Turned Right-side Up

 

There is fear that is not fear

There is faith that is not faith

There is hope that is not Hope

There is peace that is not Peace

There is success that is not Success

There is failure that is not Failure

 

There is presence that is not Presence

There is absence that is not Absence

There is victory that is not Victory

There is defeat that is not Defeat

 

There is life that is not Life

There is death that is not Death

 

For our eyes see but do not see

Our ears hear but do not hear

Our minds behold and yet do not comprehend

The Kingdom has turned everything right-side up

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“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.

What’s in a Name?

Recently, our denomination had its large gathering.  People from all over the globe gathered to discuss the future and make decisions to guide the denomination forward.  I was quite intrigued with the process, since I have never actually been able to attend but was able to view the proceedings via live feed. 

One particular conversation stuck out to me.  Our manual currently states that every church must have the denominational name attached to its name.  This came up for debate.  Many who have been in the church for a long time felt it was necessary to maintain this rule so that we wouldn’t lose our identity.  They felt it would compromise our heritage and voice.  The other side countered that not having the name attached provided opportunities to reach the community that might not otherwise be possible.  Distrust in organizations and denominations made it difficult to reach the younger generation.  Of course, this a narrow characterization of the various stances for both sides.  But, essentially, everyone had their reasons for voting for or against this resolution.

In my estimation, this whole conversation misses the point.  I’m reminded of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.  Two lovers kept apart because their families are feuding like Hatfields and McCoys.  Yet, despite the fact that they are supposed to hate each other, they find they would rather be together.  There’s a great balcony scene.  Juliet is on her balcony.  Romeo is serenading her fromt he courtyard.  Juliet is worried that Romeo will be caught and killed.  But, Romeo can’t be persuaded to leave.  He summarizes the whole situation quite nicely: “What’s in a name?  Wouldn’t a rose by any other name smell so sweet?” 

Indeed, what is in a name?  There are churches within our denomination that put the denominational name on everything they have.  They are gungho about the institution.  And, yet, the Gospel is not preached in their midst.  Likewise, there are churches within our denomination that do not place the denominational marker on everything.  They’d rather avoid any responsibility to the larger community of faith of which they are a part.  And, sometimes, they also do not preach the Gospel.

Vice versa.  There are churches in our denomination that do and do not attach the donominational name to their church’s name.  And, yet, miraculously – the Gospel is preached and lived out. 

Indeed, what is in a name?  Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to avoid useless arguments about something as short-lived as an institution?  Wouldn’t it be better to focus on preaching the Gospel, proclaiming the Kingdom, and pronouncing the way of Jesus to the nations?  If those things were at the heart of our mission, would it really matter what denomination we claim or that claims us (not to say that those things are entirely unimportant)?  The Kingdom and the Gospel are much grander visions than our denomination… even if it is a faithful denomination.  Because it is only a tiny fragment of the Church universal, which is One Body, with One Lord, One Faith, having experienced One Baptism, and empowered by the One Holy Spirit.

What is in a name?  Perhaps the name we should be most concerned about is “Christian.”  Wouldn’t a Christian that has been brought into the Way, by any other name, be a fragrance pleasing to God?

 

Personal Vision Statement for Ministry

“You will be to me a royal priesthood and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:5-6).  Delivered from the shackles of slavery, Israel now had a high and holy calling.  Quite simply, God had set Israel apart, not to rule over the other nations, but to serve the other nations as reflections of God’s character and nature.  Even as God had invited the Creation to participate in God’s creative activity in the world, so now God was calling Israel to engage in the mission of God in the world.  Israel was to be a microcosm, a small world within a world, of God’s Kingdom reigning on earth as it is in Heaven.  The Kingdom starts small but is intended to expand to all Creation.

The Church has always understood itself to be an extension of Israel’s calling.  1 Peter reminds us that we are called to be a “royal priesthood and holy nation.”  Just as Israel was called to serve the world, the Church as the Body of Christ is also called to serve our world.  We serve even as Christ models servant-hood for us: “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped for his own advantage;rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.   And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross!” (Phil 2:6-8).

We are familiar with the Great Commission: “As you are going, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them everything I have commanded you” (Matt 28:19-20a).  The world is rarely transformed through eloquent argument or great displays of power.  Rather, discipleship looks more like Calvary’s Hill than the political games of Capitol Hill.  It resembles a Cross and not crossed swords.  The Kingdom looks more like the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Suffering, than it does the American Way.  Following Jesus’ resurrection, he appeared to his disciples.  Showing the disciples his nail-pierced hands and feet, Jesus told them, “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.”  The journey of discipleship just might be a painful and deadly one.

But, that is neither cause for despair or fear that leads to self-preservation.  “Those who lose their life will gain it.”  Through Christ Jesus, Death and the Grave no longer hold the victory.  They have been defeated.  Death has been crushed to death.  Our cry, “O, what a wretched person I am.  Who can rescue me from this body of death?” is answered by the definitive proclamation, “Thanks be to God – through Christ Jesus our Lord.”

We have been given this great Light and great Hope.  The darkness does not understand it and will try to snuff it out.  But, even as the darkness could not conquer Christ, the Church will not be the victim of destruction.  We are made to be more than conquerors through Christ Jesus.  Our fight, however, is not with flesh and blood.  It is against the powers and the principalities of this world.  It is against the Pharaohs and Pilates trying to shape us in their image.  Thus, we are called to “normalize the Kingdom” in the midst of a sometimes hostile world.

In doing so, we find ourselves surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses cheering us on.  We follow the Pioneer of our faith in this race of endurance.  We allow God’s vision for this world to become our vision, proclaiming, “I have a dream” with Martin Luther King, Jr.  We stand up for what is right, stating, “Here I stand!  I can do no other” with Martin Luther.  We see the needs of our world and are burdened for them, recognizing, “The world is my parish” with John Wesley.  We find unity within the Body of Christ, despite differences we may have, acknowledging, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity” with Saint Augustine.  And, when we find ourselves persecuted and attacked, we pray, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” even as Jesus and Stephen, the first martyr, prayed.

Theological Constructs

1) God is Triune: Three-in-One (Although this term isn’t used in Scripture, the basis can be found in Deut. 6; Gen. 1?; John 1, 14, 15; Matt. 28).  God is communal and dialogical, not only within the Godhead but with all of Creation.  God invites and empowers the Creation to participate in the creative activity of God in the world (Gen 1-2).  There is a degree of freedom inherent in the Created order, but it also depicts a relational God that is deeply and intimately involved with the Creation.  As such, God is not unaffected by what happens in the world.  This is most demonstrated in the Cross.  God is so committed to the Creation that God is willing to enter into the Creation and live with it, even at the cost of great suffering.

The language of Body of Christ and “royal priesthood and holy nation” (1 Pe. 2:9, 1 Cor. 15) suggests something that is collaborative and interdependent.  True faith cannot be privatized.  Rather, as Wesley suggests, “There can be no personal holiness without social holiness.”  We are created to be in community as a reflection of the Triune community.  Thus, the missio Dei is intrinsically connected to the Church as a community.  Each part has its role to play that helps the Body of Christ function as it should.  Therefore, communal language is appropriate to communicate this aspect of faith.

2) The Kingdom is an essential concept (Matt. 3-4 and Luke 4).  The Kingdom embodies God’s reign in the world.  It signifies God’s true intentions for the Creation.  God’s call is not about national identity, although it sometimes reduced to that belief.  Rather, the Kingdom transcends nationality and national allegiances.  The Kingdom is the shalom of God bringing about the unity of the Spirit in Creation with the Creator.  Israel and the Church are the microcosm of Christ’s peace being lived out in tangible ways that reflect God’s character and nature back into the world.  In other words, this is a matter of holiness.  We are in the world, but not of the world.  There is a Kingdom ethic that guides our lives and it is modeled in Christ Jesus’ death on a Cross.  The Way of the Kingdom is the way of cruciform, Incarnational living.

Pastors equip the people for “doing every good work” (1 Tim. 4:11-13).  This is not over and above the congregation but alongside the congregation as co-laborers in Christ Jesus.  Leadership is not something to be “lorded over others” but to empower others.  Christ is the Head of the Church, not the pastor (Eph. 4:15).  Rather, the pastor should be the first to pick up the “towel and the basin” and wash feet.  Pastors are servants of servants.

3) God invites response (Gen 1-2, Heb 3-4).  Although I did not get into the specifics of praxis, the theology of a dialogical, relational God shapes our praxis.  Understanding God as reaching out to all of Creation to restore it undermines nationalism, imperialism, militarism, consumerism, to name a few.  As Terrence Fretheim suggests, “God always acts directly, but always through agents.”  God desires to share this Kingdom with all of Creation.  We are all called to be “a royal priesthood and holy nation” (1 Pe 2:9).  Our response is gratefulness for the grace we have received through Christ Jesus.  It is also the call to extend that same invitation to others as God’s ambassadors in the world.

            God’s perfect love invites us to respond in new ways that go beyond fear (1 John 4).  This not only includes the fear of punishment from God, it includes the way that we live in the world.  “God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline” (2 Tim 1:7).  The Church needs to learn charitable discourse, especially among its members.  Jesus warned his disciples that the world will hate them because of him.  But, that does not then permit us to fight the way the world fights.  Rather, a sign of our maturing in Christ is the ability to discuss, even as God is dialogical, without fear of being destroyed.  God’s love brings a peace that passes understanding and allows us to stand firmly while maintaining charity.

Bibliography

Birch, Bruce C. A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament. 2nd ed. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005.

Braaten, Carl E., and Robert W. Jenson. Union with Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther. Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 1998.

 

Brueggemann, Walter. Genesis. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982.

 

Brueggemann, Walter. The Word Militant: Preaching a Decentering Word. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007.

 

Brueggemann, Walter. Mandate to Difference: An Invitation to the Contemporary Church. Louisville: John Knox Press, 2007.

 

Brueggemann, Walter. An Unsettling God: The Heart of the Hebrew Bible. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009.

 

Cladis, George. Leading the Team-Based Church: How Pastors and Church Staffs Can Grow Together into a Powerful Fellowship of Leaders. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1999.

 

Fretheim, Terence E. Exodus. Louisville: John Knox Press, 2010.

 

Hauerwas, Stanley. The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983.

 

Hauerwas, Stanley, and William Willimon. Lord, Teach Us to Pray: The Lord’s Prayer and the Christian Life. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002.

 

Outler, Albert C., and Richard P. Heitzenrater. John Wesley’s Sermons: An Anthology. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002.

 

Volf, Miroslav. After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1998.

 

Yoder, John Howard. The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994.

 

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