“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.

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“A Work of Heart: Understanding How God Shapes Spiritual Leaders” by Reggie McNeal

This book only has two sources that are cited.  And, one of those sources is Reggie citing himself.  By the author’s own admission, this book is not strictly academic or exegetical.  There are plenty of moments when I wish that McNeal used sources to firm up his argument and be more theologically concise.

The book starts by tracing the lives of four biblical leaders: Moses, David, Paul, and Jesus.  By outlining their story, McNeal attempts to highlight the factors of influence that God used to shape each leader spiritually.  He concludes that there are six elements that shape spiritual leaders: culture, call, community, communion, conflict, and the commonplace.

Culture is the environmental factors that have shaped a person: socio-economics, time in history, geography, language.  These inevitably shape the earliest and most fundamental parts of each person.  Culture can have both positive and negative elements.  Regardless, culture has a profound impact that shapes people.  In order to “transcend” one’s culture so that it does not become a hindrance, the leader must understand where they come from, where they stand, and where they are going while taking others along with them.

The call ignites within the person a sense that God has something special planned for them.  It is both a matter of being and doing.  According to McNeal, this goes beyond the general calling that is issued to every believer.  Rather, it is a life of service to God for the Body of Christ, which is the Church.  But, how this is played out can be multi-faceted, ever-changing, and unconventional.  Most importantly, our calling should always be directed back to God, not toward ourselves or others.

Community suggests that we are not created or matured in a vacuum.  We are created as communal creatures and we are shaped as communal creatures.  No pastor is an island unto themselves.  This recent generation has recognized its need of community, despite the fact that they are often over-extended and isolated.  There is a drive to work in teams and in community, which is actually healthier and theologically grounded.  Pastors more than ever need genuine community.

Communion deals with our relationship with God.  As one of my pastors used to tell me, without the Spirit’s presence we are dry, dusty bones.  There may seem to be life on the outside, but on the inside it’s a different story.  Eventually, that lack of communion with God becomes evident.  Not only is this true in the life of the leader but in the community that is being shepherded by the leader.  God initiates, guides, sustains, and accomplishes the work of ministry, we are simply called to respond to God’s leading.  To be a minister is to be called to be a vessel of God’s grace.  That is our primary responsibility.  Without the Spirit’s anointing, ministry quickly becomes joyless and a burden.  Ministry turns into program rather than progress.

Conflict attends every leader.  Sometimes it is the result of poor decisions and sometimes it is simply because we work in the midst of broken people.  Good leadership learns to weather these situations with God’s empowering.  McNeal suggests 8 strategies for dealing with conflict: get over it, choose your pain, examine your critics, look in the mirror, get good advice, be kind and honest, forgive, and make a decision.  Conflict can be used by God to shape us into the leaders He desires.  We are called simply to respond in faithful obedience.

Commonplace refers to the ordinary routines of life.  That is the crucible of life, not merely the extraordinary moments.  The daily decisions we make shape our character for those defining moments of trial and difficulty.  McNeal suggests four habits that help shape our character daily: look for God, keep learning, say yes to God, and stay grateful.  By doing each of these things in ordinary moments, we are trained to do them in extraordinary moments.

Overalll, I thought this book was insightful and helpful.  It made me wrestle again with my calling where I am at now.  Not being in too big of a hurry, but allowing God to shape me in the daily routine of life was a helpful reminder.  This book was not full of novel concepts, but highlighted things that we need to be constantly reminded of in our ministry.  In some ways, McNeal seemed to stretch the Biblical story in ways that it isn’t necessarily intended, overall he was faithful to the heart of Scripture and provided some good basis for his argument.  I would recommend this to other pastors to be reminded that leadership isn’t simply about learning the latest trends in ministry, but it really is a “work of heart.”

“Christ and the Powers” by Hendrik Berkhof

This is a very short book, but it is extremely dense.  Berkhof makes several observations about the Powers.  First, it is important to recognize that the Powers were created by God as part of the “good” Creation.  They are instruments to bring order to the Creation and they find their purpose in Christ, who is their Head.  However, the Powers are broken due to sin.  This legion of Powers now often works in ways that are not reflective of God’s character and nature.  They are coercive and their way always leads to death.  On the surface, they promise well-being and stability.  In some sense, they deliver on that promise, but always at the cost of our very lives.  It is both a material and spiritual problem.  We are enslaved to the system.

The work of Christ in his crucifixion and resurrection breaks the dominion of the Powers.  Christ’s crucifixion actually unmasks the Powers for what they truly are.  The resurrection is the sign of Christ’s reign and the Powers “dethronement.”  The Church is also a sign that the Powers no longer rule.  The Body of reconciled believers that contains both Jews and Gentiles, demonstrates Christ’s reign once again over Creation.  The Church is called to stand firm against the Powers, not defeat them… that is Christ’s role.  Rather, the Church unmasks the Powers by living out Christlikeness.  The Powers are further destabilized by preaching and teaching Christ, which opens our eyes to the true reality of our broken world.

The Powers can never really come back to autonomous authority.  But, we live in the “now and not yet” which means that the Powers still vie for dominion.  They do so in three ways: secularism, legalism, and “restoration.”  Berkhof suggests that the Church is largely responsible for these trends and offers the only worthwhile response to the de-stabilization of the Powers: following and embodying Christ.  In other words, we recognize that the Powers are still at work, but we maintain their proper role, which is subordinate to Christ.  We recognize that the “authorities” are broken people needing to be reconciled to Christ.  We do not follow “ideology” but continue to pray that Christ would be made manifest through the Powers’ work.

Berkhof states it succinctly, “It can happen that Christ’s church, by her preaching, her presence, and the patterns of life obtaining within her fellowship, may represent such a mighty witness and so forcefully address the consciences of men far beyond her borders, that they generally orient themselves by this reality, tacitly accepting it as a landmark.  They do so because they know of no better gaurantor of a decent life, of mercy, freedom, justice, and humanity than a certain general acknowledgment of the sovereignty of Christ, or (as they prefer to say it) of ‘Christianity’ and ‘Christian values'” (58).