a dissenting voice

The words of Amos, one of the shepherds of Tekoa—the vision he saw concerning Israel two years before the earthquake, when Uzziah was king of Judah and Jeroboam son of Jehoash was king of Israel.

He said:

“The Lord roars from Zion
and thunders from Jerusalem;
the pastures of the shepherds dry up,
and the top of Carmel withers.”

Amos 1:1-2

The tradition of the prophets in the Old Testament, echoed by Jesus (example: Matthew 23) seems all but absent in Christian circles, particularly my own tradition, the evangelical one. Of course if you speak out on any controversial issue, you are often assailed from all sides, because you don’t get everything right.

The prophets, Amos a prime example, certainly went against the grain of their times. This was about all of life, but the heart of it was the failure to love God and neighbor, the failure to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8).

The follower of Christ is called to follow him implicitly. That means back to holy Writ, Scripture, turning the pages, praying, and seeking to live this out in ordinary life, through all its in and outs, ups and downs. When doing so, one inevitably will be barraged with criticism.

The prophets had to live out the message God gave them. Isaiah and Jeremiah are stark examples of that. And followers of Christ are especially to live out the message of Christ and the gospel, the taking up of their cross. That is a huge dissent from the norm, the narrow way as opposed to the broad popular way (Matthew 7:13-14).

The goal is not to live in dissent, but to see God’s work bring change. Change first of all in one’s own life. And then perhaps through that, change in the life of others. Our part might not be necessarily to say much, but to listen and pray, to pray and listen. All God’s working. But not avoiding the difficulty of what the prophets faced. Part of the way of Jesus, in and through him.

“Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus”

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God—

Romans 1:1

The Greek word δοῦλος, translated “servant” in some English translations, might be better translated “slave,” though slavery in modern times is not exactly equivalent to slavery in biblical times, at least there’s a general difference. Bill Mounce has a helpful definition:

In the NT a person owned as a possession for various lengths of times (Hebrew slaves no more than seven years, Gentile slaves without time limit), of lower social status than free persons or masters; slaves could earn or purchase their freedom

A male slave, or servant, of various degrees, Mt. 8:9, et al. freq.; a servitor, person of mean condition, Phil. 2:7; fem. δούλη, a female slave; a handmaiden, Lk. 1:38, 48; Acts 2:18; δοῦλος, used figuratively, in a bad sense, one involved in moral or spiritual thraldom, Jn. 8:34; Rom. 6:17, 20; 1 Cor. 7:23; 2 Pet. 2:19; in a good sense, a devoted servant or minister, Acts 16:17; Rom. 1:1; one pledged or bound to serve, 1 Cor. 7:22; 2 Cor. 4:5

We of course were bought by Christ’s blood on the cross, redeemed from slavery to sin and unrighteousness to be slaves to God and to righteousness. We find freedom in this slavery from what once bound us so that we can live according to God’s will, and not our own. But this is never coercive, which might explain in part why it is often translated “servant.” There is a perfect freedom in this. Either way actually, we’re doing what we want to do. As slaves to sin (Romans 6), we want to sin, but find that it is enslaving and debilitating, indeed self-destructive. But as servants/slaves of Christ, we’re finding our way into what God intended for us in the first place. And in that we find rest, peace and contentment. But on this side, and especially given our tendency to drift back, it often feels difficult and confining. To be a slave of Christ ends up meaning that we do what Christ did, take the way of the cross and follow. In so doing we end up denying ourselves and doing what left to ourselves we would never do, at least not with the same motive and heart attitude. In and through Jesus.

 

the gospel is what we’re to be living out, as well as witnesses to

We are not going too far in our boasting, as would be the case if we had not come to you, for we did get as far as you with the gospel of Christ. Neither do we go beyond our limits by boasting of work done by others. Our hope is that, as your faith continues to grow, our sphere of activity among you will greatly expand, so that we can preach the gospel in the regions beyond you.

2 Corinthians 10:14-16a

What seems beside the point in Paul’s addressing of his concern in passing, but really is at the heart of the point is what he was all about: not self-aggrandizement or self-glory, but only and always about the gospel of Christ.

Paul is getting after those who were set in opposition to him, claiming apostleship for themselves perhaps because they found themselves in opposition to Paul and somehow thought they could do better, or more likely out of an underlying self-ambition with a professed belief in Christ. But Paul wasn’t about self-ambition in the least, but again- only and always about Christ and Christ’s gospel.

Sometimes we may not feel we have anything to offer to others, or at least not anything they would accept. After all, people look at another according to their status, what they’ve achieved in life, or whether that other is beneficial to them, not to mention whether it all seems relevant or jives with them.

Paul was concerned about none of that, because the gospel is inherently weak and foolish in the world’s eyes, just as he had told them in his first letter to the Corinthian church. God takes the weak and despised and nothing things as his instruments to help others. The gospel is not only to be proclaimed, but lived out by those who proclaim it. Christ’s weakness in his death on the cross is to be embraced by his followers, that they might know God’s resurrection power in Christ. When we are strong in ourselves, then the only help people will get is what help we can give them, not God’s help.

And so we must continue on no matter what we’re facing or going through. Believing and knowing that we are on course only in the weakness of Christ for the good news that will bring others into the power and blessing of God. In and through Jesus.

accepting limitations

I think Christianity and faith seems to bring with it a tendency toward an idealization in which this and that are to be just so, or at least there’s growth toward the good, what’s best. With that comes an expectation which sets one up for discouragement when it’s not met, or regularly falls short.

I think what ends up being the case is not the idea of having expectations at all, but misplaced expectations. We don’t understand God’s promises in Christ and how they work out in real life. I believe an important aspect of that ends up being our need to accept limitations. Limitations in ourselves, in others. And with that, we need to understand and accept our weaknesses along with that of others.

I want to be careful here. I’m not referring to out and out sin such as people giving into this or that which they know is wrong. Yet at the same time, if we are caught up in any sin, God’s promise in Jesus along with his promises in Scripture are for us as well.

Does this mean we expect less from God? Hopefully not. Actually it can mean that we understand better how God works. Through weakness, brokenness, even failure. Through our ongoing keen realization of our need for him. Through the way of Jesus which is the way of weakness in taking up one’s cross and following (2 Corinthians 13).

But let’s not kid ourselves. It’s anything but easy to accept weakness. And when we do so there’s always the danger of rationalizing sin, excusing ourselves when we do. What I’m referring to here is more of an existential awareness that at times, maybe much of the time for some of us, we will not be in any kind of on top of the world experience. And problems will come and sometimes mount in number and intensity.

We must not simply throw in the towel and give up. Though if we do we need to remember God is present for us then as well. All of this is the opportunity for us to push deeper into God and God’s provision for us in and through Jesus.

Jesus reinstates Peter

Jesus was surely hurt the third time Peter denied him, their eyes meeting. And Peter was hurt the third time Jesus asked Peter if Peter loved him. It’s amazing the corollary and connections one finds throughout Scripture, yet in ways beyond mere human manipulation and involvement.

Peter had told the Lord that even if everyone else would deny him, that he indeed would not. That he was ready to die with him. Jesus set him straight, but also told him that after he repents, he should strengthen his brothers. Of course Peter does exactly what the Lord told him. He was trying to follow, but just wasn’t ready. The spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak.

After our risen Lord broiled fish for a breakfast with the seven disciples who had been fishing, he asked Peter if he loved him three times, and after each time told him to take care of his lambs and sheep. And then he told him that this time Peter would indeed be ready to follow, and would have his arms spread out, and be taken to where he didn’t want to go, thus indicating the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. A wonderful story.

When he was gone, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man is glorified and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will glorify the Son in himself, and will glorify him at once.

“My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: Where I am going, you cannot come.

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Simon Peter asked him, “Lord, where are you going?”

Jesus replied, “Where I am going, you cannot follow now, but you will follow later.”

Peter asked, “Lord, why can’t I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.”

Then Jesus answered, “Will you really lay down your life for me? Very truly I tell you, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times!

John 13:31-38

Simon Peter and another disciple were following Jesus. Because this disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the high priest’s courtyard, but Peter had to wait outside at the door. The other disciple, who was known to the high priest, came back, spoke to the servant girl on duty there and brought Peter in.

“You aren’t one of this man’s disciples too, are you?” she asked Peter.

He replied, “I am not.”

It was cold, and the servants and officials stood around a fire they had made to keep warm. Peter also was standing with them, warming himself.

John 18:15-18

Meanwhile, Simon Peter was still standing there warming himself. So they asked him, “You aren’t one of his disciples too, are you?”

He denied it, saying, “I am not.”

One of the high priest’s servants, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, challenged him, “Didn’t I see you with him in the garden?”Again Peter denied it, and at that moment a rooster began to crow.

John 18:25-27

Afterward Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Galilee. It happened this way: Simon Peter, Thomas (also known as Didymus), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together. “I’m going out to fish,” Simon Peter told them, and they said, “We’ll go with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus.

He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?”

“No,” they answered.

He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.

Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards. When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread.

Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.” So Simon Peter climbed back into the boat and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn.Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.

When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”

“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”

Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”

The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”

Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is going to betray you?”) When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?”

Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” Because of this, the rumor spread among the believers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?”

This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true.

Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.

John 21:1-25

 

more than a persecution complex

“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the one who sent me. If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin. Whoever hates me hates my Father as well. If I had not done among them the works no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin. As it is, they have seen, and yet they have hated both me and my Father. But this is to fulfill what is written in their Law: ‘They hated me without reason.’

John 15:18-25

Couched in Jesus’s Upper Room Discourse (John 13-17) the eve of his crucifixion, is some words of warning to his disciples. In our own culture we’re hard pressed to make much sense of them, but in the world at the present time persecution of Christians is as bad as ever. We do well to keep track of it and help by prayers and giving (see Open Doors).

In this present age we live in the realm of the world, the flesh, and the devil. All are directly opposed to Christ, often subtly in my own context. Oftentimes what can happen is a kind of getting along which amounts to compromise and a watering down of the message of the cross. If the ideal of the separation of church and state is maintained, then neither will interfere with the other. The church strictly speaking is a separate entity, a holy nation (1 Peter 2:9). At the same time the church is a people in exile from the heavenly Jerusalem, and wants to see the nation blessed in which it resides (Jeremiah 29:7).

So like life itself, it’s complicated. But straight up, as followers of Christ, we should expect persecution. In my own context again, more or less subtle. Though we who are blessed to live in a space in which significant religious freedom remains should be aware of other Christians who do not, and are more or less suffering real persecution, perhaps in the loss of property, and even life.

Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.

Hebrews 13:3

We dare not carry around a persecution complex, ready to jump at the slightest provocation, always thinking the worst. But as followers of Christ, we need to remember that our lives are to be a small picture pointing to Jesus and his cross. We’re to take up our crosses and follow. In the love of God for the world. In and through Jesus.

to love, regardless

Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong. Do everything in love.

1 Corinthians 16:13-14

We live in difficult, even if not perilous times here in the United States. And all around the world much division is becoming more and more evident, and often threatening to tear what fabric of society is left. And of course the actual conflicts with all the human tragedy.

If we don’t have hearts engaged with strong thinking and feeling, then we’re actually not real. Maybe we just want to avoid the pain, including the strife. To want to avoid such is natural, and to want to avoid strife, good. But probably impossible to avoid controversy if one acts on any convictions at all.

But what Paul was saying in the above passage, that in the midst of everything with a thoroughly Christ-centered conviction, following him with others, we’re to do everything in love. That’s how the short imperatives end. “Do everything in love.”

If we’re to break the impasse of strife and hate, we need to love. And not just any love. Not the “all you need is love” bit, which is only good up to a point. No, we need the love of Christ no less. The love of God in him. A love which goes to the cross and dies for one’s enemies, yes for one’s enemies. If we don’t love our enemies as Jesus taught and exemplified, then we fall short of that love.

Love, love, love. In Christ. That’s what we need for each other. And what the world needs to see from us. Which doesn’t mean we won’t speak out against what is wrong. But we always do so in love. And everything tempered in love. In and through Jesus.