a proper stimulus: the word, tradition, scholarship, and pastoral reflection

Having internet access and many books, probably best not in that order, but probably in that order in our practice, can be helpful to provide a stimulus for the body of Christ, to help us do the works of service to which we’re called.

We need to be in the word, and tradition, both. The word, scripture, is the final authority, but an authority dependent to some extent in its outworking on tradition, the church, by the Holy Spirit.

We benefit from good biblical scholarship feeding tradition, the church, whether or not we delve into it ourselves. It shapes how we approach scripture, and through that, all of life.

Pastoral reflection is just as serious in the mix of what we humans do in response to God’s revelation, as anything else. In fact the shaping on the human side goes both ways: the insights we need from scripture are best worked out in a church setting, in the church itself. A good pastor, and good theology is reflective of listening to God’s voice and seeking wisdom and direction within the context of real life, and the community in Christ, the church, is the kingdom in which this life takes root and bears fruit.

I have been a word person, but not enough a person of the church, though I’ve always either attended or have been a part of one, so that it has rubbed off on me, or at least has been present in the good ways that come from the Spirit.

What we need to realize is the reality and importance of the stimulus, and we could say stimuli which God provides for us in Jesus. We need to acknowledge what already affects us in that, and deliberately take it in all the more, with an emphasis on the word of God and prayer. All of this together, in and through Jesus.

marriage today in the church and society

“Haven’t you read,” [Jesus] replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Matthew 19

Eugene Peterson, one of the very best Christian writers in my lifetime, himself a pastor had an interesting exchange in the past few days in which he seemed to affirm same sex marriage, and then immediately retracted that, and clarified his position. See this interesting post from Christianity Today.

My own position is to side with what scripture up front seems to make clear both in regard to marriage, and same sex relationships, or homosexuality. Of course scripture itself is nuanced, and challenging on some levels, and always must be read in light of its fulfillment in Christ. That said, it seems pretty clear why the traditional view not only holds strong with most Christian denominations and traditions, but surely will remain so in generations to come. Perhaps what might change is how people who have same sex attraction are received into the church, although that probably varies from church to church now.

Denominations and churches which accept and practice same sex weddings, and ordain those who are thus “married” I have seen, either argue that scripture itself leaves room for “covenant” gay sexual relationship, that when scripture does address this subject the few times it does, it is referring to something else altogether. I have read the arguments myself, and find them less than convincing in comparison to traditional teaching and interpretation of scripture. Or there are those “Christian” leaders who simply question Biblical teaching, even at times suggesting that the resurrection of Christ can be taken either literally or metaphorically, in others words that one can be a Christian without believing Christ’s physical, bodily resurrection. While I disagree, I can respect the former, but not the latter.

I think it’s a tragedy when whole groups are ostracized by the church, and now I’m thinking of the LGBT group. But any church, or Christian who doesn’t hold an affirming view of such relationships, will be seen as attacking the person. I doubt that enough work is being done to reach out to these people. At the very least they should know that they’re loved, and welcomed. I’m not sure myself just how to address this, though I think I know what my tentative suggestion might be. But I would want to be part of a group of men and women prayerfully deliberating on that.

As to my own view for society, I say that the church should not try to dictate what the state wants to do. The state, or government is not the church, and can’t be held to the church’s standards. Nor should the church be forced by the state to adopt the state’s standards. So I would hold to a separation of church and state, at the same time hoping that the church’s influence through the gospel might rub off on the state. But never at the expense of compromising the church’s own complete allegiance to Christ and the gospel.

It is quite a challenging and hot topic today, a sea change having taken place in society, with some impact on some churches. It’s simply a new time for the church to learn to live in a culture which doesn’t define marriage in strictly a traditional way. The church will continue on, but hopefully with new insight in helping those who feel rejected by the only one who can change any of us, and receives us all.

continuing in the word in the Word: “in Christ” and “in Christ…crucified”

Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.

John 14

Regardless of what happens in the unexpected twists and turns of life, the Christian, or follower of Christ is grounded in the faith: dependent on Christ, but also calling one to faith. I would like to say, calling us to faith, since it’s a community endeavor. Being in the word in the Word is key.

Perhaps Greg Boyd is getting at some vital, even though I’m not sure I would end up agreeing with some of his conclusions (see his tome, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God. I await the shorter version due, I read, in August). But I am confident that at least there’s something to be said for the idea of reading all of scripture through the lens of Christ, and Christ crucified. As Christians, we endeavor to read the text in its original context, and ultimately as something fulfilled by Christ, so that in a certain sense the text is in Christ, or to be read in the light of Christ. And at the heart of Christ and his coming is his crucifixion, his death on the cross, and the God who is love being revealed in that light.

While scripture doesn’t talk explicitly about being “in the Word,” “in Christ” is repeated over and over again in the New/Final Testament, especially in Paul’s letters. It is shorthand for what is most essential in understanding the faith for our faith. So that no matter what I’m facing, or what we are facing together, the reality of remaining “in Christ” remains intact. And an important aspect of that is to remain in scripture, in God’s word. I take it that we feed on Christ both through the word and through the sacrament, Holy Communion/the Eucharist. For those of us (and I live among them) who don’t accept the view of the church at large since early times that somehow Jesus is especially present in the bread and the wine (not in the way the Roman Catholics suggest, but perhaps more like the Eastern Orthodox, or better yet for me, the description of that given by John Calvin), we at least acknowledge that we can feed on Christ by being in the word, in scripture. As we read it in the light of Christ’s fulfillment, in our union in him.

All kinds of things change, we get older, new problems and sometimes grave difficulties face us. But one thing remains for us, whatever else happens in our world, and in the world: In the faith by faith we are “in Christ,” and in that union both as individuals, and together, dependent on God through his word. Each of us must do this, but part of that is to do so in communion with all the saints, in the fellowship of the church. In and through Jesus.

trying to juggle the church and the state

Yesterday here in the United States we celebrated (and from the weekend prior) its 241st birthday. I was raised Mennonite, and we more or less practiced a respectful distancing from city, county, state and federal government. When I converted to Christ, I remember at a certain point hanging a flag on our house, of course with Dad and Mom’s permission. Dad actually served in the Army in WWII and was in a tank in harm’s way in Germany. He had a truce with Mom over the issue, indeed not everyone who attends Mennonite churches, or even are members are committed pacifists. I had converted to Christ in my late teens, and had eventually left the Mennonite church under the influence of someone who had discipled me. Since then in many ways my life has returned full circle, so that even though we are not part of a Mennonite church here (there is none nearby, anyhow), I am back to believing in that interpretation, at least emphasis, which places the Sermon on the Mount in a prominent place in its teaching.

The book which turned me back toward my Anabaptist roots was ironically not written by an Anabaptist, but by the great Bible scholar, historian, and theologian, N. T. Wright, entitled, The Challenge of Jesus. While some of what he says is quite compatible and close to a Mennonite view, N. T. Wright would still hold to more of a typically Anglican, Great Tradition perspective when it comes to the church and state. Since I have tracked closely with his friend, and colleague in both scholarship and writing, Scot McKnight, and am privileged to be acquainted with another scholar and friend of Scot’s, also a professor and not least of all, pastor, Allan R. Bevere, from the latter two especially, I’ve been kept on the straight and narrow when it comes to more of a historically Anabaptist take on the church and the state.

But the problem of juggling the church and the state remains, since most Christians and churches are in some way either marked or influenced by what is called the Constantinian turn when the church and the state essentially became united. See Allan R. Bevere’s excellent and helpful book on this, The Politics of Witness. That book helps us see how the United States, in spite of the new turn of the separation of church and state, is still largely marked by a kind of symbiotic relationship of church and state, that is to say a relationship of dependence on each other to some extent, although, as Bevere shows in his book, the state ordinarily always ends up with the upper hand.

Like any good Evangelical and Protestant, although I would much prefer to say, like any good Christian, I would return again and again to the pages of scripture, and with the help of others through the Spirit, just try to see if what is taken for granted is really the case. And like any good Anabaptist would (although I’m not sure in what way I’m an Anabaptist, since for one thing, I’m not really opposed to infant baptism), I find the position of the church at large, wanting.

Instead of going further, let me give an applicational thought as to how I see the church and the state. I begin with the important, but lesser function, indeed ordained by God, the state. The state is comprised of everyone, whether they are in the faith, have any faith, or whatever faith they might have, no one is excluded. It is not in itself Christian. The church, on the other hand, is the body of Christ through the gospel, which it proclaims in word and deed: the good news that Jesus is the saving Lord and King. Who by his cross has reconciled all things in heaven and earth, the cross shorthand here for his death and resurrection.

I take it then that the state, in whatever form of government it consists of, will promote the good of all, and will force no one to comply to anything beyond what is essential to the state’s function ultimately under God. The state when it’s doing well will certainly help the church have the freedom needed to proclaim, and be a witness to the gospel. But the state will also maintain order between different peoples where conflict might naturally arise. To try to say all that the state should do here is largely an exercise in futility, given the complexity of the makeup of nations. Democracy is only one form of government in the world, and Christians and churches often live in uneasy relationships with the governments under which they live, sometimes more or less underground, since their activities are forbidden. But a certain ideal surely remains, and all nations and governments are ultimately under God’s judgment.

This is just enough to hopefully help us begin to see the difficulty for Christians in juggling the church and the state. I believe everyone in the mix of the state is necessary in a good deliberation for a good outcome for all, a tall order, indeed. The church through the gospel is also for everyone, but Jesus is the heart and soul of that body, which brings people into communion with the Triune God, and into an eternal life in the new creation in him which will never end, even past this present existence. There’s a marked difference, so that the church and the state can never be essentially one without not only diluting, but actually changing the church, so that it indeed might no longer be the church, but an empty institution which Christ has left behind.

In the end, we Christians are indeed thankful for the freedom we have in the United States. But we also do well to be wary of any arrangement with the state which might not only cause us to water down our witness, but might in some way even move us to bow the knee to another lord other than the one Lord, King Jesus.

The United States and us fearful Christians

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for.

….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.

….Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.

Hebrews 11-12

July 4 is upon us, this being the holiday weekend preceding it. And if there’s one thing for sure, so many of us, and I’ll include myself, are hardly past the election fervor, caught up in a presidency which may turn out to be the most polarizing in US history, aside from Abraham Lincoln’s presidency during those tumultuous and horrific Civil War days. Hardly any of us like what is going on in US politics, many for similar reasons, others of us for different reasons, some of the concerns being the same across the board. It is a difficult time for a good number of reasons in a nation which is not only polarized, but threatening to be on the edge of being torn apart.

The question on this post is this: When push comes to shove, just where does our confidence lie? What do we think will win and save the day, and why? And just why are we so upset and fearful?

This is not meant to be a critique of the United States, but there’s no doubt there have been seismic changes in society, and that the liberal, progressives have been all but dismissive of the conservatives. And there’s no doubt that the conservatives themselves have written off the liberals. You have few moderates, who by many would be seen as wishy washy and weak kneed. As far as I’m concerned, while I do have opinions about US politics, and especially concerning issues of the day, none of that matters in comparison to the main point of this post. While those things have an important and provisional place, they are not at all on par with what now follows.

We as Christians, and especially the older generation of us, which includes myself, and I plead guilty, we have lost our focus and therefore are weak in our faith, and weary, in danger of losing heart. Oh yes, there will be some who will fight to the bitter end either for the Democratic Party, or for the Republican Party, or their version of what they think America needs, and won’t seem to have lost any heart at all. They have a lot of hope for good, and to avoid what isn’t good through the federal, state and local government. And again, it’s not like that has no value at all. But we in Jesus are actually called to something else, even while at the same time we pray and humbly participate according to our convictions for the good of the state.

Our goal is something better, something much more. It is to be a follower of Jesus in whatever culture we’re placed, to announce and live out the good news of the kingdom of God in Jesus, in the truth that Jesus is King with the hope that follows. We should be those who are commended for our faith in God, both confident and assured that God will fulfill his promises come what may. And that includes whatever we may face in coming days, years, or generations, should the Lord tarry.

We need to quit thinking and from that acting as if all depends on what is happening or not happening in Washington, D. C., as hard as that might seem to us, for some of us for different reasons. Our eyes need to become fixed on Jesus, period, who shows us the way as the pioneer and perfecter of faith, and of course, is the way. Faith, plain naked faith, and I mean the faith that is in the God revealed in Jesus, that is what we live for, and if need be, die for. While at the same time we faithfully pray for those in government, and hope for the best for the nation, and the world.

That is our calling. This is what we Christians in America should be known for. In and through Jesus.

See Andy Stanley’s compelling message, Fix Your Eyes, which inspired this post.

 

the word and experience

I believe in the Bible as God’s word written. I can’t sort out everything discussed theologically from that, but base it largely on what Jesus says, and from what we can gather from his words,what he believed, and on what the Bible itself says. And first and foremost, the Spirit gives God’s people a witness of its truth through their own experience or intake of it.

But I also believe that we don’t understand the Bible in some kind of objective, isolated sense. Everything is subjective, actually, lived and understood within time and space, therefore there being no such thing as “timeless truth” strictly speaking, though when that term is used, it means truth which transcends periods of time, and maybe time itself, God himself having created time. I would prefer to call it “timely truth,” if we’re going to use something like that term at all. It is truth written within a certain time and place, but for all times and places. And I prefer to see this truth as within story, with the task left to us to understand its meaning for our story, and better yet, how our story fits into the whole, God’s story.

But the main point I want to make in this post is that our experience is a huge factor in approaching and understanding God’s word. It’s not at all like we simply go to the parts of scripture, maybe books, or more often I think for people, verses, to help us in the problems we face in life. Though there really is a place for that. But it is imperative that we press on throughout all of scripture, even if and inevitably when we have no clue at all how that passage relates to our lives. The question ought to be not how it relates to our lives as much as how our lives can relate to it. We need the Spirit for this both directly to us, and just as importantly, through the church, since we are all in this together. The Spirit speaks primarily to the churches, therefore to the church as a whole, not primarily to individuals. Yet we do individually receive what the Spirit says to the churches. Not to say that the Spirit doesn’t speak directly to us.

So experience is vital. That is why those who are in ivory towers, shielded from real life might not have much to say of any value or use to others. Everyone needs to participate in life, though life has a way of working its way into everyone’s experience. One can’t escape real life. The question then becomes just how we participate in it. And the best answer for that is within the fellowship of the church, of believers, being dependent on the Spirit, and patient over time for the Lord to teach us.

The word and experience go hand in hand. I need that word to get me through each day, and all the pitfalls that day may bring. All of this in and through Jesus.

strangers in the body

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.

1 Corinthians 12

One of the great tragedies of the church is the clergy-laity divide. I heard that it took place around the fourth century. What I do understand about that is that a monastic life (which actually appeals to me, of course in a married order) was held to be more sacred than the common, ordinary life. Therefore the sacred/secular divide. And from that you hear people say they are “called to the ministry.”

Actually I agree with some of that language, but disagree with much of its application. And it may to a large extent be my fault, but I have found body practice in the church and in Christian circles mostly nonexistent, or probably more accurately, like a hard shell to break through in my own experience. I’m not much of a believer in the body of Christ.

Call that hurt, or whatever on my part, but I don’t speak conceptually, but experientially. That is the impression I receive from living in the real world.

There are two problems up front that I at least sense. First of all there seems to be the impression that there are just a few, certain people set apart to do “the work of the ministry.” They are the movers and shakers, and the rest follow them. The other problem I see is the emphasis on the individual at the expense of the community. Christianity is often marked in regard to “my relationship with God.” It’s all about me, and what I’m going to do, or not do today. While there’s plenty of vital truth in that, if it’s the only emphasis, than we miss the greater emphasis of scripture, that we are all in this together, that each one of us has a vital part and role to play.

I don’t believe in any of this, actually. Because I feel and think that largely I’ve been left behind. And I don’t think I was the target at all. I think instead that my experience is simply a symptom of the kind of Christianity which is accepted and practiced. Commitment to the body, and to each other is simply not practiced, or not practiced well. Small groups might help, and there is surely good in them. But they might not help much in this at all, and may even promote the status quo, keeping those more restless, in their place. I am grateful right now along with my wife to be part of a small church group which is an exception to that rule. Wonderfully led, and we’re all very much a part of it.

Before we can judge someone, or begin to think we have their measure, if indeed such a thing is possible, we need to get to know them. But there isn’t that commitment in the Christianity I see, and have normally experienced over the decades. No, I don’t believe in the body of Christ if I look at what I’ve witnessed. In a certain way I can imagine and see it. But not in the way scripture tells it. An ongoing lament for me. We miss out when we don’t put an emphasis on each and every one, and are not sufficiently committed to each other in and through Jesus. Not just to “my relationship with God” and how that carries out in “my daily walk,” but to the entire body of Christ, to each other in Christ.

The Spirit will help us do this. And won’t leave us at rest until we do. Which means, I’m afraid, we won’t be much at rest in a lot of places and spaces which name the name of our Lord.