots out every glimmer of hope that we can do something to improve our hopeless lot, God’s grace reaches in and does for us far more than we could ever do for ourselves, far more even than our sin can undo for us. 5:20 “Where sin increased, grace increased all the more!”
This is fantastic news but, knowing the human condition and our inclination to take advantage of every opportunity to relax our discipline if an easier way is available, Paul anticipates our lazy opportunistic question: If our sinfulness is always exceeded by grace, then why don’t we sin extravagantly, so that God’s grace increases even more extravagantly? “Because” says Paul (6:2) “We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” This grace that brings salvation brings us salvation from our sin, not merely in our sin. “We died to sin” This great salvation includes our own death to sin as partners with Christ in his death for sin. A dead man has no appetite. Regardless of the chocoholic cravings you experience in life, at your funeral you will have no reaction whatsoever to whatever decadent chocolaty treats your family elects to serve up. If some pervert decides to heap chocolates around your face in your coffin you won’t so much as twitch a muscle, you won’t even have an involuntary reaction of salivary gland production.
A dead man has no inclination to sin, and our new life in Christ is predicated on our having died with Christ first. 6:4 “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” This salvation does not just cover our sin; it does away with our sin. Being baptized into Christ Jesus is not an easy escape from our sin. Being baptized into Christ is being baptized into his death so that, just as Christ was ultimately raised from the dead, so we too are raised to live a new life, the indestructible life of the resurrected Christ in us.

But here is a strange thing. Our experience of reality is that death follows life. In this text Paul turns it around and tells us that in fact life follows death! 6:5 “If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection.” The way to life passes through death. Jesus said “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39) If we wish to live the new life of Christ we must die to sin. If we desire to know who we are in Christ, we must die to ourselves in sin. This death is a release from bondage into the freedom of resurrection life beyond everything that binds us here. 6:6 “For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with,[a] that we should no longer be slaves to sin— 7because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.” We are no longer slaves to sin because death has freed us from sin. Christ’s death on the cross broke the power of sin in the world, our death with Christ ends the rule of sin in our own lives. Death to sin is our freedom from sin.

Paul expresses supreme confidence in this, saying 6:8 “Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. 10The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.” Death is decisive but it is not final. Death is an insurmountable and uncircumventable limit only as long as we think we live. The mastery of death is over the instant we are raised to resurrection life with Christ. “since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. 10The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.”

This is a key factor in our own experience of salvation. Christ’s death and resurrection has decisively terminated the rule of sin and death, but our celebration of the victory is related to our participation in the death that is the price of our sin. We are not translated into the new life without also participating in death. Hence, Paul’s earlier doxological euphoria at the superlative impact of Christ’s obedience in comparison to Adam’s sin (which is our sin) notwithstanding, we must recognize our complicity with Adam, choose to participate with Christ, and consider ourselves dead. 6:11 “In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.” Only as we consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to Christ can we hope to live God’s life rather than dying Adam’s death, which is our death. This is a deliberate choice we make, and it is a choice we must live. 12 “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires.” ‘Reign’ connotes more than simply a choice. Reign indicates a sustained regimen. To “consider ourselves dead to sin but alive to God” is more than a choice of direction, it is a commitment to an allegiance that carries monumental implications for our ongoing life. Paul goes on 13 “Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness.” We have a choice, and we must exercise that choice if we are to experience salvation. It’s like Bob Dylan sings:
“You're gonna have to serve somebody,
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody.”
Paul adjures us to count ourselves dead to sin and offer ourselves to God as instruments of righteousness because 6:14 “sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace.” Freedom is not characterized by the absence of any master, but by allegiance to the proper master. Sin is a master of abject slavery and death, whereas grace is a master of freedom and life!

Grace, however, continues to be misunderstood. 6:15 “What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!” Why not? For several reasons. For one, sin is a cruel master whose end is death 6:16 “Don't you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or....” On the other hand, offering ourselves as obedient slaves to the Creator of all that is, which leads to righteousness and life. In fact, offering ourselves as slaves to righteousness is the purest form of freedom 6:18 “You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.”

Even though Paul is convinced that Christ’s death and resurrection on our behalf is eminently sufficient for our life, he issues this plea for God’s children to consider themselves dead to sin because he knows what we are, he is all too aware of our weakness in our natural selves. For that reason it is imperative that we practice the disciplines of the holy life; the life set apart for God. It is not an automatic result of Christ’s work even though Christ’s work is the only sufficient remedy for our sin, and the only hope for our holiness. We can never hope to save ourselves, but if we wish to be saved we must consider ourselves dead to sin, and walk in the obedience that leads to holiness, which results in eternal life. In Paul’s words 19 “I put this in human terms because you are weak in your natural selves. Just as you used to offer the parts of your body in slavery to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer them in slavery to righteousness leading to holiness. 20When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. 21What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death! 22But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. 23For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in[b] Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Thanks be to God!

Friday, 21 August 2009

Anabaptist Hermeneutic III Salvation Against All Odds

Over the last several weeks we have spent some time looking at revelation in the spoken word, the written word, the primordial word of creation, and the Word made Flesh. We have talked about how the Word of God is always more than information, be it regarding how to live or how to think of God. We have seen how the words of scripture indicate that its own authority is relative to the authority of the Author who became Flesh and made His dwelling among us. The written words of the prophets and messengers are always subject to the Living Word made Flesh who is the Son of God, who is the One and Only God.
Tonight I want to trace the implications of this truth for how we read and understand scripture. Why did God begin his interactions with creation in what appears to have been daily visits in the Garden, walking with Adam and Eve in the cool of the day? Why was this pattern interrupted by the Fall and become occasional visits, mostly through the words of messengers, sometimes in theophanies, and finally the Incarnation?
If you will accept for the moment that Garden represents an ideal that is interrupted by the Fall, then we can begin tonight by looking at how the post-fall interaction of God with people is geared towards rekindling the relationship that was broken by the Fall. The written Word was never intended to be only a set of instructions for how to live before God. It includes such information but that is not primarily the purpose of the text we call scripture. My thesis is that scripture should be seen as a record of God’s mission throughout history to re-establish the relationship with his children that was broken when those children chose their own way of independence rather than God’s way of relationship.
The story of Creation posits humanity as the pinnacle of God’s Creation. It is humanity, male and female, that bears the image of the Creator (Genesis 1:27). Humans are capable of a special relationship with the Creator. This relationship is broken when humans choose to be like God rather than to be with God. Humanity does not sufficiently learn the folly of this aspiration when they are banished from the Garden, and must be scattered again when they build the Tower of Babel that is supposed to reach into the heavens where the gods reside. To the extent that humanity realizes the dream to exist apart from God, their aspirations of divinity turn quickly into the nightmares of hell, for the definition of hell is separation from God. To the extent that we realize our dream of independence from God we experience the nightmare of hell. Thus it is an act of salvation when those dreams are frustrated. God will not allow those dreams to materialize because those dreams will be the death of us. God desires relationship with us, and is not willing to leave us entirely to our own aspirations which inevitably will be our destruction.
And so, many years after the Fall and after Babel, God calls Abraham and offers him a magnificent opportunity in a partnership in which Abraham’s family will be blessed, and the means of blessing for all the earth. Genesis 12:
2 “I will make you into a great nation
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
3 I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”
This Promise is ultimately realized in Jesus Christ but, as we will see later, it is realized in spite of everything Abraham and his family can do to frustrate that Promise. In Genesis 15 the covenant with Abraham is ratified, but instead of participating in the ratification ceremonies as would have been expected in the Near East customs of the time, Abraham sleeps. Abraham, and Israel, are invited to participate in God’s redemption of the world but ultimately that redemption proceeds on the strength of God’s commitment, in the face of strenuous opposition born in the Garden but continued throughout time.
We will return for a closer look at Abraham’s story in a minute but for now let’s continue the whirlwind tour of the history of Israel’s relationship with the God who called them. When God delivers Israel out of Egypt he is rewarded with bitter complaints and ingratitude while the deliverance is still in progress, during the exodus, and upon the entry into the Promised Land. You might say that Israel does not have a clue regarding their responsibility in making this relationship work. They want what God can give and complain liked spoiled children when they do not get what they want. These times of complaint are interspersed with times of repentance and return to live in relationship with God, but the good times never last. After several futile cycles of relationship and rebellion in the Promised Land the chosen children are eventually banished into exile and only a remnant returns to rebuild the ruins of their former glory.
In the end there is a magnificent blessing to the world that comes through Abraham’s family, but it is hardly with the cooperation of the family. By all human appearances the blessing comes through by the barest of threads, only on the strength of God’s commitment to be in relation with his Creation. When all of the promises are despised, and many of the prophets are disparaged and killed, and it seems that God’s words are seen as burdensome rules that the keepers of the law cannot be bothered to uphold even while they lay that heavy burden on those who must listen, then God, who still has not given up on his dream of a relationship with his children, God himself takes on human flesh, moves into the neighborhood and pitches his tent with us, because He desires to be in relation with us.
But we must return to see how well Abraham and Israel heard God’s call, God’s invitation to participate in blessing all nations, God’s invitation to relation. We have already noted that God’s plan was to bless Abraham, and to bless the world through Abraham. How well did Abraham understand this invitation? How faithfully did Abraham live out his part of the invitation to be a blessing to the world? How well did Abraham live in a relationship of blessing to God’s world? How well did Israel live in a relationship of blessing to God’s world? And as we look as the example of Abraham and Israel we must be mindful of the ways in which their stories are mirrored in our own lives.
Abraham’s first challenge follows very closely on the heels of the exhilarating call of Genesis 12:2-3. In the verses immediately following the call Abraham does leave his father’s country and goes to the land God shows him. When God tells him “This is the land I will give to you and your descendants” Abraham builds an altar (12:7), and promptly moves on (12:8). He winds up in Egypt where he is concerned his life may be in danger on account of the beauty of his wife, so he tells her to stretch the truth and advise the lechers that she is his sister, so that he will be treated with greater respect on the merits of his beautiful sister. Is that living in an honorable relationship? So far Abraham has not learned to cherish his relations and is not very concerned about living in ways that bring blessing to those relations.
In the next chapter Lot and Abraham’s herdsmen are quarreling over limited resources and again Abraham’s reaction is avoidance and separation rather than working out an amicable solution that would allow Abraham and Lot to live in a proximity that fosters relationship. Abraham chooses peace, but at the expense of relationship rather than peace in relationship.
In Genesis 16 Abraham and Sara grow tired of waiting for God’s promise of a son so Abraham has relations with Sara’s handmaid that soon result in a pregnancy. Hagar, knowing how long Abraham and Sara have desired offspring develops an attitude that Sara finds reprehensible. Sara complains to Abraham and, being a typical man, Abraham turns pale, turns tail, and runs from relational conflict. “Do with her what you want” he says, knowing full well that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, and Hagar is in for a rough time in Sara’s hands. Abraham has not yet tuned in to the value of relationship, and has no real care for God’s blessing on his family, much less God’s blessing on the world. He is not even fulfilling the minimal requirements of decency in his relations, much less bringing blessing to those relations.
But in Genesis 18 we see a glimmer of hope. Abraham is sitting at the entrance to his tent when he spies three strangers passing by. He invites them in for a meal, he washes their feet, and engages them in conversation. In the course of the visit the promise of a son is repeated, which causes Sara to laugh hysterically, and then Abraham finds out that Sodom and Gomorrah are about to be destroyed because of their great wickedness. And Abraham, this man’s man who to this point has run from every relational conflict with admirable dedication to self-preservation, intercedes for the unknown inhabitants of this pair of cities slated for destruction. Not only does he intercede, but gaining a reprieve for cities based on the presence of 50 righteous people, he further bargains for a reprieve based on the presence of an ever diminishing number of righteous souls until he thinks “Surely, two cities of this size must have at least 10 righteous individuals” and leaves the strangers to go about their business, relatively certain he has saved these cities from destruction. I can’t help but wonder what Abraham knew about Sodom and Gomorrah that compelled him to persist until only 10 righteous souls would safeguard the cities. In any case, it appears there is finally a spark of humanity in Abraham that glows for the welfare of someone other than himself. Is he finally getting that the covenant is one of relationship? A covenant of relationship between God and Abraham that is a blessing to Abraham, his family, and the nations? It looks hopeful!
Unfortunately, this hope is quickly dashed. Soon after this Abraham again portrays Sara as his sister rather than his wife and allows Abimelech to take her. Again Abraham avoids risk and betrays relationships rather than embracing relation.
Soon after this Isaac is born, conflict develops between Ishmael and Isaac and, rather than work to bring relational peace in his family Abraham again abdicates his responsibilities and unjustly allows Hagar and his son to be banished into the desert to almost certain death. He is all for the absence of conflict, but the hard work of bringing peace in relations is too much for him.
Now, it seems, God has had it. Now God decides it is time to test Abraham. Does Abraham “get” the covenant? Does Abraham get that he is to be a blessing to his family, and his family to the nations? It is time to find out. Genesis 22 “Abraham” God says. “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.”
Why does God have to remind Abraham of his love for his son? “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love” It seems that God is giving Abraham every excuse, every encouragement, to resist the request. What will Abraham do? Will Abraham remember how much he loves his son? Will Abraham give even a thought to how much God loves his son? Will Abraham recall that the terms of the covenant included a family, a great family, that would bring blessing to the nations? Will Abraham care enough about the covenant to challenge God as he did when the Lord announced plans for the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, cities totally unrelated to the covenant? Or would Abraham once again capitulate and run from the hard work of nurturing relationships and being a blessing to his family?
“Early next morning” 22:3 says, Abraham ran. Abraham saddled up his donkey and rode his ass out of the land of the Philistines. He didn’t talk to Sara, he lied to his son, and he came within a whisker of slaughtering God’s promise on the altar of his own myopia. God never spoke to Abraham again. When Abraham’s arm is outstretched with his knife in hand, God himself does not intervene. It is an angel who calls a halt to Abraham’s foolishness, and Abraham, who was supposedly so devoted to God that he would do anything he commanded, now is all too willing to listen to an angel who contravenes God’s command. Having just flagrantly indicated his utterly careless disregard for God’s covenant Abraham is not repentant but merely sacrifices a ram in what has been characterized as a grotesque pretense of worship. He and his servants return to Beersheba, far from Sara. We don’t know where Isaac is, and we can only surmise where a son who has just by the barest of margins escaped a sacrificial slaughter by his own father would be. That is not the sort of wound from which a relationship would quickly or easily recover. Abraham’s opportunity to be a blessing to his family, to say nothing of the nations, has been all but irrevocably compromised. As far as we know Sara and Abraham never talk to each other again either. When Sara dies Abraham comes from a distance to grieve her passing and facilitate her burial. Next time Isaac lays eyes on Abraham is when he comes to participate, with Ishmael, in the burial of his father. It seems that in death Abraham managed to bring about a peace between the brothers that he could never achieve in his lifetime, a peace that has rarely been realized since.
What could have been if Abraham had taken his own responsibilities in the covenant seriously? What could have been if Abraham had challenged God regarding the sacrifice of his son, the son whom God saw necessary to remind him he loved, as Abraham had challenged God for the lives of those he did not know in Sodom and Gomorrah?
Why was Abraham’s family eventually known by the name of the one who did wrestle with God rather than Abraham’s own name? Genesis 32:22ff When Jacob spends a whole night wrestling with God, he has his name changed in the morning from Jacob “he deceives”, to Israel “he struggles with God”, and Israel is the name by which the family is known to this day.
When God declared his intention to wipe out the Israelites Moses challenged the decision by appealing to God’s reputation and character Exodus 32. Again God honors the challenge and relents from destroying Israel.
What would have happened if Israel had been led into the Promised Land by a Moses who dared to challenge God when instructed to kill the Canaanites, every man, woman, and child? How would Israel’s story, and the history of the Middle East be different if a Moses had reminded God that according to the covenant with Abraham Israel was to bring a blessing to the nations rather than a wholesale slaughter?
But all of this is still pointing fingers when we must recognize our own reflections in these stories. What might be if we really believed that God’s primary desire for us was to be in relationship? What if we really believed that all of the information in scripture is given not primarily so that we can know and believe the right things, and do the right things, but so that we could learn to value our relationship with God, and live in a relationship of blessing to each other, in our communities, to the nations, and to God? What could be if we once caught a vision, and learned to live by the vision of what it means for a creature to bless the Creator and partner in blessing creation?

Friday, 14 August 2009

Anabaptist Hermeneutic II Scripture and the Author

In order to set the stage for today’s look at how we read scripture I want to do a short review of our discussion several weeks ago, looking at the function of words and the Word in the OT. We read Genesis 1 and noted how Creation happened when God said “Let there be... And it was...” God’s word is the creative force by which everything was made that was made.
Then we read Psalm 19 in which
1 The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
2 Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they display knowledge.
3 There is no speech or language
where their voice is not heard.
4 Their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.
God’s spoken word that created everything, is a communication through creation that is the proto-type for language: “There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard.” We think of words as the means of communication, but communication experts tell us that the actual words we use are only 7% of what we communicate.
God speaks and things happen. Things that never enunciate any words speak with a voice far more forceful than anything we understand as spoken words. Therefore we need to be aware that “word” and “words” are used to indicate communication in a much broader sense than only the words we use when we speak or write.
In Jeremiah we listened as Jeremiah repeatedly invoked divine authority for his words “the word of the Lord came to me... The Lord said to me... This is what the Lord says... Hear the word of the Lord”. Then in chapter 23, after a lengthy lament regarding the spurious injunctions of false prophets, decrying the facile way in which everybody is always claiming to speak God’s word for him, Jeremiah has God telling the people to quit all such talk. No more claiming visions, dreams, and words from God. In a play on words, the people’s response to those who claim to have a burden from God to lay on His people is to be “You are the burden.” There is to be no more simple acceptance of claims to speak in God’s name. All such claims are to be vetted in a communal conversation in which the words of purported prophets are diligently compared with previously known words from God. It is not just words that matter, but the substance of those words. As if to highlight the point, in the very next chapter Jeremiah claims more visions from God, and again introduces his words as words that came from the Lord. What’s going on here? This prophet has always claimed to speak the words of God, but has just issued an unequivocal edict against claims to speak of words and dreams that come from God. How can he now continue in the same vein? Does he not listen to himself?
Rather than answer all the questions raised in these readings I want to recapitulate the questions as a means of providing a context for the readings we do today in the NT. These questions will highlight some of the issues that we encounter as we read scripture, and they will provide the groundwork for the hermeneutic by which we learn to live the truth of scripture in our homes, at our jobs, and in our community. Here are the questions:
What is a word?
What is communication?
How do we hear God speak?
How do we learn to recognize God’s word in the plethora of words purported to be from God?

Hold these questions in mind as we read several additional passages.
John 1:1-18
The Word Became Flesh
1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was with God in the beginning.
3Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.
10He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.
14The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

The word by which God created in Genesis 1 is now the Word that becomes flesh. The Word that becomes flesh is none other than the God who created in Genesis 1. The Word become flesh is God the One and Only God. This is the God that all of history has been about. This is the God who created all that is, who called Abraham to a Promised Land, the God who called his children out of bondage in Egypt back to the Promised Land, the God who called his people, delivered His people, bought them back out of prostitution time and again, this God whom Israel had alternately desired and spurned, worshiped and despised, this God is now here in the flesh, the Author of scripture is here to show us what it is that He has been trying to tell us all along. The Author is here to fulfill the meaning of the text. The Author is here to show us how to read his message.

For that we go to Matthew 5:
The Fulfillment of the Law
17"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

The Pharisees and teachers of the law had 613 addendums to the law to help ensure that the law was kept. Unfortunately, that keeping the letter of the law was often in violation of the spirit of the law. Their focus on keeping the letter of the law set the bar too low. Jesus’ example of keeping the spirit of the law would look like a violation of the law to many people who knew only the letter, but as the Giver of the law his example was a recovery of what the law really meant. It was not just about the words, but about the communication.

Let’s listen as the Author speaks, and I will highlight only those citations that are drawn from the Hebrew scriptures, our OT:
21"You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' 22But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.
27"You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery.' 28But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
38"You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' 39But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person.
43"You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' 44But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,

It’s like Jesus is saying “Don’t get stuck in the text! Listen to the Spirit of my Word! What I was trying to tell you was much more than just the words!” In 2 Corinthians 3 Paul is talking about the church’s role as the minister of a new covenant, and he says the letter kills but the Spirit gives life! We are competent, Paul says, not on our own merit but because God has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant, with letters written not in ink on tablets of stone, but by the Spirit on tablets of human hearts. And, says Paul, if the ministry that brought death, the ministry that was engraved in letters on stone, was of such glory that the Israelites could not look at the face of Moses, how much more magnificent is the ministry that brings righteousness, the letter written in human hearts, the word of God in the flesh!
Jesus and Paul are in full agreement that the message inscripted, be it on stone, paper, or memory, is never sufficient. The pivotal message is the one written on our hearts. The relative authority of text and Person is perhaps most clearly indicated in Hebrews 1:

1In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. 3The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. 4So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs.
Angel - Messenger - used for John the Baptist “I will send my m ahead of you...” Should ‘angels’ in Hebrews 1 be ‘messengers’?

The earlier word spoken through the prophets at many times and in various ways is hugely significant and always to be dearly cherished, but never at the expense of the Word made flesh. If the word spoken in Creation, and through the prophets, is holy, how much more the Word made Flesh that is very God! Where ever and when ever you see a picture of God that does not look like Jesus, look again. All the stories and pictures and words in scripture are there to show us who God is and what God is like, but only in Jesus do we see God. All the stories of God’s word to his people are instructive for us, but those words, even though dispatched through chosen messengers and angels, should never be allowed to obscure, much less trump, the Word of God in Person.

Colossians 1:15He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. 17He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Anabaptist Lectionary

Is there such a thing as an Anabaptist lectionary? Or is that kind of structure too much of a departure from Anabaptist values to be a valid term? Is "Anabaptist Lectionary" an oxymoron? Historic Anabaptist values have always emphasized following Christ in life over clearly formulated Christian thelogy. Is an Anabaptist Lectionary too much of a concession to an emphasis on following a structure rather than following Christ?

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

The Shack book club

Our first evening in The Shack fulfilled the promise of a stimulating discussion. Much of the first chapters set the stage for Mack's encounter with God at the shack. There can be little doubt that Young has a critical appreciation for the corrective of post-modernism with regard to the privileging of the rational and text in enlightenment thought (65ff) but this is not a major concern in the book.
The bulk of our discussion focused on the interaction between Mack and God. There was appreciation for Young's portrayal of God as an robust black woman. It was noted that Young quite specifically indicates that this portrayal is not intended to be any more accurate than the traditional depictions of God as male (93). Young makes this move simply to highlight that such traditional depictions are not accurate, any more than is God as a black woman. As such the choice was seen as provocative but entirely uncontroversial.
Particularly poignant was God's statement that we are created to be loved, therefore for us to live as though we were not loved is a limitation (97). Later God tells Mack that humans are defined not by their limitations, but by how God sees us (100). We are not what we seem to be, but what we are created to be. God sees us not as we are, but as we are created to be, which his what we truly are. This is an incredible statement of our value, not in our own eyes, because we almost inevitably fail to realize our value, and even more so when we consider our own estimation of our worth to be significant. No evaluation of our own worth can ever compare to God's emphatic statement on the cross in which he indicates our value to be His own life. Thanks be to God for the salvation only God can bring!
We also talked about the statement that Jesus never drew upon his divinity to do anything while on earth (99). This statement was more controversial and there are several ways to understand it. Young seems to be saying that Jesus acted as an authentic human being in every way, and that we have trouble understanding that because we consistently live as humans in our own right rather than as created beings in an authentic consummation of our relation with God. This is undoubtedly the case, but this comment is implicated in Trinitarian theology, which is beyond our confident comprehensive understanding. Young's conception of Trinitarian theology is one of the areas in which he has drawn a lot of heat. This should not be a surprise, as the Trinity is a complex theology which no one has ever comprehended and elucidated satisfactorily. This issue will undoubtedly arise again in future discussions.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Tremors of Doubt

Zac Klassen is spearheading a book club that gathers Monday evenings to discuss books of substance. The first evening was an introduction to the sorts of issues raised in The Shack. How should one speak of God, particularly in relation to the bad things that happen? As a means of entry into these issues Zac brought a column by David Bentley Hart, an Eastern Orthodox theologian, written for the Wall Street Journal in response to the tsunami of 2004. Hart is a delightful writer who makes no bones about his Christian commitments and he does not mince words on issues that he sees as pivotal. This column is definitely worth reading.

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

A Jesus Manifesto

A Jesus Manifesto is written by Frank Viola and Len Sweet. I have read several of Sweet's books and find him a refreshing wind for our current time. This manifesto reflects his wholesale commitment to going beyond simply making Jesus the center of all Christian thought and action. Sweet and Viola recognize that nothing we do to give Jesus the place of priority ever goes far enough. Even when we get to the place where we recognize this deep inadequacy on our own part and are willing to take our hands off the controls of our own life and intend to simply follow Jesus where ever He is going, we still fail to understand how radically it is that our life flows only from God. Jesus IS our life. Good Anabaptist theology recognizes that the Bible points us to this life in Christ, but we continue to struggle at working this out in our life rather than being too easily satisfied with inscripturating our understanding of this life in in our theology.
Read the manifesto. Be challenged. Maybe even have your life changed, if you are that brave. Honestly, I am not sure about myself yet. A satisfied comfort in my understanding of scripture is such an alluring security blanket.

Friday, 1 May 2009

Theo-bloggers transforming theology

Review: Reclaiming the Church John B. Cobb, Jr (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky) 1997 110 pages

John Cobb situates this critique and proposed remedy for mainline churches within his own United Methodist tradition, but the critique and the remedy have application beyond those limits. Cobb’s central concern is with the lack of passion among members of the church for the mission of the church. According to his analysis this lackadaisical inertia is due in large measure to the way lay people have been absolved of the responsibility to think about theology, relegating this task to “upper” echelons of church leadership and academia. Cobb cites two typical responses that intend to remedy the malady - renewal and transformation. While he recognizes the inevitable overlap of these movements he does see transformation as the more radical response, and this book focuses on the dynamics of these options in various particular challenges the church currently faces.
In Cobb's view a recovery of a shared conviction that holds theology as of utmost significance to the church and the world is an indispensable component in a renewal of passion. In his review of the history of the church Cobb acknowledges that lukewarmness is not the only danger related to conviction. There are eras of church history in which conviction led to fanaticism, which is also deterimental to the mission of the church. The challenge is to develop appropriate convictions that are based on proper respect for legitimate authority. The history of the church contains examples of insufficiently critical allegiances that proved unhealthy for the church's commitments and passions. The rise of rationalism, for example, could have been a tool for attenuating commitments to legitimate authority, but rationalism too quickly was over-extended to a position of independent authority, usurping the place that should have been the purview of other legitimate authorities for the church.
One of the most pervasive challenges to our understanding of authority (both understanding what is authoritative, and discerning the message of that authority) that Cobb notes is the challenge of feminism. Particularly with regard to the role of women, as well as proper language for God, the church has experienced cataclysmic foment regarding authority. Unsurprisingly this is also an area in which conviction and passion have often not been lacking, but have not always been helpful either. This challenge provides an example of the differing emphases represented by Cobb's notions of renewal versus transformation. Renewalists tend to desire a recovery of the pure stream of biblical teaching from the stew that has developed in syncretism with other sources (53). On Cobb's reading renewalists primarily emphasize renewal within the church based on an understanding of our biblical heritage. Surrounding culture has nothing of value that should be allowed to significantly inform our understanding of scripture. It is legitimate for influence to flow from the church to society in appropriate areas, but it is seldom, if ever, legitimate for society to have any influence on the church and her reading of scripture.
Transformationalists also wish to recover the truth of our heritage but they see heretofore unanticipated and unimagined expressions of that truth as legitimate, if not necessary, to the genuine pursuit of that truth where ever it may lead. Transformationalists see the biblical record as an account of how the early church creatively responded to the issues of their time out of a deeply textured understanding of scripture. This may facilely appear to be a unidirectional influence, but transformationalists recognize that the very act of responding to the issues of the time already gives surrounding culture a significant influence in our understanding of scripture. It is not a question of compromising the meaning of scripture by overlaying it with a cultural interpretation. Rather it simply recognizes that meanings are always apprehended within a certain context, and therefore wishes to be be more aware of how cultural sensitivities always inform, but should not naively dictate, the meaning one gleans from a text. The variant impact of these approaches on any attempt to renew passion by a broad-based recovery of the theological enterprise among all believers is immediately evident. When these approaches become part of widely held convictions among various people conflict will be inevitable. Even when agreement concerning proper authority can be achieved, consensus regarding the message of that authority will not be so easily realized. Cobb outlines the responses of each approach to several significant issues including feminism, nationalism, post-modernism, and the sexual revolution (48ff).This book is a stimulating challenge to recover our theological heritage in a faithfulness to scripture that appreciates our historically rooted readings of scripture while also understanding that God's Word is living today. The project to recover theology as a meaningful exercise of the laity goes a long ways towards this goal as it represents incremental progress towards recognizing the role of culture in our understanding of scripture. The emphasis on transformation recalls Jesus' discourse with the religious elite of his own time. Simply maintaining the truth of scripture as it has been handed down to us will effectively suffocate the living Word and make it just another empty tradition. It is not a simple matter to be honest with how our cultural (academic, religious, etc.,) assumptions have enabled us to read and understand scripture, but always from the particular perspective embodied in those assumptions. We must hold unswervingly to the Truth of scripture, but doing so must lead us into new ways of being faithful that are at least as radical as the ways Jesus proposed to the religious leaders of his own time.

Sunday, 29 March 2009

Romans 5:12-21 ConneXion March 29, 2009

Death through Adam, Life through Christ
Romans 5 is a pivotal piece of Paul’s theology. Like almost every other pivotal passage its meaning is hotly contested. As much as possible we want to try to hear Paul before we decide what he can and cannot be saying.
Paul’s frequent use of ‘Therefore’ belies the flow of thought in his writings. Paul’s writing is a journey and you need to know where he came from in order to understand why he is here and where he is going. This is not to say that all his work is a tidy flow of logic. Paul is the kind of traveler who likes the byways. He is constantly distracted by what he sees beside the road, and frequently veers off on a rabbit trail for an excursion, before returning to the main course of his thought. In this part of Romans we will encounter a prime example of this meandering.
“Therefore” says Paul, and we are following up on the interview with Paul that Zach let us listen in on last week. In that interview/overview of the first part of Romans 5 Paul told us that we can boast and rejoice, not in what we do, but in what God does for us, long before we experience even the first premonitions of our own desperate need.
“12Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned—”
and here is the first rabbit trail. Paul started out making a comparison ‘just as’ but now he sees an auspicious trail that he cannot resist exploring:
“13for before the law was given, sin was in the world.”
Paul wants us to understand the nature of sin. First, we are not merely guilty in Adam, though the biblical view of the solidarity of humanity mitigates the perceived injustice of such a conclusion. In our own time we have an impoverished view of what it is to be human because we give far too much credit to individuals as being the basic unit of humanity. In biblical thought the basic unit of humanity is the community. The writer of Hebrews talks about Levi, who is the type of the priesthood since that is the tribe that was given the priestly role of collecting tithes. The writer notes that Levi, who collected Israel’s tithe in fact paid the tithe to Melchizedek because he was in Abraham’s body when Abraham met Melchizek and paid him the tenth (Hebrews 7:9-10). The OT is replete with similar stories and in this chapter of Romans Paul shows that this principle works both ways. The same solidarity that has us all sinning in Adam also has us all justified in Jesus Christ. However, none of us can blame Adam for our sinfulness because, as Paul notes here and elsewhere, “all sinned.”
Paul understands that we may resist the notion that sin is pervasive, by reason of a deficient understanding of sin as breaking the law. Sin is more than doing what you know you should not do because you have learned better. If sin was only a matter of operating against better knowledge than those who did not have the law could not be considered guilty, and yet death, which in Paul’s mind is integrally linked with sin,
“reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who was a pattern of the one to come.”
Death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of the giving of the law to Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a law. Adam did sin in breaking an explicit command, and death came as a result of that sin, but even those who never had a law to break still operated under the curse of death because they all sinned, with or without the law.
This is another clear indication that we are not guilty in Adam because of his sin, we are guilty with Adam because we all sin. However, being classed with Adam is not only bad news, because Adam was a pattern of the one to come, the One who would more than reverse the curse of Adam’s disobedience with another superlative act of righteous obedience.
“15But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God's grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!”
‘The many’ is a term (hoi polloi) that does not intend to select a group of many out of a larger group that includes all. Hoi polloi is a term that refers to the masses of people without distinguishing them as a subset of a larger category. The parallelism also makes it difficult to suggest that the many in one case is in any way distinguishable from the many in the second use. The emphasis in this verse is not a comparison of two different categories of the many, but on the impact of the gift as over against the trespass. If the masses died because of the trespass of the one man, how much more will God’s grace and gift that came by the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the masses!! The implication is that those who died because of sin will be more than restored in the work of Jesus Christ. But just in case we missed the point, Paul says it again:
“16Again, the gift of God is not like the result of the one man’s sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification.”
The superlative comparison continues as Paul points out that the judgement of death followed one sin, but the gift followed on the heels of many sins and still prevailed to bring justification. One sin was enough to bring death, but many sins were not enough to stand in the way of justification! The comparison of extravagance continues:
“17For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.”
The precise denotation of “those who receive” is one of those hotly debated phrases in this text. Does this phrase intend to limit the “provision of grace and the gift of righteousness” that comes though Jesus Christ to a subset of those over whom death rules? If so, then this phrase stands in stark contrast to every other comment in this text regarding the relative extent of the curse as compared to the gift, not to mention the general tenor of this passage which uniformly exults in the excess of the gift over sin and death.
If this phrase is understood to introduce a hint of conditionality it should not be taken to refer to the gift, but to the fruition of the gift. The gift remains an ‘abundant provision’, but those who ‘receive’ the gift will ‘reign in life’. The gift is the antidote to everything impacted by sin, and those who receive the gift will reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. The reigning in life is not something we can do on our own, it only happens as we participate in Jesus Christ. It seems that the work of Jesus Christ flows for all at least as freely and as powerfully as the original sin introduced death into the world, a death which impacts all. We do not have an original choice in whether or not to participate in sin, though we do have a choice in how enthusiastically we participate. It seems there is a parallel in that we do not have an original choice in justification, but we do have a choice in how far we allow God’s salvation to take root in our lives, and how far we go in letting the life of Jesus Christ reign in us. Paul’s next words are a powerful reiteration of this very point:
“18Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. 19For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.”
This is an incredible salvation! As awful as was the curse, God has more than simply reversed the effects of sin for us!! Any perception of injustice in being included with Adam in original sin is more than mitigated by the good news that we are also all included in the justification that brings life for all. We start life twice born! Solidarity in the actions of others stands in our favor as it brings us the righteousness that can only be realized in the work of Jesus Christ.
20The law was added so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, 21so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
It is not likely that Paul intends to say that the advent of the law actually increased sin because he has just said that sin is pervasive even where there is no law. It is much more likely, given the context, that he intends to remind us that we know sin because of the law. This fits with earlier statements like “through the law we become conscious of sin” (3:20). It would be positively contrary to God’s nature to take action that increased sin when the consistent message of scripture is that sin is anathema to God to the extent that He chooses to give his own life rather than allow sin to rule his creation. In fact it would be quite appropriate to recognize that it is grace that works through the law to bring about a recognition of our own sinfulness and our need for a Saviour, and it is the same grace that reigns through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ.
The key verse of Romans is 1:16 I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. Romans 5:12-21 is a pre-eminent exposition of this salvation. Even before we realize we have fallen God has already provided a remedy that is more than sufficient to restore the relationship that was broken by our sin. The question now is how shall we live in light of this salvation provided for us and for all who sin? Romans 6 will lay that our for us, but it quite emphatically does not condone any notion of living frivolously in a presumption of this grace freely bestowed. Rather, in a heartfelt gratitude for this salvation we should count ourselves dead to sin, and alive to God.

Monday, 2 March 2009

Romans 3:1-20 ConneXion March 1, 2009

(Note: This is a revised version of an oral delivery and discussion at the ConneXion in Arborg on March 1, 2009. It is one session in a series of presentations on Romans. Presenters in the series included others from the ConneXion, as well as visiting presenters.)
We have looked at various parts of Romans already so we will just do a very quick and cursory review to set the stage for our look at chapter 3. Romans 1:16-17 are the key to the book:
16I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 17For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last,[c] just as it is written: "The righteous will live by faith."[d]
Then Paul talks about the wrath of God directed against wickedness, which Peter handled so well 2 weeks ago. After stirring up his readers about wickedness and the filthy way of life of "others" he turns the tables in chapter 2:
1You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.
It seems clear that Paul's intent in this part of Romans is to annihilate any confidence we have in any distinctions we perceive or posit between ourselves and the "others". Nothing gives us a head start with God in relation to "others", whether we call those "others" the lost, or the world , or any other designation that emphasizes a gap between us.
I want to take a bit of a closer look at 2:17-29 because this piece is the context for chapter 3. Paul's focus in this section is on the Jews and their confidence in their special status with God based on their being a chosen people with a special revelation from the God who chose them. The section targets the Jews, but we need to reflect on how this applies to us. Paul begins:

ROMANS 2:17-3:20
The Jews and the Law
17Now you, if you call yourself a Jew;
Paul is speaking very specifically to the Jews, but we believe that the Bible is God's word to us today. What terms would we use to highlight for ourselves that this text speaks to us? Terms like raised in church, Mennonite, and Christian are some examples that help us understand how this warning applies to us.
As we go on reading I will read very slowly to give us time to reflect on what the text is saying to us. I will try to read with pregnant pauses that leave room for fecund thought and I invite you to listen as the Spirit speaks between the lines, and then we will discuss your reponses.

if you rely on the law and brag about your relationship to God; 18if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; 19if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, 20an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of infants, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth—
Why does Paul talk about the embodiment of knowledge and truth? What does it mean for knowledge and truth to be embodied?
Knowledge and truth are not without corporeal substance. Knowledge and truth are not only intellectual categories, they include embodied, lived substance. You cannot know truth if you do not do truth. Knowledge and truth are embodied in the way you live, not merely testified to in what you say.
21you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? 22You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23You who brag about the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law?
Recall Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. What does Paul mean with these questions? How do these questions relate to the "embodiment of knowledge and truth"? Knowing the law is good, but living the law must always exceed the law. Living the law means more than adhering to the technicalities of the law.
24As it is written: "God's name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you."[b]
God's name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because God's children are in a bondage of disobedience. Abraham kept going to Egypt thinking the living was better there, when God had given him the Promised Land. Israel was given land but went to Egypt to live, and ended up enslaved. When Isaiah is saying the words Paul quotes here Israel is in Assyrian captivity. God's promise to Israel was always blessings for obedience, and curses for disobedience. The dire warnings issued to Israel concerning their fate if they did not continue to walk in Yahweh's ways are not appropriate for children's bedtime stories. The worst of Hollywood's degenerate filth hardly compares. And for the masses around Israel God's children are a reflection of Yahweh.
(Isaiah 52:5; Ezekiel 36:22-23)
Paul continues:
25Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised. 26If those who are not circumcised keep the law's requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised? 27The one who is not circumcised physically and yet obeys the law will condemn you who, even though you have the[c] written code and circumcision, are a lawbreaker.
28A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. 29No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man's praise is not from men, but from God.
Knowledge and truth, and the law, must be faithfully embodied in order to be of any value. Adherence to technicalities is worthless, and what one is, is indicated in what one does. What sort of value is there in this embodied keeping of the law? Paul asks:
God's Faithfulness
1What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision? 2Much in every way! First of all, they have been entrusted with the very words of God.
3What if some did not have faith? Will their lack of faith nullify God's faithfulness?
Based on the context, what do you think Paul has in mind when he talks about "faith" and "faithfulness"? Is there any faith that is not embodied? Clearly no. Faith not lived is not faith. It is a religion and a pretense and it is a keeping of the letter of the law, but it is not faith. Recall Romans 1:17 and compare with Habakkuk 2:4-5 Habakkuk is complaining because God uses faithless heathens to punish his own children, and this is God's response, speaking about those who come to trouble his children. The righteous, living his faith, will live very differently from the one who lives by his desires. So can our lack of faith nullify God's faithfulness? Will the fact that we do not live faith mean that God willl not be faithful either?
4Not at all! Let God be true, and every man a liar. As it is written: "So that you may be proved right when you speak and prevail when you judge."[a]
This is a quote from Psalm 51, a psalm of David written as a response to the prophet Nathan who came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba.
1 Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.
4 Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge.
Our faith and our faithlessness prove God right in that good and evil are their own reward. God has made a world that is designed to run on the fuel of the good, and it sputters on the impurities of evil. Whether our faithful living contributes to the beauty and harmony of God's creation, or whether our sinfulness fouls the systems and wreaks havoc with the good creation, God is proved right either way.
5But if our unrighteousness brings out God's righteousness more clearly, what shall we say? That God is unjust in bringing his wrath on us? (I am using a human argument.) 6Certainly not! If that were so, how could God judge the world? 7Someone might argue, "If my falsehood enhances God's truthfulness and so increases his glory, why am I still condemned as a sinner?" 8Why not say—as we are being slanderously reported as saying and as some claim that we say—"Let us do evil that good may result"? Their condemnation is deserved.
No One is Righteous
9What shall we conclude then? Are we any better[b]? Not at all! We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin.
"Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin" Is this text still speaking to us? Recall the terms we suggested earlier (raised in a church, Mennonite, Christian, etc.,) that highlight our inclusion in the message of this text. Could those same terms obtain here as well? If it is difficult for us to imagine our own complicity in sinfulness as equal to that of the "others" whom we often recognize as the targets of our evangelistic efforts, then it is clear that we do not begin to understand our own sinfulness.
10As it is written: "There is no one righteous, not even one; 11there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. 12All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one."[c] 13"Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit."[d] "The poison of vipers is on their lips."[e] 14"Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness."[f] 15"Their feet are swift to shed blood; 16ruin and misery mark their ways, 17and the way of peace they do not know."[g] 18"There is no fear of God before their eyes."[h]
19Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. 20Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.

The law can speak only to those under the law. Should we recognize the same for our Christian heritage? Does Christianity speak to those who share a heritage of religious Christianity, leaving room for the God who exceeds Christianity to deal without those outside this umbrella in whatever ways He deems just and faithful? The problematic posed by the question will not be uniformly perceived, but the answer may well shake foundations for us as severely as Paul's message riled the Jewish establishment. If it does not, we may simply be sharing the comfortable seat of the scribes and Pharisees.
The only thing the law can do for us is to show us what sin is and how sinful we are. Does the same hold true for our Christian heritage? The implication of Paul's words is that our religious heritage can only show us our sinfulness. Christianity cannot save us, it can only show us that we need salvation.

Romans 2:6 Psalm 62:12; Prov. 24:12
Romans 2:24 Isaiah 52:5; Ezek. 36:22
Romans 2:27 Or who, by means of a

Romans 3:4 Psalm 51:4
Romans 3:9 Or worse
Romans 3:12 Psalms 14:1-3; 53:1-3; Eccles. 7:20
Romans 3:13 Psalm 5:9
Romans 3:13 Psalm 140:3
Romans 3:14 Psalm 10:7
Romans 3:17 Isaiah 59:7,8
Romans 3:18 Psalm 36:1
Romans 3:25 Or as the one who would turn aside his wrath, taking away sin