“Who is the greatest?” and the problem of comparison

They left that place and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, because he was teaching his disciples. He said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.” But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it.

They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.

Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”

He took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”

Mark 9

We inevitably draw up comparisons in our minds as to which of us is better in this or that. We all tend to like to think that we might be better than someone else at such and such, and many of us are competitive by nature. But when we do so, we play into the hand of the world, the flesh and the devil. And we’re not like Jesus.

In the first place I might say, leaving the above text for the moment, to compare ourselves with each other is simply unwise, as we read elsewhere from Paul, who I would imagine, considering all that is said about and by him in scripture, was quite competitive himself.

We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves. When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise. We, however, will not boast beyond proper limits, but will confine our boasting to the sphere of service God himself has assigned to us, a sphere that also includes you.

2 Corinthians 10

Paul was fighting the false apostles for the sake of the gospel, who were calling into question his ministry based on their false view of what spirituality was. And one sure key to see through them was how they compared themselves to others, and specifically in this case to Paul and surely all those with Paul. They were superior; they were the spiritual elite. They could speak better, and surely their content was better too, in their minds. And no doubt they did dazzle, since Paul had to devote an entire section of 2 Corinthians (chapters 10-13) to both refute and expose them, as well as indicate what makes one who is truly a messenger of the gospel. By their actions and comparing themselves as superior, they were preaching a different Christ, and acting by a different spirit other than the Holy Spirit. Paul’s example was one of humility and weakness, and the gospel as well as the Lord, who essentially is that gospel, and specifically him crucified, was the one people would come to see in Paul’s ministry, not Paul himself.

But back to our Lord’s words to his disciples. He took a little child, embraced her or him, and made it plain that this child was an indication of what true greatness is. That they were to become like this little child, last of all, and the servant of all, even like he was already, to be completed through the cross. Elsewhere on the subject of who is the greatest, Jesus told them that nothing less than a conversion, a change of heart is needed (Matthew 18).

I am so easily given to comparison, particularly in matters in which I’m competitive. Probably in most, I don’t think I am, including how I write, teach and preach. I know better, having learned over the years. In these areas, I have come to see clearly how we’re all in this together, and how much we need each other. And how it’s like snowflakes, or so many other illustrations from creation, how there’s no end to God’s creativity, and how therefore we miss out completely when we compare ourselves or someone else as better than others. Paul ended up being better than the false apostles he had to oppose, because for him it was about Jesus, not about demonstrating how great he was. In fact in his brokenness as a jar of clay (read the rest of that great letter, 2 Corinthians), Jesus was more clearly seen.

And so let’s appreciate the good gifts in others, and be glad about areas they may excel in and do better than us. Remembering that we’re all special in God’s eyes, and by his design. Both in creation and in new creation in and through Jesus, the one who is the measure of true greatness.

the one word we in Jesus witness to

The Lord announces the word,
    and the women who proclaim it are a mighty throng

The Lord gives the command;
    great is the company of those who bore the tidings

Psalm 68 NIV; NRSV

A big part of what I do on this blog and hopefully elsewhere is to attempt to share the word that has come to me allegedly from God: the word of God. I try not to get in the way of that word, but simply to proclaim, or communicate it, as it is. What I say is of no ultimate and final importance; it is only what God says that will ultimately take and last forever.

I don’t have time to look at the Hebrew (as if that would matter- lol), but here is an explanation of trying to determine from the Hebrew who is proclaiming this word, whether women or not. I like the rendering of the NIV and HCSB (and even the ESV as well) which makes it out to be women. I am tired of the charge from some that the church is being or has been feminized. In place of that, there seems to be some sort of rugged American masculinity which would replace it. I am prone to think that the biblical text and story come up with something else which doesn’t equate with anything from our American narrative. Most directly, one needs to read and take in this fascinating psalm, Psalm 68.

Handel’s glorious Messiah, the same verse from the KJV, and our friend, Mark Simpson’s new classic rock album both are examples of faithfully proclaiming God’s word from different mediums. Of course most would see them as a far cry apart, but even though the genre is markedly different, I hear the same voice coming through from both: the word of God in testimony through response and proclamation. Well worth a listen, and more listens.

That is what we do, that is what we’re about. Not some lesser word. I don’t care what the best word from Washington D. C., or any other such place in the world is, even though it does have it’s provisional place, so that I actually do care. But not in comparison to God’s word; there is no comparison at all, none. What we seek to hear and be a witness to in the world is no less than the word of God from scripture, the transforming good news in and through Jesus.

joy over what is found

This morning I was at a loss to find a sweatshirt which I thought would be good for the job I want to do today. I finally found it, in an odd place to be sure, though I remembered putting it in there vaguely, in the drawer with my t-shirts.

Scripture tells us in Jesus’ words that there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance. Why? Because the lost is found!

We all belong to God because of creation. We are made in God’s image. And yet we are indeed lost in our sins and alienated from God.

God doesn’t let us go; God in a true sense seeks us. In a number of ways, but essentially by the Spirit and through the word, especially the message of the gospel.

How does God do this to those in far off places (maybe even near), perhaps isolated, who have either never heard the gospel, or may have heard a distorted view of it? I don’t know, but I believe God does seek them. I believe it because of God’s mercy. God is a merciful God. Do people need to hear the message of the gospel to have saving faith? According to scripture, yes, so I say unequivocally, of course. I go by scripture, by the word, by what God has revealed, and leave what he has not revealed to others to speculate over. I might do some speculation myself, but never would I press any of my speculations into teaching.

We need to pursue something of this sense of people’s lostness to God along with something of the sense of longing that they might be found by God. Notice I did not say, found by us, as if it’s we who are pursuing them. We should pray that they might be found by God.

The message of the gospel of King Jesus is indeed a message of reconciliation through Jesus’ death and resurrection. Sinners are reconciled to God, to themselves, to each other, and to creation. The reconciliation of all things awaits Jesus’ coming, when all is made new in him. But the beginning of that reconciliation is happening now. As God pursues the lost even through us. Some proclaiming, all being witnesses and all in prayer- that by the power and working of the Spirit, the lost may be found, the sinner may come home to joy and celebration in the love and care of God. Together in Jesus in this for the world.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer on the word needing* the church (as well as the church needing the word)

The question as to what came first, the Word or the church, is meaningless, because the Word as inspired by the Spirit exists only when men hear it, so that the church makes the Word just as the Word makes the church into the church.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Communion of Saints, trans. Ronald Gregor Smith (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), 160-161, as quoted by Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical Linguistic Approach to Christian Doctrine, 115.

*I know “needing” in the title is rather interpretive, but I am thinking in the context of Vanhoozer’s writing, that this is likely getting at something of the meaning of Bonhoeffer’s words. Of course every good gift comes from God, and scripture is no less the written word of God regardless, even though it is to be spoken and heard to become that effectual word from God.

pressing on

Paul spoke of existence in this life as consisting in Christ and he pressed on toward the mark of God’s high calling in Christ. This is the kind of mentality we need in life if we’re to follow Paul as he followed Christ.

Jesus is our foundation, God in him. We learn this from scripture which points us to him as our life, the one in whom the life of all of the new creation lives and moves and has its being.

Like most anyone, there are challenges and questions along with seeming setbacks that are just a part of my life. I rarely if ever feel comfortable about where I’m at, or what is going on. It is so wonderful to have those interludes when we can simply kick back and rest awhile. I’m thinking along with Deb about our getaway when warm weather comes again (or one of these years, before it does).

In the meantime we do well to be renewed in remembering that Christ indeed is our life, that for us in him to live is Christ. And that we indeed want to be those who are pressing on toward the goal and end in all of life, found in Christ.

Of course we do it in the way of Christ, in and through him. And we do so together in community, as well as individually. All of this in mission in good works of love and in verbal proclamation and witness to a world which needs to see the light of the world in us, that light who is Jesus.


proclamation is kingdom oriented

Yesterday I gave an account of basics of the good news of Jesus, or the gospel. I am learning from Scot McKnight’s book, One.Life: Jesus Calls, We Follow, that we need to be careful in proclaiming the gospel, that we don’t make an individualistic appeal.

Yes, it is about each individual’s call from God through Jesus to repent of their sins and believe the good news. But it is a gospel that is about what God is doing not just for that individual, but for the world. When one repents and believes the good news of the kingdom, they are entering into nothing less than God’s kingdom work in Jesus for the world. And specifically, they are now part of that kingdom. The kingdom is a domain in which God is King, there are citizens who are subjects–and more than that, family in Jesus, and there is land–ultimately the earth. And we begin in our following of Jesus, to live in this new reality.

This is a calling not about me and God, or not even about me knowing God, though that’s included. But it’s about the entire picture of what God is doing on earth in the here and now through his kingdom people in Jesus. And all that involves. This ends up in the new creation in Jesus, being oriented in a very down to earth manner, and fulfills what scripture calls humankind to in Genesis, culminating in the final vision in the Revelation.

So when we proclaim, and when people receive the good news, it’s not about a ticket to heaven. Instead it’s about a new life of following Jesus together with others in Jesus in God’s kingdom work in the world. To think of it less than that, is to fail to see how this is played out in scripture, how it begins in the call to Abraham, is at work in God’s covenant to Israel, and is fulfilled in Jesus the Messiah and Israel’s reconstitution in him. So that the proclamation and receiving, or acceptance of this good news by repentance and faith, is no less than the beginning of a new life, as large as the kingdom of God in Jesus in which it is found. At work on earth, and ultimately to take over the world, in and through Jesus.

Christopher J. H. Wright on our lives mattering first, then our words

…the mission of God’s people in the Bible is to be the people whom God created us to be and to do the things that God calls us to do. We have a life to live, and if we are not living as God’s people, there is not much point saying anything.

However, we are, of course, also called to speak up and to speak out. There is a message to be communicated. There is a word to be heard. There is truth to be known and passed on. There is good news to be shared!

Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God’s People: A Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission (Biblical Theology for Life), 149.

the centrality of the Table

Sunday, even though it wasn’t the Sunday for our once a month practice of Holy Communion (though it is offered every other Sunday for those of us who want to participate in it) the Table holding the bread and the cup was in the middle at the front. I’m glad the Table is always noticeably present, and think it is particularly good when it is at the center.

In Catholic tradition the Table is always at the center, and from what I understand of the early Reformers such as Luther, the Table remained at the center, with the pulpit  off to the side. Anglicans practice something of the same.

I think this is good, because the heart and center from which we in Jesus live and move and have our being is Jesus and his death for us, which ends up meaning nothing less than his resurrection life for us as well. Of course the proclamation of the word of God, scripture is also important and front and in a sense central. But I like the practice of putting the pulpit off to the side, maybe elevated to symbolize the authority of God’s word. But that proclamation hinges on the truth of the gospel of which the Table witnesses to, and evokes.

The Old Testament / Hebrew Bible finds its fulfillment in Jesus and in his death and resurrection. By this the goal of God’s will and the culmination of his Story is to be realized. The New Testament / Christian Bible (although the Christian Bible includes the Hebrew Bible as well) is the fulfillment of the Old Testament. To read the Bible as a Christian is to keep front and center as the key Jesus and his death and resurrection. And the Lord’s Table, or Holy Communion (also called The Eucharist) is a participation in the Body and blood of our Lord through his once for all death for us. So that in a true sense our participation in Christ is also a participation in his Body the church, with all who are in him. A mystery and therefore indicates that participation in the Table is more than symbolic.

I love Holy Communion and have grown much in that appreciation through our church and the weekly practice made available to all. This practice helps keep what is central  in the center for me, and as such is meant to do so for all of us. As we seek to follow on together, in Jesus for the world.

Miroslav Volf on why he fled to a Eucharist-centered church

High view of the ministry of the Word and pronounced free-church sensibilities notwithstanding, I finally caved in. I sought refuge from bad preaching in the celebration of the Eucharist.

My gripe was not with the oratorical skills of preachers in the churches I frequented, though many would have done well to add some rhetorical polish. My problem was not even that sermons were “unbiblical” in the sense that ministers failed to seek inspiration in the scriptures, though some seemed to be commenting on the biblical texts in order to drape their own opinions with the mantle of the prophets’ and apostles’ authority. More than with rhetoric or the use of the scripture, I was disturbed by the failure of many preachers to make the center of the Christian faith the center of their proclamation. Except in superficial ways, they often kept silent on the topic that should have demanded all their eloquence- Jesus Christ crucified for the ungodly….

Dissatisfied with ministers who live by their own wisdom, I turned to the Eucharist. Its celebration takes participants back to the night on which the Lord of Glory was betrayed and to the day on which his crucified body was suspended between the heavens and the earth. Its “special blessing” lies in not letting us forget that Christians’ lives rest on Christ’s body given and his blood spilled and that their calling is to “live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

Miroslav Volf, Against the Tide: Love in a Time of Petty Dreams and Persisting Enmities, 89-91.