at the heart of the gospel

And Mary said:

“My soul glorifies the Lord
    and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
    of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
    for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
    holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
    from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
    he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
    but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
    but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
    remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
    just as he promised our ancestors.”

Luke 1

It’s a little less than six months until Advent, but there’s never an inappropriate time to reflect on its beauty and meaning in the coming of the Messiah. Jesus comes as King, but in a way unlike that of the rulers and authorities of earth. He came and will come, and now comes by the Spirit through the gospel, and he comes to reign. In that reign is most certainly salvation, along with judgment, and from that, justice.

Israel is at the heart of this promise, receiving mercy from God ultimately to extend mercy to others. And Jesus himself is the fulfillment of what God promised to Israel and through Israel to the world.

And this gospel involves a shaking up which in part is the dealing with sin in each individual, including the high and mighty. This kingdom is for the humble, the poor, and the oppressed. The rich must beware, because unless their pockets are open in generosity, they will end up empty.

Mary’s Song is a shorthand for much of what we read in the Bible. The gospel is political, but not like the politics of this world. But don’t be mistaken, it does deal with the politics of this world ultimately, when Jesus returns. And somehow by Christ even now through the church impacts the rulers and authorities, both physical and spiritual.

A missing note I believe all too often in our understanding of the gospel.

For two outstanding reads on this, see Scot McKnight’s, The Real Mary, and The King Jesus Gospel.

the ideal church in the US in the present

First of all, right off from the top, there is no ideal church. Unless one is going to push their denomination or way of being church, there are a number of differences, which actually was the case even in the earliest days of the church, once it expanded beyond Jerusalem. And so I’m going to accept those differences which are many, today. As long as we’re united by the gospel, the good news about Jesus, we can live with those differences. I believe that’s the case between Catholic and Protestant; Calvinists, Pentecostals and Anabaptists, etc., etc. As long as the good news in Jesus is intact, the teaching of his incarnation, life and teaching, death and resurrection, ascension and promise of his return, even the details surrounding that we can see differently, provided that we accept salvation by grace through faith with works following. I am not one to quibble over justification with the Catholics, though I myself accept the solos which became theologically prominent through the Reformation. But now to the main point of this post.

We live in a nation which to a significant extent has been built off the backs of slaves. And even after their emancipation through the Civil War, you tell most any black or African-American that they are free, and they will qualify that. And we lived through one hundred years of segregation along with the Jim Crow era. There have been other prejudices, too, and all of that can fit into the point I’m going to make next, but given the history of this nation, and the current controversy over police and race relations, I will put a clear emphasis on blacks and whites and the church.

I believe that in order to be the witness the nation and the world needs from a church here, there needs to be a deliberate change and commitment to a racial reconciliation in which the African-Americans have just as much say and leadership in a given church as the white largely European Caucasians such as myself. In a small church, that might look like a black senior pastor, with a ethnically mixed board of elders and deacons (or deacons, if that’s the way your church runs). In a larger church, it might ideally somehow be two or more associate pastors who share the teaching and pastoral role, black and white, white and black, not in any particular order. But to be sure that the church is not still really run by whites, there ought to be an emphasis given to black leadership.

Of course there are many black churches and denominations. When I was young, blacks weren’t even allowed to step inside of Southern Baptist churches, and I’m sure they were marginalized in many places. But maybe black churches need to pray about their witness, as well. Maybe it’s time for them to purposefully integrate. But I can’t speak for them. If we’re to overcome what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called the most integrated hour of the week, Sunday morning, than your normal church, made up of whites with a few blacks and African-Americans here and there, must take the lead. We are the ones on the side of history of the oppressors. They are on the side of the oppressed.

To be color blind doesn’t mean we just remain comfortably in our place. It means we purposefully integrate, not from some law or order from government, but as part of the heart of the call of the gospel. To express by the Spirit the unity we all have through the good news in Jesus. Regardless of our ethnicity, background, political views, etc. But in the case of blacks and whites, this will require more.

Given our history, this unity is not just something we blithely put in place, even with some hard effort to accept and learn to appreciate our cultural differences. There must also be at the heart of all of this, reconciliation. And this reconciliation must include forgiveness on both sides: the blacks and African-Americans forgiving the whites for slavery in the first place, and all the mistreatment which followed. And the whites forgiving African-Americans and blacks for any and every sinful response that followed. And all of this, while it should be put into place in a church through the gospel, is a process in which we can’t imagine at a given point we’ve arrived. The wall of hostility is broken down through the gospel, through Jesus’s death, but the unity of the Spirit which follows requires every effort to maintain, and grow in. As we grow up together into the mature body of Christ that we’re called to become. A growth that is ongoing, and something we already are in Christ by the Spirit, but learning to live by and into the implications of all of that.

This is a great need in the church today. The way we do church just won’t do, I’m afraid, or at least it will be lacking, if this isn’t a priority well beyond just hoping others who are different might begin to trickle in. All of this in and through Jesus.

prayer

O Lord, make us have perpetual love and reverence for your holy Name, for you never fail to help and govern those whom you have set upon the sure foundation of your loving­kindness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Book of Common Prayer

God is love

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.

1 John 4

I suppose and hope that if there’s one note I would like to end my life on, and hopefully begin to live out much better, it would be the reality of God’s love in Jesus from the God who is love. This special incarnate, atoning love would mark every step of my way, not by myself, but with others. And it would mark our witness to the world. Of loving each other and loving everyone, even including our enemies.

It is the way of the cross. Not without struggle. But a faith and love which overcomes everything, along with the hope which accompanies that. An inseparable triad in scripture, the greatest of the three being love (1 Corinthians 13).

God is love, period. Everything else comes out of that love. And it’s the love we find in scripture, demonstrated in the cross. For us, and then even through us in Jesus. And for the world. In no other terms than in and through the gospel. But a gospel in Jesus which ends up as big as all of life. As we await the completion and climax of this reality, when Jesus returns. All of this from the God who is love, in and through Jesus.

trying to make sense of it all

When it comes right down to it, often life both in the short-haul, and frankly in the long-haul has some head scratchers. It doesn’t take long, or much effort to observe that. We’re left with gaping holes, and no explanation for some things. In fact life itself can seem quite counterintuitive to our sense of how it should be. Maybe like in the Job story where Job himself is never told the full scoop, and in the end to simply trust a God too awesome for him to understand.

We like to read novels, or watch films with many unpredictable twists and turns, and with enigmas that leave us wondering, and turning the pages. Life is simply not like the nice, and even to some extent good Hallmark films. We’re sometimes, maybe even often left wondering.

Scripture in a true sense is story, yes true story, but story. Humankind is made as the crown of creation, and yet is not true to their Creator, and therefore the brokenness that follows. God calls Israel to a mission to redeem and restore humanity, essentially to bring in God’s reign to an earth which wants nothing of it. Jesus is the fulfillment of that calling, which today is known and witnessed to in the church.

We all have a story to tell. It may be quite broken and disheveled, but it has its harmony and beauty as well. Somehow in and through Jesus, our story is taken into God’s story. To wonder about that, we need to look no further than the pages of scripture. Somehow something good will come out of the trouble we face in this life.

For me, having lived as long as I have (now over sixty), and continuing to see what I see, I don’t worry much about trying to make sense of everything, or even anything. I try to stay focused as much as possible on the big story, God’s story in Jesus. I want God to deal with all the scattered, broken, or lost pieces of life, according to his will. And go on.

So the story I want to focus on, and tell people about is God’s story in Jesus. And yet sharing my own story, and how it fits into that larger story. By faith we tell others God’s story, and the good news in King Jesus which is at the heart of that. And we wait to tell our own story, if and when that seems appropriate. As a witness to the larger story, to God’s faithfulness and love in his redemptive reign in Jesus.

living with unresolved tensions

Life is not only downright messy, but sometimes fraught with issues which may never be completely resolved. We would like to make everything as neat and tidy as possible, live without a care in the world, relax and enjoy. But what if we’re to learn to live content and at peace with unresolved tensions? And what if within that mix, we find empathy for the countless people who live day to day in difficult circumstances? Add to that the reality that even when all seems well, we know little of what might be under the surface. Tragedy is no respecter of persons.

We seek and try to apply wisdom to every situation which confronts us, doing the best we can, but realizing there just might be some tensions we’ll have to learn to live with. As we await the day when somehow all of that will be gone, and life will be a fulfillment of what we have begun to imagine here, but can’t completely envision, certainly beyond our experience. In and through Jesus.

the neglected Second Coming

When I was younger, there was no hotter topic than Jesus’s Second Coming, usually called the rapture, which was supposed to take the church away before the Great Tribulation, therefore called a pretrib-rapture. Hal Lindsay is well known for his book, The Late Great Planet Earth. I, along with many others had my copy and read it. He is still teaching to this day, and from the time I heard him, right along those same lines, though at one time he finally drew a line and expected Jesus to return no later than a certain year, which since has come and gone. One characteristic of such teachers and preachers is their propensity to point to nations and specific people as possible players, for example, so and so, as the anti-christ.

For obvious reasons, such teaching, though still strong in pockets has fallen on hard times. Part of that has been the modification in many quarters of dispensationalism, at least in part influenced by reformed theology, and to some extent, the Great Tradition. Maybe a larger part due to the simple fact that events like Israel’s Six-Day War, come and go, and we really don’t seem any closer to the end than before.

Christians go back to the Book, and I am in Mark 13 in my ongoing daily Bible meditation right now. A number of prominent evangelical scholars today see Jesus’s prediction entirely fulfilled in the Fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. I tend to think that way myself, given the specifics of that passage and the nature of the language used as reflected in the Old/First Testament prophets.

The sad fact of the matter is that the Second Coming of Christ, which is part of the gospel, has fallen on hard times, little preached and taught, so that even though all Christians have a nominal belief in it, it doesn’t seem to be sufficiently a part of any living faith, so that it does not impact day to day living. I have recently concluded for myself, that hope is perhaps my weakest link of the triad: faith, hope and love. Though I certainly have plenty of room to shore up, and actually grow in the others. I little think of heaven, or the after-life (the new heavens, and the new earth), and probably even less on Jesus’s return.

Somehow we need a return to preaching and teaching on Jesus’s Second Coming. Approaches like N. T. Wright’s and Scot McKnight’s can help us, on God’s grace and kingdom being present in King Jesus now through the gospel in the church, with the promise of fulfillment in a completion when Jesus bodily returns and restores all things in the completed new creation. At the very least, it seems to me, this should be a part of our daily faith understanding, confession and creed.

We need to take back this teaching, held hostage for some time by unhelpful, mistaken approaches. It is an important part of God’s word, of the gospel, the promise in Jesus. May God stamp it on our hearts, and help it to become a part of our lives, how we live and why, in and through Jesus.