“Heaping Burning Coals – Romans 12” – Reflecting on Lent

Lent is a season of reflecting in a further intentional way on the life of Christ which leads to the Cross.  The cross is symbolic, although not simply that, of the kind of ministry which Jesus embodied while proclaiming the Kingdom of God has begun here and now in him.  The cross is the way of the Kingdom, for it is the way of its King.  As Kingdom citizens, we are called to embody this same cruciform way of living here and now.  We are called to pick up our cross and follow Jesus.  Our baptisms are where we are buried with Christ so that we might also participate in his new-creation-life, which also anticipates Christ’s coming again to fulfill that which he began – “on earth as it is in heaven.”

As such, we are visible, tangible reminders that God’s Kingdom has come.  We are stewards that build for the Kingdom, announcing its inauguration in Jesus, and the Christian hope that it will someday be consummated in his return.  This is why we say: “Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again!”

Yet, while we wait for Christ’s return, we recognize that there is still work to be done in the Creation and in us.  Although the Kingdom has begun, it is not yet completed work.  So, we long for and anticipate the coming redemption of all things, when Christ will be all in all.  Paul says that the Creation waits for the redemption of humanity.  And, as we wait for our redemption, sometimes we groan in prayer when words fail us.  The Spirit of God takes up our prayer and presents them to God.  We hunger and thirst for God to make right that which is broken and twisted by sin.  We all, including the Creation, groan to be set free from the bonds of sin and death.  Paul’s words picture this anguish perfectly: “Who can rescue me from this body of death” (Rom. 7:24)!?

Lent weighs heavily upon us.  We see the cross in the distance and recognize that the twisted beams of wood which pierce the ground and the rusty nails which pierce Jesus are both driven deep in the flesh and the earth by our own hands.  It is our violence and our demand for justice which finally nail Jesus to that branchless tree.

It is a tree of death upon which we have placed the Author of Life.  It is the tree which is rooted in our anger, bitterness, anxiety, and malice.  Through that tree we pour out all of our contempt upon the Light of the World.  The cross which stands in the distance comes nearer and nearer as we approach Good Friday.  It holds up the mirror before us, asking: “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”  We can only exclaim, “Yes, it was me.  Yes, it was us.”  We try to avoid the disciplines of Lent because we finally want to avoid seeing our face in the crowd which cried out, “Crucify him!  Crucify him!”  We cannot bear the shame.

Astonishingly, what we intended for evil, God reorients for our good.  This is what Paul is exclaiming when he finishes his thought in Romans 7.  “Who can rescue me from this body of death!?  Thanks be to God – through Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 7:24-25).  God takes an instrument of death and transforms it into a tool for cultivating new life in the Creation and in us.  This is the grand sweep of Romans 8.  Jesus has brought about new creation!  Yes, it is not completed work yet.  But, it’s not just a future event that we are waiting for either.  In fact, Paul calls the Christian community to begin to live into the reality of new creation now – to put our minds on the things of the Spirit and thus to put to death the misdeeds of the body.

We are to “present [our] bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom. 12:1).  God’s work through the Spirit will impact what we do with our bodies.  Paul writes, “… if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.  For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption” Rom. 8:13b-15a).  We are called to no longer live in the deathly ways of this world (12:2a), “but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”  I do not think such transformation is possible without intentional practices that engage both body and spirit in the life of a follower of Jesus.  More specifically, as Paul highlights in the following section (vv. 3-8), it cannot happen outside of the community of faith.  This is not a journey which we can do by ourselves.  God has gifted us the Church for mutual encouragement and accountability.  Christian community and the peculiar practices (i.e., prayer, sacraments, fasting, confession, reading scripture, etc.) of that community have an odd way of “humbling us” and training us to think with “sober judgment.”

Paul reminds this covenant community (the Church) that the very purpose of this community is to serve as a training ground for the Kingdom-already-here-yet-still-to-come.  It is a training ground of love.  Love of God, yes!  Most certainly.  But, equally, love of our fellow people.  In fact, the competition of the world which tries to dominate others is traded in for a new kind of competition.  It is a competition of mutual affection where everyone seeks the benefit of others over their own desires.  It is a “holy zeal and an ardent spirit, serving the Lord” by serving each other (v. 11).  It is this energetic affection for God and for each other which makes things like “Rejoicing in hope, being patient in suffering, and persevering in prayer” possible (v. 12).  We bear the burdens together and we share in each other’s joy.  And, it is a joy that spills over to others.  The needs of the saints are met by one another (v. 13a).  Not only that, but this joy spills outside of the Church as well, by extending hospitality to the stranger (13b).  In other words, the new creation is expanding to receive those parts of the old creation that have yet experienced the new life found in Christ through the Spirit to the glory of the Father.

Of course, Paul isn’t wearing rose-colored glasses.  He recognizes that there are people that are still living by the flesh.  As such, they may very well reject, even in violent ways, the hope offered by the Church.  The Church may experience persecution.  Jesus never denied this possibility.  He said, “The world hated me; it will hate you.”  Don’t be surprised.  The Kingdom of Jesus isn’t always received as good news and is sometimes treated with hostility because it challenges the world’s way of life.  It says that there is a radically different way of doing things like politics, economics, how we treat our environment, how we treat our bodies, how we treat our enemies, how we treat the most vulnerable in society.  Love is the new priority.  And, if our way of life does not reflect the way of the cross, perhaps our minds have yet to be transformed by the Spirit.

Paul outlines how we are called to respond to the abuses which the world may heap upon us.  Before our renewal by the Spirit, we fought fire with fire.  We matched violence with violence.  We responded to hatred and evil with hatred and evil.  But, now, we are to be those who “bless and do not curse” (v. 14).  We are to “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.  Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.  Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.  If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.  Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (vv. 15-19).  The way of Jesus; the way of the cross; the way of love.

Just in case we were confused, Paul goes further still.  We must not simply avoid evil.  We must pursue the good of others – even our enemies.  Paul writes, “No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (vv. 20-21).  Deep inside of us, we might cheer, “Good!  Serves them right!  My enemies deserve some burning coals on their head!”  But, that interpretation only highlights how much our lives still need to be formed by the Spirit.

The idea Paul is conveying by “heap burning coals on their heads” is rooted in a cultural practice during his day.  They didn’t have instant gas fires or lighters.  Starting a fire was hard work.  Once one was started, it was easier to keep it going than to let it die out and restart it.  If your fire died, it could be a serious problem, especially on cold nights.  If your fire did go out, you might visit a neighbor to get some live coals with which to start your fire back up.  Live coals are hot and heat rises.  So, carrying those coals in a bucket on your head would keep you from getting scorched.  Thus, “heaping burning coals on their heads” was a way of saying that we are called to get their “fires” going by returning evil with good.  Just as Jesus transformed our evil (the cross) into something for our good, we are called to do the same – even for our worst enemies.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”  He understood the pain and suffering of being hated.  Yet, the Gospel of Jesus led him to respond with compassion and love for his enemies.  That is Christian hope in action.

May Lent call us to repentance where we have failed to put on the mind of Christ.  May Lent draw us to daily pick up our cross and follow Jesus in the way of love!  Let us move from the ash heap of the old creation people that we have been to those anointed with the oil of the Spirit as new creation people.

Empty Liturgy: Form Without Substance

I sat on the second row of the small college theater. The floor gently sloped toward the elevated platform. The lofty ceiling was held in place by solid cement walls. Long, skinny windows stretched to the rafters. A small choir gathered in the balcony behind me, singing a hymn I was not familiar with. It was a haunting tune, a prayer, reflecting on God’s goodness. The words stirred the air with the gentle reminder of God’s care for us.

The chapel was an intriguing mixture of music and liturgy. Words offered in prayer. Five flautists playing their flutes to a classical music piece. It was unlike any service I have ever attended. I didn’t mind the distinct rhythm of worship that was offered by the community. As an outside observer, I tried to listen and hear the heartbeat of this community.

But, when it came time for the sermon and the final song, something struck me as odd. The sermon did not proclaim the Gospel. Rather, it was a sermon about “doing what you want to do regardless of what others say.” Hardly the Gospel. God was never mentioned. It was an empty homily. I tried my best to shake off the disappointment.

The choir began singing a familiar tune. The musical notes were ones I had heard many times before. I knew beyond any doubt that I had heard the song before, but something was off kilter. Something wasn’t quite right. Finally, in the third or fourth verse, it struck me. The words had been significantly changed. The music was to “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” Yet, the words never mentioned God nor anything remotely dealing with something that Luther would have penned. Instead, the words encouraged getting along with others – not inherently bad, but a good deal short of proclaiming the Gospel. The words felt hollow, empty. The familiar tune sounded dead without its usual theological depth.

Thinking about the Church’s liturgy (“the work of the people”), which is the practices that shape our character toward something ultimate (i.e., James K. A. Smith), it seems to me that too much of our contemporary worship has been hollowed out, like the sermon and the song from the chapel. There is a form that appears to be Christian, but we have emptied it of the Gospel and its power. There is a “form of godliness, but we [deny] its power” (2 Tim. 3:5a). When our worship, our liturgy, maintains the form but is emptied of its power, our character is pointed in a direction that doesn’t reflect God’s character and nature. It doesn’t look like Jesus.

Liturgy is important for this reason. It shapes us. The practices, rhythms, rituals, traditions, and way of life of a community shape and re-shape us toward a particular end or goal. If that purpose is not to be more like Christ, we simply reflect more of the world. Jaroslav Pelikan once wrote, “Traditionalism is the dead faith of living men. Tradition is the living faith of dead men.” Therein lies the distinction between faithful liturgy and dead ritual. We can’t get away from having rhythms and rituals of worship. But, we can get away from their intended purpose. When our practices fail to shape us to be like Christ, we must reassess those practices. Sometimes that means that we divest older practices for new ones. Sometimes it means we must re-energize old practices through education and recovery. Regardless, we must allow our liturgy, our way of life and worship, to constantly be centered upon Christ and his cross.

The results of our liturgy say a great deal about what our liturgy is pointed toward. Faithful liturgy, by the grace of God and the work of the Spirit, form in us the fruits of the Spirit. Unfaithful liturgy will produce fruit, but it will not resemble the Spirit. Instead, it will cultivate “people [who are] lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— having a form of godliness but denying its power” (2 Tim. 3:2-5).

The question is not whether a church will have a liturgy. All churches have a liturgy. The more important question is whether the liturgy reflects Christ and is shaping us to be more Christlike in our life together and in our ministry to the world. In other words, do we increasingly reflect the holy love of God to our neighbors.

Practice Makes Perfect: Ritual, Routine, and Rites

There seems to be a great amount of distrust in the Evangelical church of anything that resembles ritual.  I’ve grown up in that tradition and for many years had the same assumption.  Repeated exercises robbed the exercise of its power.  In psychology, that is known as the Law of Diminishing Returns.  As the novelty wears off, the activity seems to produce less response in our brains.  This is usually understood when it comes to things like addictions, in particular.  But, it can be applied to other areas as well.

Our aversion to ritual is not only found in this notion of diminishing returns.  We have a history connected with the Protestant Reformation that saw the abuses of a Church that had become so enamored with rituals that it seemed to walk away from its Christological center.  Thus, we conclude, rituals are to be avoided because they might somehow compromise what is most important.

Here, it might be helpful to move to a different realm of life to explore this idea.  Every year my wife and I celebrate each other’s birthdays.  We celebrate holidays (i.e., holy days) with family and friends.  We tell each other “I love you” every day – sometimes even when we don’t “feel” it.  We both show each other love by doing things the other loves, sharing time with each other, and talking about things we’ve talked about together a million times before.  If ritual and routine were seen as something less than genuine, we might conclude that we don’t have a relationship at all.  But, then again, that would be silly.  Our love is demonstrated to one another through the traditions and routines we have constructed together and some that we have inherited together.  Love is played out in the routine, normal, everyday occurrences that make up our lives.  It is the mundane moments of our routines together that continue to shape our love for one another.  If either one of us were to stop these routines in our relationship, it would communicate something less than care for the other.  It might even be received as rejection.

Now, there can come a moment when those “rituals” that construct our lives as a married couple cease to be heartfelt or genuine.  They can become opportunities to go through the motions.  But, that does not mean, again, that we should conclude that the rituals are bad.  I will continue to tell Becca I love her because there is value in that routine.  As such, the routine may not need to be discontinued.  Rather, it may need to be re-engaged with intentionality on our part.  The attitude with which we act upon those routines can make a significant difference.  And, in addition, I will find that those routines help continue to shape my love in tangible ways – even if, as I mentioned before, my heart is “not in it” at the moment.

When it comes to the traditions, rituals, routines, and sacraments of the Church, it’s important to remember that not every ritual is worth reviving.  However, many of the traditions that we have in the Church have been passed down to us because they have demonstrated their capacity, through the work of the Spirit, to shape our lives in helpful, healthy ways.  They have been valued been many generations of faithful because they have experienced these disciplines as great means by which God works in the lives of the faithful.

It is unusual that in a tradition that has sometimes warned against traditions and rituals that they are the most vehement about maintaining regular practices of church attendance, Bible reading, and prayer.  Whether they do that or not remains to be seen.  They recognize the value of rituals and routines, although they would debate as to which are important and necessary.  But, I think it’s a good start to recognize that EVERY church has routines and rituals – some good, some bad, some ugly.  The question is to then discern which traditions, rituals, and routines are true “means of grace.”

We also should address the Law of Diminishing Returns for things like the sacrament of communion.  Many fuss over the loss of meaning if one should take communion too often.  If the sacraments are something that we do, then I would agree that is correct.  Our experience would diminish given enough repetition.  However, if the sacraments are something that God gives and imbues with God’s grace and something that we receive, then the argument doesn’t hold much water for the very simple reason that we cannot exhaust God’s grace!  This is the very basis of the sacraments and the means of grace.  They are God’s gift to the Church as ways of growing in grace.

John Wesley often encouraged his parishioners and ministers to take communion as often as possible.  Sometimes he took it multiple times a day because he understood it to be a means of grace and not something that we accomplish.  Wesley recognized that it was a practice that shaped us in profound ways, even if one could not “feel” or “sense” a difference in that moment.  Yet, even in the mundane moments of communion, Wesley believed God was at work.

Practice makes perfect, not because we are achieving something, because we are cooperating with the grace that God is giving us.  Practice makes perfect for the very reason that we are equipped by the Spirit to be what God calls us to be (this is the Aristotelian over the Platonist view of perfection), not because we are without flaw.  Further, practice makes perfect because we are being trained to love God and neighbor with a greater depth than we could before.

I once heard a story, although I cannot recall where I read it, about a man that came to fully appreciate the practices of the Church.  Every Sunday that church he attended would receive communion.  It is the sacrament that constantly reminds us of the forgiveness which we have received and also of the ways that we participate in the very life of Christ as His Body.  This man’s son began to act out and in ways that were damaging and detrimental to his life.  It went on for some time and there was nothing the man could do but watch the destructive path his son had decided to take.  However, there came a moment where the son came and asked forgiveness from his father for all the things he had done to him.  The father recalled all the times he had taken communion and how he had received God’s grace and forgiveness at the Table.  Those times of practice and routine now shaped his loving, forgiving response of reconciliation with his son.  Practice made perfect.

Romans 4 – Ashes and Oil

There’s an old saying, “The only thing that is certain is death and taxes.”  This is partly true.  There’s plenty of people that manage to skip out of taxes, one way or another.  Sometimes they’re caught.  Sometimes they manage to hide it.  But, nobody can hide from death.  It levels the playing field for everyone.  Poor, rich.  Old, young.  Beautiful, plain.  Weak, strong. Male, female.  It impacts everyone.  Nobody escapes its icy grip.  Perhaps the only thing that is certain is death.

Today’s Ash Wednesday.  The faithful will gather, have ashes smudged on their foreheads in the sign of the cross, and leave under the darkness of night.  Soot fills our noses.  Our mortality stares us straight in the eyes.  “Dust you are and to dust you shall return.”  These are the very words that will accompany us to the grave.  We are ash.  We are dust.  We are dead.

Our culture does its best to avoid aging and death.  Makeup commercials demonstrate the reversal of the aging process.  Clothes promise to keep us hip and cool (I just dated myself a bit).  Technology gives us access to power to control our lives, make them efficient, and keep us busy so that we can’t reflect that we are but dust.  We live such frenetic lives that we aren’t great at just being, reflecting, and facing who we really are.  Peter Pan never wants to grow up.  Toys-R-Us helps us put into liturgy our disgust at growing up and getting old.  And, the job market makes it readily clear that getting old means you are outdated and replaceable.

The Church has not been unaffected by this trend in our culture.  We are often escapist in our mentality, hoping to get to heaven so as to avoid any unpleasantness that we might experience here on earth.  We’re even uncomfortable talking about Jesus’ call to “come and die.”  How shocking it is to be confronted with our own death… our mortality… our dust-ness.  Yet, there is nothing we can possibly do about that.  We can curse and scream, avoid it, throw money at the problem, buy everything to make us happy and sedated, engage in risky behavior, bargaining with God by promising to be more religious or pious.  None of it works.  We are but bodies of death… and who can rescue me from that?

Romans 4 recalls a story about an old man and woman.  There isn’t anything particularly special about them.  They are average, run-of-the-mill kinds of folk.  Abe is a rancher, somewhat successful, though he travels a lot with his family.  About the time they get settled, they uproot and move to a new location.  Sarah is a beautiful, but old woman.  Never could have children.  She keeps up with the household tasks and responsibilities.  But, she has always felt a bit empty at not having children.  And, to be honest, she is kind of a difficult person to work for… just ask her maid.

Would you believe that God calls these normal folks… this couple that is just about to kick the bucket?  Would you believe that God tells them they’re going to be parents – of a great nation!?  Incredible!  People that could never have a child before are now going to conceive a nation that will be a blessing to ALL nations.  What’s all the more incredible is that Abraham trusted God.  He wasn’t focused on how he couldn’t have children, how he and his wife were both infertile and incapable of producing an heir.  He trusted God.  Abraham trusted that God’s call included a promise to bring it to completion… especially where Abraham and Sarah were incapable.

The smudge that will mark our foreheads this evening are ashes that mark us as dust, as mortal.  But, ashes are not the only thing that are placed on the forehead.  Oil is also mixed into the ashes.  Oil is a symbol for the Holy Spirit, the Giver of Life.  In remembering we are but dust and as good as dead (just like Abraham and Sarah), we are also invited to receive the very Life of God which is able to take our ashes, our disappointments, our failures, and our inabilities and breath new life into the midst of them.  Though we are marked as dust, that does not have to be the final word.  But, it is not something that we can do… it is only God’s gift through the Spirit.

Silence is Golden

Today, I had lunch with a professor from Nazarene Theological Seminary, Dr. Doug Hardy.  He teaches in the area of spiritual disciplines.  We had an intriguing conversation concerning practices in the Church.  I asked him what he thought is a need in the Church that has been forgotten or left out, with the understanding that each church has different needs.  He suggested that perhaps we need to recapture silence and the capacity to wait on the Lord.  I thought this was insightful, especially considering that we live in a culture of entertainment, distraction, and disconnection.  We are extremely fragmented.  Go into any restaurant and they’re likely to have music blasting or a television turned to a game.  Our cellphones are our constant companions.  So much so, that we would rather text the person sitting next to us rather than engagement them in actual conversation.  I don’t feel that I’m overly exaggerating the situation, even within the Church.

I wondered out loud if this absence of silence and waiting upon the Lord – opening space up for God – is the reason for the lack of genuine discourse and Christian conference.  We are combative and quick to demonize those we disagree with.  Not to mention, we are not likely to listen and really hear the other’s position – especially if it is opposed to our position.  My rambling concluded with this point: If we’re not willing to listen to God, then what makes us think we’ll listen to people.  If we are not cultivating space in which to listen to God, is it any surprise that we are unable to have charitable discourse among ourselves?  I ask this question of myself and have to look honestly for ways to open up space, to provide places of silence – to be still recognize who is Lord… even in the midst of difficult, challenging conversations.

Critical Reflection on Christian Ethics from Allen Verhey, D. Stephen Long, and Samuel Wells

Each of these books (John Wesley’s Moral Theology, Improvisation:The Drama of Christian Ethics, and Reading the Bible in the Strange World of Medicine) brings up some valid points for considering the wider issue of Christian ethics. First, it is important to note that ethics and theology should not be separated out as two separate entities. Rather, they are intimately and integrally connected and cooperative. Separating ethics and theology makes for poor theology and ethics. First, theology lacks practical application without ethical consideration. And, ethics based upon the “Logic” of people can lack a moral anchor. The end of ethics without theology is the same end for modernism: nihilism. Thus, it is vital that both be held in tension together.

Theology and Christian ethics cannot merely be speculation or intellectual rumination. Rather, like a drama, they are meant to be embodied and lived out in tangible ways. It must combine both “heart” and “head.” As with a drama, we are enacting each “scene” in light of the whole story: Creation and Fall, Israel, Jesus, Church, and Eschaton. But, “embodied” living is not sufficient.

Wells and Long both note that what we do is not the only thing that matters. Granted, we must embody the story and practices of the Church, yet those practices are dead if they are not enlivened by the Spirit. Our call is to be connected to the very life of God, not simply the practices of the Church. At the same time, the practices of the Church are indispensable.

Verhey emphasizes the value and importance of Scripture for discerning ethical action. And, he highlights the need for the community of believers for proper interpretation of that Scripture. Long and Wells, I believe, would posit similar positions. However, Verhey seriously neglects the value and importance of Church practices, tradition, and sacraments as viable icons for ethical living. Granted, the Scripture is extremely important. The use of Scripture, however, also assumes a living tradition (not traditionalism).

For this reason, Verhey’s implementation of Scripture betrays his own assumptions, which I believe to be an assumption about natural law. If that is true, the assumption of natural law is not readily obvious to everyone in the Church and it is likely to succumb to some of the same ends as modernism. In fact, natural law became the basis for Deism. This creates some of the same issues as found in the Baconian project that Verhey is trying to subvert.

However, I do agree with Verhey’s basic proposition concerning the necessity of Scripture. Undoubtedly, Scripture is a vital source for connecting our story with God’s larger story. In other words, it is through the reading, remember, and enacting of Scripture that our lives our joined with God’s life in Christ through the Spirit. It is all God’s work. Thus, we learn that we are not God, that we need salvation, and that God enters bodily into our very suffering. Because of this fact, we are invited to “take up our cross” and suffer alongside those that are experience pain and sorrow.

In addition, Verhey mentions that the task of the theologian is to talk to anyone about God, to anyone willing to “hear,” and to talk within the Church about God. I believe this is fundamentally true because Scripture reveals that God is dialogical. Brueggemann contends that God is consistently and continuously dialoguing. In the Old Testament God engages four dialogue partners: Israel, humanity, the nations, and Creation.

God speaks and invites response. Not only does God act upon those partners; those partners can act upon God. We see this in the crucifixion. That dialogue is extended in the New Testament to the Church. God calls and invites response. As we are gathered into the very life of God as the ecclesia, we are called to invite others to enter into this divine conversation.

Speaking, honestly and humbly, is the calling of the Church. However, I think that this is only partially correct. God does speak first, yes. Yet, dialogue is only able to happen with another partner. Furthermore, one only becomes a partner in dialogue in as much as they are willing to hear the “other.” Thus, the community, Scripture, prayer, and sacraments all become vitally important in “hearing” God’s call to us as the Church. And, “hearing” in the Hebrew understanding is really about obedience.

This obedience shapes and is shaped by character. Liturgies, thick practices, form us as the community of believers who are becoming Christ-like and living with cruciform compassion toward the “least of these.” We must always be suspicious of ethics, or theology, that neglects either Scripture or the practices and the traditions of the Church. But moreover, we must really be on guard when ethics, or theology, lacks any reference to God’s character and nature. Without that basic understanding, we are walking blind and without discernment in the midst of difficult issues.

Good Friday Reflection

ImageIt is Good Friday.  That is a somewhat strange title for such a gruesome day.  After all, it is on this day that we are reminded that God was not the one demanding the cross, we were.  On this day we stood in the crowd and told Pilate: “You are no friend of Ceasar’s if you let this man go.”  Even as Pilate returned from questioning Jesus and said he found no fault with the man, we were not satisfied.  We yelled, “We have no king but Ceasar!  Crucify Jesus!  Crucify him!  Crucify him!  We demanded that a life be taken.   

But the “Good” was not found in us… it was found in him.  Jesus had told his disciples he would be raised up and would draw all nations to him.  The crucifixion, of all things, would be the very means by which God would draw people to God (John 12:32)!  God transformed the instrument of our violence (the cross) into an instrument of God’s peace and reconciliation. Miroslav Volf helps us think about this deeper: “Christ is not a third party inserted between an angry God and sinful humanity; he is the God who was wronged embracing humanity on the cross.”

Remember the night of Jesus betrayal?  In that “Last Supper” with his disciples, Jesus took the bread and after giving thanks, he broke it, saying, “This is my body…”  Likewise, he took the cup and blessed it, saying, “This is my blood…”  It is only with time that the disciples begin to better understand that God’s taking on flesh through Jesus, God’s participation with humanity, paves the way for our participation with God.  His flesh sanctifies our flesh.  His life becomes our life.  In Christ, God becomes accustomed to “tabernacling” with humanity and humanity becomes accustomed to living with God.  The cross becomes the means by which God demonstrates God’s unfailing love for the whole of creation.  It is the tangible action showing God is willing to go to the very depths of hell to save all of Creation. God received our violence while pouring out his grace. 

In the final moments on the cross, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”  By the tree in the Garden of Gethsemane, sin and death entered this world.  By the second tree, the cross, sin and death have been conquered.  Christ became sin for us so that we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21).  Reconciliation.  Redemption,  Recapitulation.

With his last breath, Jesus “gave up his spirit.”  At this moment, the veil that separated the Holy of Holies was torn in two.  The earth shook and the rocks split.  Everything that had once seemed so sure, so rock-solid… everything was shaken to the core. Sin, the means by which we live for ourselves, secure our desires, and maintain “control” – shaken.  Enmity between humanity and God – shaken.  Our inability to live obediently as God’s people – shaken.  Death, the bedrock of all we know – shaken!  All these things had given way to a more solid reality: God’s Love. 

“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.  7 Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. 8 But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. 9 Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the punishment of God. 10 For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. 11 But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. 12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned—For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many.  16 And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. 17 If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.

18 Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. 19 For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. 20 But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, 21 so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 5: 6-11;15b-21).

Barren Belief or Fruitful Faith?

Will Willimon, a bishop in the United Methodist Church and a well-known pastor and theologian, once stated, “A recent survey showed that 93% of Americans and 100% of demons believe in God.”  This tongue-in-cheek humor has its basis in the letter of James.  The author of James instructs early believers that faith and good works are to be held together.

Martin Luther, the great Reformation leader, called James an “epistle of straw” because he thought that the letter promoted works-based righteousness.  That is to say, he thought James was saying that we were saved by what we did.  James is not saying this at all.  Rather, “good works” are the natural outflow of faith.  Good works are the fruit of faith’s seed.

James says it this way: “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.  You believe that there is one God.  Good!  Even the demons believe that – and shudder” (James 2:18b-19).  In other words, if there is no fruit then the seed of faith must not have taken root in our lives.  John Wesley talked about faith and holiness as both personal and social, but never private.  It should impact our daily lives.  This should give us pause… I mean, we really should consider what James is telling us.  Faith not lived out in tangible ways is dead.

Yes, we have to be careful not to think that our good works make us more acceptable to God or somehow that we are made right because we do what is right.  Luther was right in saying that works do not save us.  But, that does not mean we should do nothing!  Remember, Jesus tells his disciples (and us) that part of what it means to be disciples is to learn everything that Jesus taught and live in obedience.  I like to think of it this way.  Our obedience is the thankful, grateful response to what God has done in and for us!  And… even our faith is a gift from God!

As we enter into this journey of Lent, a journey toward the Cross.  We reflect on the context and content of our lives.  What is the fruit of our lives?  What does the fruit of our lives suggest we have placed our faith in?  Do we reap the fruit of the Spirit?  Is it fruit of the Kingdom?  Is it good seed that dies and produces an abundant harvest in the lives of others?  What is the natural outflow of our faith?  More importantly, does it reflect Jesus to our world?

Tim Keel: Grace, and the hopeful honesty of Lent | Faith & Leadership

Tim Keel: Grace, and the hopeful honesty of Lent | Faith & Leadership.  Tim Keel is the pastor of Jacob’s Well in Kansas City.  This article is a great reflection on the ways that Lent “opens up space” in our lives so that we may more fully embrace God’s life.  I liked the use of creation language.  The creation of space, through seasons like Lent, connects the elements of creation and salvation.  God’s creation of space is a salvific act that gives, sustains, and blesses life.  Lent is a time where we are made aware of our sinfulness and brokenness.  Sometimes we have the idea that this is the purpose of Lent.  Far from it!  We are reminded of the Gospel, of our need for a savior.  Space is opened up.  In the midst of that space, room is created for deeper devotion and discipleship to Christ.

Liturgy and Tradition

Liturgy literally means “work of the people.” Many people think of liturgy as formal rituals. But, it’s more than that. Even churches that are not “formal” in style have a liturgy. Liturgy is the community of faith‘s response to God’s grace. And, it’s how a church orders itself and works together. Every church has a particular rhythm and pattern of life and worship together (not just the services on Sunday). Liturgy is the practices that shape and inform faith. This can be on a bigger scale, too. There are liturgies that are unique to particular denominations (i.e., not drinking alcohol) and liturgies unique to all Christians (i.e., communion and baptism).


Another word for this is “tradition.” Tradition is the practices that have been handed down to us by the community of faith over time. Sometimes traditions are fairly recent (i.e., use of guitar in worship) and some have a very long history (i.e., saying “amen”). You can even distinguish between “thick” and “thin” practices or liturgies. “Thick” liturgies are the significant practices that we will always keep (i.e., prayer, communion, baptism, preaching, to name a few). We keep these because they are significant ways that we are shaped. If we stopped doing those things, our identity would be something entirely different than Christian. “Thin” liturgies are practices that aren’t nearly as significant in shaping our identity. These will usually change from time to time. This might be as simple as saying that we always have three songs before we go to a time of prayer in a service. We could change it to four songs before the prayer and it wouldn’t change our identity.


Ultimately, liturgy should be Christ-centered and in line with the teaching of the apostles. When it goes beyond those boundaries it’s probably a good idea to remove, re-purpose, or replace that liturgy. Tradition sometimes needs to be corrected and changed. Although tradition can be extremely useful and helpful, if it becomes the sole authority over our lives, it becomes quite destructive. When that happens it is called “traditionalism.” This statement helps me to distinguish between tradition and traditionalism: “Tradition is the living faith of dead men. Traditionalism is the dead faith of living men.” Liturgy and tradition should always point toward Jesus, not back to the tradition or liturgy.


Anytime you go into a new culture, it takes time to learn the language and way of life in that new community. The same is true of visitors in a church. It takes time to learn the liturgy of a church. But, that doesn’t mean that the liturgy shouldn’t be accessible to guests. Since liturgy is the “work of the people”, the people of the congregation should help guests understand what is going on and why they do the things they do together. Pastors will often help with this by continuously explaining what is happening and why it is happening. As guests become a part of a church, the liturgy becomes a part of them and they then help shape the liturgy for the future.