experience or the word, or both?

Sometimes we rightly are critical of an emphasis on experience which is not grounded in God’s word, scripture, and in the gospel, the heart of that. We can make all too much of experience. How we feel, or how it’s going, or if we have a sense of wellness is considered more important than anything else.

On the other hand, as we see from scripture, it’s not like experience isn’t important. We find the psalmists over and over appealing to God for a better experience, for escape from distress, sorrow, and death through deliverance into God’s salvation which involves rejoicing, and even singing and dancing.

We need to be grounded in scripture, and the heart of that, which is the gospel. Scripture takes seriously and addresses all experience. It is not counter or in opposition to experience at all, but about real life, where we live.

So in the end, it’s not really a case of either/or, but from being grounded in scripture, building our lives on that which is solid, through Jesus. So that whatever we are experiencing in life, we can more and more by faith rest in God’s promise in Jesus both for the present life and the life to come. In and through Jesus.

gently leading others

He tends his flock like a shepherd:
    He gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them close to his heart;
    he gently leads those that have young.

Isaiah 40

Isaiah 40 is truly one of the great passages of scripture, like Romans 8. I hesitate to say that, because I believe we should consider every part important, even the most obscure passages that we might not understand well, if at all. But this passage comforts God’s people both with God’s immense greatness and immeasurable goodness and in terms of God’s great salvation.

What seems especially helpful is the idea of God’s gentle leading. Oftentimes when people, when any of us think of God, we think of an extension of our experience with authority figures, which too often has not been encouraging, but quite the opposite. Or perhaps for some of us, those people were largely absent from our lives. The picture of God given to us in scripture is that God is beyond everything and yet nearer than the breath we breathe. That God is just as much intimate as God is transcendent. That means that the God who is not overwhelmed in the least enters into the picture for humankind, for the world, yes, for us. And God cares for us.

I love the imagery quoted above (see NRSV in link, “[God] will gently lead the mother sheep.”) That God leads the sheep, us, gently. We need that. And in turn, that is how we’re to help the young among us. Not pushing them, or being gruff with them. But gently leading. In fact, we can take that as the cue on how we’re to influence each other. Not that we’re in life to manipulate, but instead we want to learn to follow God’s leading, and hopefully help others to do the same, since we know that is best, and in fact is wonderful.

When one looks at the entire Story in scripture, one also sees that God leads out of weakness, that actually God’s weakness is strength. It is the way of the cross, the way of suffering love for us and for the world. And a part of our salvation for us now in this world, is to learn in and through Jesus to take that same road for others in our commitment to Christ and the gospel.

Let’s pay attention to those who gently lead, and especially to our Lord God, and then learn to follow in those steps. In and through Jesus.

a thought on Revelation

I just finished going slowly through the book of Revelation. It is quite heavy, but appropriate, when we consider just how heavy the world is, if we pay any attention to the news at all. It is not exactly nice, as appropriate for a bedtime story for children. Yet it addresses real evil, and brings in the true and final salvation for the healing and flourishing of all.

When reading through this book, it’s not like we should just see it as metaphorical, and not really happening. I don’t believe world events will happen precisely as given in the book, because the book is chalk full of symbols, and symbolic imagery. Awesome, world-changing and shaping events will take place, and evil will at a point be purged, but we need to avoid what is surely the crass literalism of the “left behind” approach.

One is struck with just how strongly the Revelation shakes out to be a fulfillment in the sense of ending of the entire Bible, of the First (“Old”) Testament, as well as the Final (“New”) Testament. No one should think they are a faithful Bible reader and student if they don’t take the entire Bible seriously from Genesis through Revelation, of course including everything in between. Some things might not appeal to us, we might not get it, but we need to hang in there, and try to understand, and keep working at it over the long haul, little by little.

Revelation reminds us of many biblical themes, like salvation in the final sense, the kingdom of the world as in the world system, persecution of those who hold to the word of God and the testimony of Jesus, the kingdom of God in King Jesus, the goal of all creation with strong parallels to Genesis, etc.

It is a hard book to read, probably for me  because it hits up against my Modernist Enlightenment influenced sensibilities, and one might even say, Anabaptist tendencies rooted in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). The latter takes evil seriously, and simply takes the way of the Lamb in opposing it. The former cringes at the thought of actual evil (“we can educate it away”), and even more against the notion of judgment. And there’s the broken down systems of justice in our world today, perhaps adding to a cynical view of traditional approaches. Therefore, though a heavy read, Revelation is surely a much needed read for us today.

So if there’s a next time for me to go over Revelation, I hope by God’s grace to be more ready, and hopefully will be able to take more in, so that along with others, we can in faith faithfully endure through Jesus to the very end.

truth will prevail

If truth does prevail, then what about God’s judgment? Of course we do well to shudder (Romans 2 and 3), since we indeed are all sinners. But without God’s judgment, how will justice, and yes, truth prevail? That is part of God’s atoning work in Christ, to take the judgment of sin upon himself in his death. So that all can be forgiven and given new life, justified in the sense of given status in God’s covenant family and thus made right, and reconciled to God and to each other in Christ. The final judgment is the purging of evil from the world to bring in the final and full salvation.

In the meantime we often find in this present life untruth and evil having a heyday. Untruth and evil do seem to go together against truth and goodness. It seems like the universe is wired, or at least ought to be wired for truth and goodness. Without a doubt we’re all in need of God’s grace in Jesus. If truth prevails, again, we’re all in trouble, since we have been and can be full of falsehood and the evil that accompanies that. And again, a big part of the good news in Jesus is that God took that evil upon himself on the cross in the Person of his Son, Jesus. The result of that is that by faith we’re forgiven, and given a passion for truth in the Truth himself, Jesus.

We have a passion for truth, while at the same time always and forever, along with the rest of the world being in great need of nothing less than the Truth himself. In the Truth, truth will prevail even here and now in the grace of God in that Truth himself. And we find out again and again that God does not condemn us in Jesus, but in and by Jesus- the Truth, God helps us to look for and see, even if seemingly only by faith, a better day, the day when all truth prevails, and to experience a true measure of that even in this present evil age when truth seems irrelevant to so many, and all but lost.

And so that is where we in Jesus hang our hats, not in a supposed progressive order in which the world is getting better and better on its own. But only in Jesus, the Truth himself, which should and can give us heart in the promise of God for the future beginning even in the present- in the here and now, in and through Jesus.

when all seems lost (in this world)

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.

Hebrews 11

It is hard to put one’s finger on exactly what is going on in the world, the trajectory and back and forth, ebb and flow of it all. A well written history is indeed fascinating. I remember early on finding that especially so with American history, and especially that of the United States. We really can’t be sure where that is going all the time, and it seems like inevitably a mixed bag of good and bad. There is no doubt that we hope and pray for the good of peoples and nations, naturally first of all, our own nation, but not excluding any peoples, or nations.

So it’s not like we don’t care what is happening in the world. It’s more about expectations. We as Christians believe that God is indeed Sovereign over the nations, that somehow “God is working his purpose out, as year succeeds to year.” And that Jesus is seated at the right hand of God in the place of ultimate rule and authority, somehow that rule flowing in and through the church as his Body in the world, through the gospel, from the Father by the Spirit. But what we see is at best incomplete, and at worst seems incoherent and subject to forces which begin to make all too much sense in terms which are not helpful, and even evil. As in all of life in this world, it’s not simply a matter of good and evil, since there seems to be an admixture of both as people like Abraham Lincoln knew all too well.

The answer that we in Jesus need to dwell on, which is not just for us, but for the world, has already been mentioned in this post. It is the rule of King Jesus through his body the church, a rule which is solely through the gospel, the good news in and of him. Again, there is much good that can happen since humankind is made in the image of God, albeit with undercurrents and waves of evil present. But the only sure-fire hope for the world is in Jesus through the gospel. And that gospel certainly pertains to the present life, but is also about the life to come. In fact, strangely enough, it brings something of the life to come into the present through the new creation in Jesus.

For us who believe in that hope in Jesus, which by the way means nothing less than a faith which simply anticipates and waits for the completion of God fulfilling his promises, that means we don’t settle into even the best this world has to offer. We are in a sense strangers and foreigners here, because we point to the only salvation in Jesus alone. A salvation not just in terms of the individual, though certainly about that as well, but for the entire world, and every aspect of it. A hope that seems planted in human hearts until all of that seems more or less lost. The hope for what the Bible calls shalom, which not only means justice, but goodness manifested in human flourishing along with the flourishing of all creation.

We pray for good, and against evil in the world, in the nations and governments. But our hope and expectation is in none of that. It is only in the Lord Jesus through the gospel, the good news in and about him. That is the one political reality and salvation we hold on to, both for the present world, as well as that to come. And in which we in Jesus have begun to live even now. Meant not only for us, but for the world in and through Jesus.

the gospel breaks the color barrier

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Galatians 3

Maybe my biggest disappointment with the church as I’ve seen it for the most part, with notable exceptions, is just how monochrome, or segregated most churches are on any given Sunday. It is understandable, yet sad at the same time, in my view. God’s grace covers us, and there’s a history behind it. And it’s not like churches who are white or black want to be segregated. There are different cultures involved, and people are at home in different places.

But the gospel is meant to bring together those who likely would never do so apart from it. What is true concerning Jews and Gentiles being reconciled to God as one body (Ephesians 2:11-22) is also true of all peoples, bringing for example Palestinians and Jews together through the cross, through Jesus’s death, along with blacks and whites, Protestants and Catholics, everyone. The reconciliation to God extends no less to each other through the good news in Jesus, and the Spirit who makes us one in him.

As a witness to the gospel, and the saving power it brings, we need to show the world how we can work through the barriers, whatever they may be. How our unity in God through Jesus by the Spirit in the love of God in Jesus supercedes all distinctions, breaks down all animosities and hostilities, through Christ’s death, and our repentance and faith, and brings the promised healing and shalom. This new world is now present through Christ in his body the church. As a witness to the world, and as part of the salvation we ourselves need, in and through Jesus.

another take on James 5:16b on the prayer of the righteous

The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.

James 5:16b

Without backing down at all on what I wrote on yesterday’s post, I want to briefly consider another possibility in line with the other way of interpreting, and thus translating this passage. Remember that all translation involves interpretation, say from German to English and back. Which is largely why we have differences in our Bible translations, which together make no impact at all on basic Christian doctrine.

The rendering adopted by the NIV (see NRSVNET, etc.) might be correct, and is certainly possible. The emphasis then would be simply on the prayer of a righteous person being powerful and effective. Even if the other way of translating is getting more to the original writing’s intent (I don’t know), what is said in this post still holds significance. And maybe a bit more so, if the NIV rendering happens to be more accurate.

A righteous person, or the righteous, in meaning is probably a bit different in the book of James then it is in Paul’s writings. The righteous in Paul, are those who are “in Christ,” who share in Christ’s righteousness, whether it’s an alien imputed righteousness, or not. The emphasis is that this righteousness comes from Christ, and is not part of the Law. And that it comes by grace through faith, as well as through baptism. It is worked into one’s life by the Spirit, and thus imparted by God through Christ to the one who has faith. So it’s not like it isn’t worked into real life. It’s just that the emphasis is on faith, and that faith in and of Christ.

In James, righteousness is different. Which is why Martin Luther disliked the letter, calling it “a right strawy epistle.” Paul referred to Abraham as simply believing God’s word, and thus being credited righteousness. James refers to Abraham being obedient so that he was considered righteous (NIV) or justified by what he did, so that James says justification is therefore by works, as well as faith, and not by faith alone. Actually we don’t see James contradicting Paul at all. It’s a different perspective, which is present but expressed in a different way in Paul’s letters. We could say that his faith produced works, and therefore was shown to be genuine faith. Through Paul and elsewhere we learn that we can’t save ourselves through our works, that we can only trust and have faith in God’s word, and specifically in the message of the good news in Jesus. Through hearing that message, and believing, like Abraham, we are justified, made or declared righteous. But if we are saved by grace through faith, we are saved for the good works which God has prepared for us in Christ Jesus to do (Ephesians 2:8-10).

The righteous in James are those who live by the royal law that gives freedom, namely “Love your neighbor as yourself.” And that makes a difference not merely in what they believe (the demons believe God is one, and they shudder, says James), but in what they say and do. Certainly belief is important to James, but faith must be accompanied with works to prove its authenticity. Without works, faith is dead.

And so to the passage. The righteous person’s prayer is one who adheres to righteousness as spelled out in this relatively short book. They don’t just listen to the word, but they do what it says. They have humbly accepted the word planted in them, so that they are being saved. True religion includes keeping a tight rein on their tongue, helping orphans and widows (the needy) in their distress, and keeping themselves from being polluted by the world. And echoing Jesus, which James probably does more than Paul, and perhaps more than any other New Testament book, the poor seem to be more inclined toward faith than the rich, and thus are rich themselves in faith, and heirs of the kingdom of God, promised to those who love God.

And so if you are righteous according to James, that’s saying something. The focus should never be on us, but to be righteous according to James, Jesus (see the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7) and the First/Old Testament prophets means to have a change of heart, a change of life. And right down into the nitty gritty of where we live, in what we say (and don’t say), as well as what we do (and don’t do), in good works or deeds for others.

If we are righteous in the way James describes as part of our faith, then our prayer can make a difference, in fact actually is powerful and effective. And the good takeaway here is that it isn’t just the emotionally charged, heartfelt prayer, but any prayer at all from the lips and heart of a righteous person. Of course all of this possible only through the faith that is ours in Jesus.