the basic importance of words

Does not the ear test words
    as the tongue tastes food?

Job 12:11

These words from Job himself, later echoed by Elihu, help underscore the importance of what we say, or more precisely the importance of words, and the signficance we give to them. We do weigh what is being said, or what we’re reading, whether we’re aware of that, or consciously trying to do so, or not.

Words are obviously important for us humans. They say that the most signficant factor for a child’s success in education is their ability to read. Words are crucial for us performing our work day after day. And important in helping us think through all kinds of matters.

Words are symbols corresponding to reality. They don’t determine reality, though they are important in helping us understand it. What is true and good, as well as real goes beyond words. And so words are pointers beyond themselves.

God gave us scripture as his word written, and meant to point us to his final Word, Jesus, who brings us into the life of the Trinity, and into the life of God’s grace and kingdom come in him. And so we have verfication from God of the importance of words. Such is not only an accomodation to humans, but indeed something which corresponds to God himself. We read from scripture that God spoke the world into being, and that God’s word continues to speak into what he has created.

And so with that in mind, I want to be all the more in the word, in scripture. So that everything else I come across can be tested by that measure. Scripture is far from just a bunch of rules or even principles for life. It is all about life, and not only about it, but participating in it. In other words, scripture gets into the nitty gritty, down into the dirt in which we live, not to leave us there, but to lift us up by God’s grace into God’s good will in Jesus.

We can take heart. We in Jesus are part of the royal priesthood of believers, who each have responsibility to weigh everything according to God’s word of scrripture and God’s Word in Jesus. We do that individually, but never apart from the rest of Christ’s body, the church. We contribute to the whole, as we are helped by others, all from God, from the one Lord by the same Spirit.

Words are the starting point, but not the end all. God is revealed and we participate in God’s very life and will through both word and sacrament. Through the bread and the cup of Holy Communion. God’s word directing us to that reality. And helping us live and rest in the truth, not just to know, but actually to experience, to “taste” in and through Jesus.

 

the outcome of going through suffering

And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.

1 Peter 5:10-11

It’s pointed out in this passage, that the suffering referred to is the kind many of us in the west, and perhaps particularly in America know little or more likely nothing at all about. Unless one is caught up in the culture wars, which in my way of thinking has little or nothing to do with true Christianity and the faith, perhaps with some exceptions here and there. But every believer, regardless of where they live, is subject to harrassment from the spiritual enemy which often works through other humans; in fact we can all end up on the playing field for good or for ill in that way. If this passage applied only to believers who are threatened and to some extent experience physical persecution, then it would have no application to many of us today. But it does have direct application today to many sisters and brothers throughout the world who are suffering persecution just because they are Christians, including martyrdom.

As followers of Christ and one body in him as the church, we need to arm ourselves with the attitude that we are going to suffer, so that we might as well accept that. In fact this attitude needs to become a part of our psyche in our spiritual development and pilgrimage in this world in Christ. This same letter from Peter tells us that.

Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because whoever suffers in the body is done with sin. As a result, they do not live the rest of their earthly lives for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God. For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do—living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry. They are surprised that you do not join them in their reckless, wild living, and they heap abuse on you. But they will have to give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.

1 Peter 4:1-5

It is good to read what follows this (see link). In fact, better yet to read the entire letter, which actually isn’t long. Reading through it will bring up questions, but read it in mind with the teaching on suffering. We have to remember the context into which the Bible was written. There is inevitably an accomodation which occurred then, and continues to occur now, as we apply the gospel to our culture and world, and see the changes that gospel will inevitably bring over time.

But back to the first reading above. We need to accept and even learn to embrace by faith the hardest of times which we’re going through, refusing to flinch from such, since we know the outcome. Of course doing so with the “means of grace” God provides through scripture and the church, the word and the sacraments. God’s will give us a peace which is not merely some escape from the storm, but an ability to live well through the storm, both in terms of its aftermath, as well as the inevitablity of more such in this life. There does seem to be a closure here. But that closure is not so much in terms of relief from sufferings in this life, in fact arguably not so at all. But more in terms of God’s working in our lives in and through Christ to help us not only survive through them, but actually flourish.

Words can be cheap (and too often  are), and there’s no doubt that this is not anything we would wish for on our own. But it’s reality, and if we’re going to live in the reality in Christ, then we have to accept both that reality, and God’s provision for us through it in Christ. And when we do so, we have God’s promise. A promise which can help us stand firm in the midst of the experience of such sufferings, as we carry on in the existence of the world, the flesh and the devil, with the help that comes from the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. That God might always and forever be exalted and glorified, even in this life, in and through Christ Jesus our Lord.

 

 

 

growth in the hard places

Yes, “we believe…” But how much do we really believe? We might respond, “100% in my mind, I believe by faith in God’s word.” That might be a good start, depending, but not good enough.

We need to thoroughly embrace God’s word, and God’s promises for ourselves in Jesus. And more times than not, we need to do so in the crucible of hard life experiences in which we are cast on God’s mercy, and really dependent on his word.

Faith eventually means rest, but it also means effort, as a rule: effort to get into that rest.

Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will perish by following their example of disobedience.

Hebrews 4:11

And that effort can mean nothing less than spiritual warfare (Ephesians 6:10-20). We need to remain in the word, in scripture, depending on the Spirit and the church (which includes the sacramental, as well as the common life), our faith being in Jesus and in the gospel.

God not only wants to make his will known to us, but he wants to enable us to walk/live in that will in and through his mercy and grace to us in Jesus. But make no mistake: this will require every effort on our part. And the trials that come, as we read in scripture can help us in the midst of a rock and hard place to really at long last find our way into the rest God has for us, for all, in and through Jesus.

 

having it all together (when one doesn’t)

This is what the wicked are like—
always free of care, they go on amassing wealth.
Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure
and have washed my hands in innocence.
All day long I have been afflicted,
and every morning brings new punishments.
If I had spoken out like that,
I would have betrayed your children.
When I tried to understand all this,
it troubled me deeply
till I entered the sanctuary of God;
then I understood their final destiny.

Psalm 73

I “let my hair down” to my wife, to our priest/pastor, maybe to a good friend now and then. But other than that, I don’t, or I may give someone just a glimpse of what I’m going through if they ask me.

Most of the time I don’t either think or feel that everything is alright. I am referring to circumstances in life. But I’m always to think and with that I sometimes feel that God is in control working his judgment and salvation over time in everything. Though when one sees wickedness continue unabated or largely unchecked and even abounding, one can begin to wonder. We have the assurance that God’s good judgment and complete salvation will come, that there is coming such a day. In the meantime, God judges in incremental ways surely mostly beyond us. God is merciful, not willing that even the wicked should perish, but that all would come to repentance.

My way of entering the sanctuary is to continue in the gospel though the church in the word and in its sacramental and common life. And to continue on in the word and prayer daily, along with what fellowship I may receive in the course of a day.

So to a signficant degree, or we might say essentially, I do have to have it together especially around our grandchildren or other young people and on my job. One has to sometimes take the fire and go on, in fact oftentimes that’s the case in our following the Lord. There are times when we might gently and tentatively share our struggle or concern. But by and large we confine such interaction with God himself, as we see over and over again in the psalms.

And so this morning, as I start a new week, I know I need the Lord’s wisdom and strength. I know some things are beyond me, but that I must keep after it one thing at a time. With the promise that as our day is, so will our strength be (Deuteronomy 33), that God will indeed meet all of our needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4).

unity doesn’t exclude diversity

In pointing toward the desired unity of the church, we must not fall into the idea that our differences have to be muted or neutered into something in which we’re all uniform. Even in the Roman Catholic tradition there is some great variety in the different orders: Franciscan, Benedictine, Dominican, etc. And for all the criticism Protestants receive for their divisions, some of it surely just, there is some wonderful variety: Quakers, Pentecostals, Methodists, etc.

In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he makes it clear that though the Body of Christ is one, it is made up of many parts. But to be a full body each of the parts with all of their differences need to be in place (1 Corinthians 12). Something similar should be said, I think, for the institutional church, or if you prefer, the local church/parish and churches at large. We want to work toward the complete unity Christ was praying for. We don’t in the process want to lose the rich diversity, but somehow bring all of it together into a melodious harmony.

This doesn’t mean that just anything goes. And yet within a certain framework there can be an openness to fresh movings of the Spirit in living out and being a witness to the gospel. All of that does need to be sufficiently grounded in scripture and tradition with good reasoning and a testing of the spirits as in experience, following.

In fact this unity does not only preclude divesity, but welcomes and embraces it. And in fact is committed to it. The different cultural expressions of the faith come into play here, the various ethnicities and their expression of the faith among the many gifts that Christ gives to the church. And at its heart gives witness to the full reconciliation the gospel brings to those who in normal life are divided. The Spirit’s work in the church is not about making us comfortable. We  worship and are a part of one body that in the big picture is as large and diverse as the world.

The gospel is central as given in the word, the sacraments, fellowship, and care for each other, all spilling out into a witness into the world first in terms of the microcsosm of God’s grace and kingdom come in Jesus seen in the church, and in terms of the life that is lived out in following Christ in this world. See Scot McKnight’s book, Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church. The point here is that in this diversity there does need to be a unity that in terrms of priorities, givens which should characterize every church in its own unique expression.

Differences again are not to divide us, but to help us toward unity paradoxically, as we see the gift from Christ that they bring.

Wednesday in Easter Week: Jesus made known by the breaking of the bread

I was raised in a church tradition in which Communion along with feet washing was practiced each quarter. It was indeed a special Sunday, even if seemingly (to me) tacked on at the end of the service to make probably a longer service. The cracker broken on the trays and the grape juice in the small cups in the other trays were all symbolic of Jesus’ body and blood, nothing more. And it was a memorial of Jesus’ sacrifice, not a participation.

I later left that tradition and by and by became settled into an evangelical church setting which essentially was no different in its understanding. Like baptism, the Lord’s Supper was an ordinance, not a sacrament. And now we are members of an Anglican church plant which is sacramental in its understanding of scripture. You can argue the case from scripture either way, it seems to me. I’m not sure where the tipping point came. The last church we were members of leaned Lutheran but by nature was accommodative of Christians who differed on any number of subjects, including this one. But that church surely did have some influence on me more toward a sacramental understanding, as most (or at least many) of the people there, including the pastors believed in the Real Presence in Holy Communion/the Lord’s Table. The church as a whole practiced it once a month and it was offered every week, a good number including myself usually participating in that. So that probably had some influence on me, even as I was a bit back and forth on my understanding during that time.

It is hard to say that one factor may convince me of the position I’ve accepted now. It is surely likely a combination of factors, including a serious consideration once of whether or not I would consider becoming Roman Catholic. And a friendly take on and contact with the Eastern Orthodox Church. So that I do indeed see myself as a friend of the Great Tradition, even if not accepting all they taught (such as devotion to Mary, praying to the saints, etc.). What may have pushed me over was the importance of tradition in my theological understanding: scripture first (not only) followed by tradition (as in what the church has taught) and reason in the end followed by experience if that is understood aright. Although experience can be tricky, the first three, I think, holding precedence, particularly the first two, with the primacy being on scripture. What admittedly was the tipping point for me was when a kind of theological, biblical mentor of mine, Scot McKnight, who had been Anabaptist actually became Anglican, now a deacon and canon theologian. I was restless, wanting to do more in church for some time, and I found in our area a church plant not far from where we live in the same relatively new denomination Scot is a part of.

And so now my understanding is that Jesus is indeed made known in the breaking of the bread and the participation in the cup. It is a mystery since it is mystical, of the Spirit. I don’t understand the Real Presence as the Roman Catholics do, their official doctrine reflecting some kind of Aristotelian view (substance and accident). Rather I understand it in terms of something done by the Spirit which in a sense takes us back to Jesus’ once for all sacrifice for our sins in his death on the cross, and fast forwards us to the meal to come at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb (N. T. Wright). Somehow we do participate in our Lord’s actual body and blood in partaking of the wafers and the cup, consecrated by the priest to that end (1 Corinthians 10:16). Without thinking we have to explain it.

The first time our Lord was made known in the breaking of bread:

Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; but they were kept from recognizing him.

He asked them, “What are you discussing together as you walk along?”

They stood still, their faces downcast. One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?”

“What things?” he asked.

“About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third daysince all this took place. In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see Jesus.”

He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.

As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus continued on as if he were going farther. But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them.

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him,and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”

They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together and saying, “It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.” Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread.

Luke 24:13-35

accountability

Roger Olson has an interesting post entitled Evangelical Superstars and Why They Fall. It may be disappointing in its simplicity, but it may well hit the nail on the head. The big problem as he sees it: lack of accountability.

Olson touches on something of the heart of the problem in terms of both the unquestioning trust often given to leaders and how power corrupts. There needs to be ongoing accountability. We all need that, but particularly those in high positions of leadership and responsibility.

Another important factor is something not confined to evangelical circles. But it especially can be a problem among us evangelicals. We tend to put the pastor on a pedestal and we make the sermon the most important part of a service or church gathering. My own experience in this is that unless the church was good in the music part, I was more than ready to hear the message. Or even give it. The other stuff was mere preliminary to that. The sermon is in the spotlight and often dictates whether or not visitors will continue to come. And because of that the preacher being the pastor tends to have extraordinary power, provided they can give a good message.

Sermons are important and a gifted pastor is vital to the health of a church. They need not be charismatic in personality, but God’s gift for pastoring which includes teaching needs to be on them. But we would be far better off if instead of the sermon in the preaching of the word being pretty much the end all of most evangelical churches, it would instead be one major part. In fact I would prefer that it be a major part of the main thrust: to keep Jesus Christ and the gospel of God’s grace and kingdom come in him front and center. Liturgically and in everything else. Instead too often the church is driven by whatever the sermon might be and that is driven by one person, the pastor. So that everything centers around that and around them. Churches which major in both word and sacrament I would think tend to do better in this way. But to get back to the main point of this post, that does not necessarily mean that proper accountability is taking place.

The bottom line whatever other variables is to recognize and be committed to ongoing accountability. Not in terms of popularity as to whether or not the pastor is making people happy. But in terms of what is spelled out in scripture as to qualifications for leaders in ministry. Perfection is not the standard, but maturity and growth. Can we say that we can follow the leader even as they follow Christ? Are they following Christ? Of course that involves ongoing humility in confession of sin. The best leaders will be transparent and quick to confess their sins. If we’re all to be accountable, looking out for each other, leaders ought to show the way in that. On some level everyone can participate in that, but there ought to be leadership in place in churches, including godly lay members who can help in that way.

Not an easy subject, but an important one for us to grapple with.

 

words and acts being holy

We hear of those churches either rooted in the Great Tradition, or closer rooted to it of the importance of the ministry of the word and the sacraments. Of course referring to scripture and at least to baptism and the Lord’s Supper (or, Meal, referring to the Eucharist or Holy Communion). I would agree in the sense that both the words and the acts are holy, not only in terms of the human participation in them, but of no less than God’s participation in them as well. We can say they’re symbolic, but we can’t stop there. The sign is imbued with the reality, in other words something of the reality accompanies the sign I take it– by the Holy Spirit of God. Just how all of this happens, take for example in the Lord’s Meal, I don’t think we need to know. Except that both the past and the future is brought into the present by the Spirit in and through Jesus. N. T. Wright in this little book makes a good case for that.

Good, well thought out liturgy such as we find in the tradition Thomas Cranmer began in the Book of Common Prayer carries with it both a beauty and power which reaches deep into the human experience, indeed into our humanity bringing into that nothing less than the divine in and through Jesus. And by that a working toward the fulfillment of our true humanity made no less than in the image of God. The prayer book takes one through scripture along with prayers and song and opportunities to pray for a host of things, good and important reminders.

In so many evangelical churches while there is some good liturgy by virtue of the songs sang and the scripture that is read and preached, it is often hit and miss in terms of the gospel remaining front and center in it all,  I’m supposing. The words and acts in such services are certainly no less holy, and there’s not one way of meeting together in corporate worship. But I am thinking there are certain basics which need to be covered which are the usual common fare in the churches of the Great Tradition.  And we do well to learn from such in this regard. There is a Roman Catholic church in our neighborhood which I attended (a 5:00 pm Saturday service) once. So rich in liturgy both in the reading of scripture and in prayers and song. Only about 5% I’m supposing was Roman Catholic, the rest being common to us all. I have also been impressed from what I’ve seen of the Eastern Orthodox tradition in this regard. Symbols being treated as they really are: holy. Because through such we are taken into the very presence of God in and through Jesus by the Spirit.

We could say adoration of God in praise, confession of sin, thanksgivings, along with supplications meaning petitions in prayer to God should be basic in all of corporate worship. Along with the proclamation or preaching of the word. And I think it is good to leave open room for the unusual, what is nowadays called the charismatic, movings of the Spirit in God’s people outside the normal rhythm, yet in harmony and resonant with that. The good order and normal flow and work of the Spirit may at times be accompanied or temporarily suspended by a needed holy interruption. Before getting back into the normal flow.

Our church is good at incorporating something of this into each service. So that we have a good balance between the liturgical and what might be called free or spontaneous. Again there is no one way of being church in the corporate worship setting. But it does seem essential to acknowledge and remember that our words and acts are especially marked out as holy in those places and times.

the desire for a liturgical life

For my forty years of being a Christian I have been a Bible person. From the start, I listened to the KJV New Testament read from the same small vinyl records my grandmother who had passed had listened to. For most of those years I have listened to the Bible being read over and over again. And have attended church all of those years. All churches have their liturgy, even if it may not be much in volume or depth. Of course “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so,” has plenty of meaning and depth in and of itself. We do need other words, if we take the Bible seriously. And that is what the best in Christian orthodox tradition has done through the centuries. We do well to plug in, and learn. And from that actually participate.

The fullness of life is in Christ and is Trinitarian in essence: of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This life is centered, or we could say finds its center in Christ. And in his death and resurrection. Of course his incarnation, life and ministry preceding that; his ascension, the outpouring of the Spirit, and his return (to come) following. So our existence is cross shaped and it is rich.

I have been well trained—especially in the past, the formative years—to at least be suspicious and more likely shun all things Catholic. It is so ingrained in me that I am not sure I’ll ever be over it, not that I am considering becoming a Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox either, for that matter (I did at one time consider considering becoming Roman Catholic, but decided against that). I now can appreciate and respect at least much of what is in that tradition, without buying into all of it.

But I am becoming more and more convinced that we would do better to incorporate more of liturgy into our lives. I think of prayers read along with scripture, and other things which accompany that. I think of the Lord’s Table, called the Eucharist being more central in our practice. And yes, even though I’ve regularly pushed back against sacramental understanding, there is no denying that sacrament does have some part in life, and perhaps more than what I’ve been taught or have accepted. One can arguably make the case for a more sacramental understanding of baptism and the Lord’s Table from scripture.

And I have been heavily influenced by Scot McKnight, who recently was ordained an Anglican deacon. Since I was raised Mennonite, it was rather natural I suppose for me to come back to and embrace a pacifist understanding for the follower of Christ. I read two of McKnight’s commentaries years ago, found his blog, Jesus Creed, in its relatively early going, and found in him a Biblical scholar I could almost entirely track with (not that I could keep up with all of his thought). I was, by the way revolutionized in my theology and turned around back toward my Anabaptist roots through N. T. Wright’s, The Challenge of Jesus.

Our own church, Redeemer Covenant Church through our pastors Jack and Sharon Brown is much more steeped in the tradition of church liturgy than any church we’ve been a part of before. And we appreciate that. We’ve been around, actually as part of good churches and a variety at that. We in Jesus are all in formation, hopefully. I see myself moving toward more of a liturgical stance, not taking away from what I’ve learned to appreciate of other aspects of the fullness of life that is ours in Christ.

I have really only an introductory appreciation with very little practice of the Book of Common Prayer. Everything I have taken from it I appreciate. I do love my NIV, and I imagine I always will, and do wish it could be incorporated into the text, but I can live with another translation in that (I like the NRSV maybe second, and appreciate that is translates the Apocrypha).

Churches not steeped in the tradition of Christian liturgy can depend far too much on human constructs. But more about that perhaps in another post. For now, I simply close with one of the many liturgical notes we find in scripture itself:

Beyond all question, the mystery from which true godliness springs is great:

He appeared in the flesh,
was vindicated by the Spirit,
was seen by angels,
was preached among the nations,
was believed on in the world,
was taken up in glory.

to be centered in Jesus

This weekend is the beginning of the most sacred week of the year for Christians (the Orthodox calendar, the same this year): Holy Week. During this week we remember our Lord’s suffering for us, in his crucifixion and death. And what immediately led up to that including The Lord’s Table, or Holy Eucharist. And then the Sunday following we celebrate Christ’s resurrection and victory over sin and death.

Scot McKnight becoming an Anglican, and the extent that liturgy is played out at our church, along with what use I have made of liturgy, especially of the Book of Common Prayer in recent years, has made me think anew on the importance of being centered over and over again on the gospel: the good news of Jesus. This good news to which either all of scripture points, or is moving toward. Somehow finding its fulfillment in that, or more precisely, Jesus somehow fulfilling scripture.

I see great value in liturgy. And maybe liturgical churches are closer to the truth on their understanding of sacrament, then other churches. I may remain a bit of a skeptic or at least an agnostic on some of that simply due to my understanding of what scripture says. What I am a believer in (and my wife with me) is both the power and beauty of a liturgy rooted in scripture and gathering from the best of Christian tradition. And I think engaging all of the senses to help our worship can be helpful, or at least it has seemed that way for me.

And so as we being Holy Week tomorrow with Palm Sunday, let’s think of it in part as an opportunity to become centered in God’s revelation in Jesus. And thus to be forgiven and carried in God’s triumph in him. A victory not just for us, but for the world. As we look forward to the completion of God’s new creation and kingdom come in Jesus.