for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day: the politics of the good news

When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he withdrew to Galilee. Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali— to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah:

“Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,
the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people living in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned.”

From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Mark 4:12-17

This Isaiah-prophesied revelation came to life in Galilee the moment Jesus started preaching. He picked up where John left off: “Change your life. God’s kingdom is here.”

Mark 4:17; MSG

Jesus’s message and proclamation was “the good news of the kingdom” (Matthew 4:23). The gospel is actually political through and through. Of course it’s about our individual salvation as well, but it includes so much more, really everything within God’s creation and human culture. God’s kingdom in King Jesus was coming in, but not in the way that people would naturally anticipate. They wanted in one way or another for God to end Rome’s rule over them. But God saw a much bigger picture, and really an altogether different one. Yes, it was about fulfilling God’s prior promises to them, but in the ways of a costly love which would break down all barriers, creating one new humanity, a beautifully woven mosaic of people groups together (Ephesians 2:11-22).

During this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, let’s take time to pray and ask God to show us where we are blind and resistant to what God has done, is doing, and will complete in and through King Jesus. And what works God has for us in what God is doing now in this regard (Ephesians 2:10; MSG). In and through Jesus.

what are we becoming?

It’s interesting how people think that if they repent and say they’re sorry, and maybe even ask for forgiveness, that then they’ve changed. The point of repentance actually is more than confession and reparation. It is indeed change. And the needed change doesn’t come overnight, even though in initial repentance one is turned from wrong to right. Thorough change of heart and life ordinarily if not always takes time, and even in a true sense, a lifetime.

Psalm 51, the great penitential psalm expressed woeful sorrow to God for offending God over the sin done, and asks for changed heart out of which can come a changed life. A good question is simply: What are we becoming? And another: What factors are involved in that, or behind it. Often there can be a mix of things in the works, even contradictory. We can be pulled this way and that. But we can’t go two directions at the same time. Whatever form the flesh takes is the flesh still. It’s either the flesh or the Spirit, serving God or serving Mammon/money, or whatever. Which in part is why we’re told in Proverbs:

Above all else, guard your heart,
for everything you do flows from it.

Proverbs 4:23

It is a scary thought actually, the idea that we can be becoming something other than what God would want, and actually therefore, what we would want as well. Just something small can get hold of the heart, take over, and eventually change us through and through. Or the good thought and hope, that as by grace we pick up just something of the goodness of God, what can help us in the way in Christ, that too can permeate us, and put us on the road to Christ-likeness and the restoration of our true humanity in the new creation.

What God did in the Incarnation which we especially remember this time of the year: becoming one of us, fully human, in the Son uniting his deity with our humanity (Gregory of Nazianzen). God changing so that we might change, humanity forever elevated through new creation to fulfill the goal of creation through the Incarnation and the salvation which came through the death and resurrection of the God-Man, the Human One. Amazingly God became human so that we might share in God’s nature. In and through Jesus.

 

God accepts us where we are

I know it’s hard to believe this given our own view of life and how we view God. And how we (mis)read of him in the Bible. We see God as someone like ourselves, but a better, even perfect version of that. But while we’re made in God’s image, God is still God. And I believe God is revealed and known preeminently in Jesus at the cross. The heart of God for all humanity, and for each and everyone of us is revealed there.

God loves and accepts each and everyone of us where we are. But –and I know that will bring a shaking of the head somewhere, but hold on. God loves us too much to leave us where we’re at. For our good, and yes, for God’s glory, God in love is going to work on us to help us to the true humanity in Jesus, what we were created to be. As to that creation, we are broken, each and everyone of us. But God wants to, and for all who have faith- is restoring what we were meant to be in the new creation in and through Jesus.

Since God accepts us where we are, we need to first of all see God for who God is, and accept that. In essence, God is love. Yes, God is holy, too, God is utter and complete perfection. But God is also merciful, full of mercy and grace. God loves, and God’s love is always present for us. God has already provided complete reconciliation to him for us through the cross, and calls us to accept that (2 Corinthians 5, 6). And the cross is where God showed his love to us in this mess, taking the brunt of our sin and evil on himself in his Son. Jesus and the Father are one heart.

So God accepts us where we are. Let’s rest in that thought, and find what it is that God wants next for us. Let’s keep moving in God’s direction in and through Jesus. Knowing God has not moved away from us, but that we drift and move away from him. But that he is always present to us in and through Jesus. And loves us too much to give up on us, or ever turn his back on us.

Let’s respond to that with thanksgiving and with a true repentant heart of faith, believing that we’re embarking on the path given to us from a God who is complete love and is for us and for everyone in and through Jesus.

the great need in the world today (and everyday, forever)

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

Romans 1

There is much that’s needed in the world. After all, God put humankind on earth to be stewards of it, caretakers, as well as to enjoy it, and live off of it (Genesis 1-2). There is much that needs to be done for sure, on different levels.

But our greatest need is the gospel, the good news in Jesus. That good news is about our salvation, personally, for sure, but it’s about the salvation and new creation of the entire world, and on every level, the beginning of that to be seen through Jesus in the church, and its completion when Jesus returns and heaven and earth become one in him.

The good news is Jesus himself, in his becoming one of us in the Incarnation, his life and teachings, his death and resurrection, all of this fulfilling God’s call to Israel for the world. His ascension and the oupouring of the Holy Spirit. And the promise of his return. All of that is the good news in Jesus, and to understand it, we have to be reading the Bible from cover to cover. But all we need to enter into it is the faith of a little child. Simply trusting in God’s word to us, that if we believe in Jesus in the sense of submissive trust, we will be saved, and begin to recover our true humanity and calling in him.

Although I made that commitment years ago, I still need that good news in Jesus every day. God’s grace in God’s unfailing love to us in Jesus is present with us always, no matter what we’re facing, no matter what actually happens. Even no matter what we do, but to help us get back on track. The truly one good news that will last forever, in and through Jesus.

hidden Christianity

I remember an interview Johnny Cash had on Fresh Air, as well as another interview about him on that program. There was one thing for sure about Johnny, along with his musical gift. His faith was just a natural part of who he was, so that if you wanted to get to know Johnny or interview him, you would know that his faith in God, and the grace of God in Jesus would be at the forefront, and would be a big part of what you heard. I hear that Hollywood or media outlets want to screen that out. But in order to understand us at all, who name the name of Christ, and seek to follow him, they’ll have to include that.

In some places people either keep their faith to themselves, or suffer the consequences. Martin Scorsese’s film Silence is a powerful reminder of that, but the same problem exists in not a few places today where it is actually against the law to be a Christian.

There are so many things that Christians and nonChristians have in common. It’s not like we can’t enjoy each other’s company and learn from each other, and be friends for life. It’s only that the most important thing about us as followers of Christ will not be so with them. But we can share in each other’s humanity, which in itself is quite good enough. Of course we want to share much more, being of the belief that humanity is being fully restored in and through Jesus in the one people of God.

We don’t do well to live in fear, nor do we proceed without much thought and prayer. But for us who name the name of Christ, it needs to be clear to all that it is Christ who is our life, what life is all about to us (Philippians). Of course we don’t share our faith in a way that will only ailienate others. But our faith is something to be lived, defining us, who we are, through and through. God’s grace in Jesus being the difference for the faith, hope and love we have. Something we want to share with others, as we hope that they see Jesus in us.

who sets the agenda?

Some people are excited over the new president of the United States. Others might be excited about this or that, so that their thoughts and lives end up being preoccupied with that. There are a host of factors which influence what we do, and the bottom line seems to be somehow securing some sort of happiness. Is that wrong? I think not. I believe God created us for a life that is abundant in realizing the fulfillment of our humanity, or what it means to be human. The question ends up being, just who determines that, and why does that matter?

The freedom that seems to be in vogue now is simply to fulfill whatever desires and dreams one has. A self-fulfillment which has nothing to do with any notion of truth, but everything to do with a freedom which is determined simply in how one feels, their desires. And from that people say that what is true for you, might not be true for me, in other words it may not work for me in realizing my self-fulfillment, or simply in letting me be and do what I want.

For us in Jesus there is only one who sets the agenda: God the Father through the Son by the Holy Spirit: the Triune God. Jesus is Lord, period. And all other authorities have their authority only under him, under God. What they say, and their values are not determinative for us, even if they might have legitimacy in their place.

The one who sets our agenda is the Lord, King Jesus, by his person, teaching and work, through the gospel, the good news, which really is Jesus, and is actually all throughout the Final/New Testament. That is where we find the truth for life, the true humanity fulfilled in him, and from that, real, neverending freedom. But that freedom is a byproduct. We follow and submit to God in Jesus no matter what. God is the one who sets our agenda.

Eugene H. Peterson on the prophet pointing us to our true humanity dependent on God

God asked Jeremiah to do something he couldn’t do. Naturally, he refused. If we are asked to do something that we know that we cannot do, it is foolish to accept the assignment, for it soon becomes an embarrassment to everyone.

The job Jeremiah refused was to be a prophet. There are two interlaced convictions that characterize a prophet. The first conviction is that God is personal and alive and active. The second conviction is that what is going on right now, in this world at this time in history, is critical. A prophet is obsessed with God, and a prophet is immersed in the now. God is as real to a prophet as his next-door neighbor, and his next-door neighbor is a vortex in which God’s purposes are being worked out.

The work of the prophet is to call people to live well, to live rightly—to be human. But it is more than a call to say something, it is a call to live out the message. The prophet must be what he or she says. The person as well as the message of the prophet challenges us to live up to our creation, to live into our salvation—to become all that we are designed to be.

We cannot be human if we are not in relation to God. We can be an animal and be unaware of God. We can be an aggregate of minerals and be unaware of God. But humanity requires relationship with God before it can be itself. “As the scholastics used to say: Homo non proprie humanus sed superhumanus est—which means that to be properly human, you must go beyond the merely human.”

A relationship with God is not something added on after we complete our basic growth, it is the essential core of that growth. Take that core out, and there is no humanity at all but only a husk, the appearance, but not the substance, of the human. Nor can we be human if we are not existing in the present, for the present is where God meets us. If we avoid the details of the actual present, we abdicate a big chunk of our humanity. Soren Kirkegaard parodies our inattentiveness to our immediate reality when he writes about the man who was caught up in things and projects and causes so abstracted from himself that he woke up one day and found himself dead.

A prophet lets people know who God is and what he is like, what he says and what he is doing. A prophet wakes us up up from our sleepy complacency so that we see the great and stunning drama that is our existence, and then pushes us onto the stage playing our parts whether we think we are ready or not. A prophet angers us by rejecting our euphemisms and ripping off our disguises, then dragging our heartless attitudes and selfish motives out into the open where everyone sees them for what they are. A prophet makes everything and everyone seem significant and important—important because God made it, or him, or her; significant because God is actively, right now, using it, or him, or her. A prophet makes it difficult to continue with a sloppy or selfish life.

Eugene H. Peterson, Run with the Horses: The Quest for Life at Its Best, 48-49. The quote is from E. F. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed (New York: Perennial Library, 1977), p. 38.

 

toward what it means to be human

I am weary, God,
but I can prevail.
Surely I am only a brute, not a man;
I do not have human understanding.
I have not learned wisdom,
nor have I attained to the knowledge of the Holy One.

This passage hints at something which is in large part what life in Jesus is all about: restoring our full humanity which has been broken because of sin. We are severed in our relationship to God, to each other, to ourselves and to creation. We become the center in our minds and lose out in terms of what God created us to be: humans, made in his image.

We need to get back to the pages of scripture and find in them both needed instruction and the good news of redemption and restoration in Jesus. The remake into his likeness and thus into God’s image toward the full humanity in and through Jesus.

N.T. Wright on the repentance through Jesus we’re called to

When we see ourselves in the light of Jesus’s type of kingdom, and realize the extent to which we have been living by a different code altogether, we realize, perhaps for the first time, how far we have fallen short of what we were made to be. This realization is what we call “repentance,” a serious turning away from patterns of life which deface and distort our genuine humanness. It isn’t just a matter of feeling sorry for particular failings, though that will often be true as well. It is the recognition that the living God has made us humans to reflect his image into his world, and that we haven’t done so. (The technical term for that is “sin,” whose primary meaning is not “breaking the rules” but “missing the mark,” failing to hit the target of complete, genuine, glorious humanness.) Once again, the gospel itself, the very message which announces that Jesus is Lord and calls us to obedience, contains the remedy: forgiveness, unearned and freely given, because of his cross. All we can say is, “Thank you.”

N.T. Wright, Believing and Belonging (Originally published in Simply Christian, 2006 London: SPCK; San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco. Reproduced by permission.)

grace brings a society

On Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed blog there is a series of posts going through the book of another blogging friend who like Scot is a professor and New Testament scholar, Daniel Kirk. This book looks like an excellent read.

Today there is a post on the gospel being inherently social. Yes, amen to that! We need to hear this message in the highly individualistic and privatistic culture in which we live.

There is no doubt that individuals have a relationship with God through Jesus which is personal. God loves each of his children in a special way. We all have a personal identity. This is important and we can’t lose sight of it.

And yet over and over again we find scripture concerned about one’s group identity, or community. The culture of scripture is closer to much more of the world today, than to the United States where I live. It was family oriented not only by design, but by necessity. And it wasn’t much about individual freedom or rights, but responsibility within the family, and from that, living well according to the norms of one’s people. Which in those days meant a union with others which if broken, was gravely serious.

Not so in our day. We break and divide over any number of things. We Protestants are known for our divisions. The political divide in the United States today seems as deep and wide as ever in U.S. history.

But the gospel brings with it a new society oriented in grace, which at its heart is inclusive of all. This becomes the priority, not only this gospel of Jesus, but also the results of it, a kingdom community consisting of all who would follow Jesus from across deep divides. Bringing together people who before were not only at odds, but out and out enemies. And introducing a new dynamic by the Spirit of a body which in love works together from its head, Christ, to care for each other, and be a witness of him to and for the world. Showing a new society in the way of Jesus, indeed a new humanity, bent in love on God and others. Being about “us” in God’s kingdom in Jesus, not about “me.” In the good will of God in Jesus.