Monday, January 15, 2018

Proclaiming the Kingdom of God

Lately I've been reworking the document on this blog entitled "Pastorates: New Testament DNA for the 21st Century Church." Right now I'm involved in a church that is looking seriously at implementing this model of being the church together, and it's exciting. It's fun to have a good reason to go back through these ideas and evaluate and fine-tune some of the work I've done in the past, all the while considering how best to put this mid-sized groups model into practice as a way to "make disciples." 

Along the way, I ran across this quote I had written back in 2013: "People today are hungry for exactly what Jesus’ first disciples found as followers of the Way.  We are hungry for meaning, for community, and for a mission that is worthy of our sacrifice.  Not knowing where to find what we really need, we flock to Facebook and Twitter to find community.  We let advertisers, smart phones, and sports teams tell us who we are.  We clutter our schedules so that we don’t have to face the disturbing questions that confront us in quiet moments."

I've been seeing this hunger for meaning, community, and mission so much lately. It doesn't hurt that as I write this, Vikings fans are reveling in an amazing last second win over New Orleans yesterday (vindication from 2009, anyone?) and all the adrenaline and collective identity that goes with marching toward the Superbowl, which happens to be occurring IN MINNEAPOLIS this year. So social media is lit up with delighted fan commentary, and that's a good thing. 

It strikes me in the midst of it all that this quote points out exactly why it is so important to get to the fourth priority of the church. (Remember? That's what we're working on. See this blog post if you've forgotten or, better yet, come late to the discussion.) The fourth priority of the church is just what Jesus did from start to finish in his earthly ministry: proclaiming the kingdom of God.

In reality, this fourth priority is really the culmination of the first three. Working backwards, we recognize Jesus as king. "All authority has been given to me ..." Jesus says this about himself over and over in the gospels, both in words and in actions. He repeatedly demonstrates his kingship, his authority. Out of that authority, he creates loving community. And it is largely through that community that he exercises his rightful lordship over all creation.

The kingdom of God is the phrase Jesus used to describe his own kingship -- the authority he exercises over all creation, including (but not limited to) humanity. There's a powerful picture of this authority in Daniel 7, a book that was written hundreds of years before Jesus' birth. But Jesus adopted a phrase from this vision, "the son of man" as a title for himself. Quite often in the gospels he refers to himself as "the son of man," in what sounds to us like an odd third-person sort of construct. In reality, Jesus is claiming to be God's authoritative representative by referring back to this vision.

One of the things that amazes me the deeper I dig into it is how the New Testament sees the church -- these scrappy, imperfect, home-based gatherings of Jesus-followers -- as the means by which God exercises his authority over the world and implements the effects of Jesus' resurrection. Next time we'll take a look at a couple passages -- Ephesians 3:10 and John 16:8-11, notoriously difficult passages -- to see how the church is the means God uses to implement his will for the world. Crazy.

It is in the church that God intends to meet our hunger for meaning, community and mission. It is in these imperfect gatherings of Jesus-followers that God intends to transform the world and spread the consequences of Jesus' resurrection throughout creation. If you're looking for significance, you just found it. And it probably looks different than you thought it would. Reality is, the church has an unimaginable responsibility. That's why this discussion is so important -- why it's so critically important that we would understand what God intends for the church and why it's such a tragedy when we miss it, when we get it wrong.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Religion vs. Relationship

Almost a week ago, I ended a post (see January 4, 2018) with this question:

So what was God's original intention, if not for us to be good people? What is the good news of Jesus all about, if not rewarding us with heaven?

One of the biggest, most serious problems afflicting the church is that we work very hard to make Christianity into a religion. In fact we have succeeded to such an extent that nearly every authority would grant that Christianity is one of the top four or five of the world's major religions. 

Does that seem odd? 

The trouble is, Jesus never started a religion. He was part of a perfectly good preexisting religion, namely Judaism, that had all the pieces a religion needs. And even at that time, two thousand years ago, the world did NOT need another religion. 

Read the gospels carefully and you'll discover that Jesus was far more interested in fostering relationship -- namely, relationship between God and people, but even going beyond that, between people and other people. Playing off the traditional religious structures of Judaism, someone asked Jesus what the two greatest commandments were. (The Jews of Jesus' day spent unimaginable hours debating the commandments and their relative importance.) Jesus' answer goes right to the heart of what he was all about: First, love God with everything you are. Second, love your neighbor like you love yourself. Both of these commandments are relationship-building. That was Jesus' priority. 

If, as the Bible claims, Jesus is the visible expression of the invisible God (see Colossians 1), then it stands to reason that God's intention for humanity would be reflected in Jesus' priorities, teachings, and actions. So if Jesus never set out a moral framework -- remember, Judaism already had a perfectly good one -- but he did focus on relationship with God and relationship with other people, then that should somehow reflect God's original intention for humanity. 

My thinking on this went through a significant transformation a number of years ago when I started reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer's book Ethics. I got as far as the first page and got stopped by a pretty simple idea. Here's the simple idea that sprained my brain pretty badly: 

God created humans for relationship with himself, and only through knowing God would we have any appropriate sense of right and wrong. If we try to know right and wrong apart from knowing God, we are repeating the mistake of the Garden of Eden all over again. 

So on the first page of Ethics, Bonhoeffer basically says there's no such thing as Christian ethics. 

It's all about knowing God.

In fact, Bonhoeffer talked near the end of his life (as he was imprisoned by the German Gestapo, smuggling letters out to his family and friends) about what a "religionless Christianity" might look like. And he contrasted what a religious man, say like John the Baptist, might look like compared to a non-religious man like Jesus. Wow. 

Re-re-re-read the gospels all over again, and you'll find this theme of Jesus being all about knowing God dominates something fierce. At the outset of his "high priestly prayer" as it's sometimes called in John 17, where Jesus not only lays out his own understanding of his mission and prays for those who follow him, he defines eternal life. He says, "And this is eternal life -- that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent." Get it? Eternal life is not strumming a harp on a cloud for a million billion jillion years. It's knowing God in an intimate relationship. It's not something that happens after you die, it's a relationship that starts now. And God is not some indefinable abstract being, he is the one revealed in Jesus. 

Getting to know Jesus is God's priority for you. And getting to know God through Jesus is the best investment you can make. That will change everything, if you really put your heart into it -- it will change how you see God, of course, but it will also change how you relate to other people ("love your neighbor as yourself") and how you live in community with others and how you feel about your own moral successes and failures. And guess what, that relationship with God through Jesus Christ will shape your behavior as well, just like any life-giving love shapes the way you behave. It's as natural as breathing. 

But do all of us -- especially yourself -- a favor and don't start with trying to obey a moral code of some kind, thinking that's how you get close to God. It doesn't work. Start with getting to know Jesus through the stories that his first followers wrote down about him. Read the gospels. It's about a relationship. 

Friday, January 5, 2018

Twelfth Night

Tonight is the Twelfth Night of Christmas, made famous by William Shakespeare in his romantic comedy of that title. (To be honest, there is an online debate about whether January 5 or 6 should be the twelfth night of Christmas, but those who hold to January 6th clearly have NO understanding of how liturgical calendars work. January 5 is the twelfth night. So there. If you want to argue about this, email me, but you'll lose.) So tonight is the last night of Christmas when we celebrate Jesus coming as light into the world (see John 1:5 among other references) and it's also Epiphany eve, the night before January 6 which is Epiphany when we mark the revelation of Jesus -- his "epiphany" -- to the world, specifically to the Magi (see Matthew 2).

So what to do on this illustrious night?

Build a bonfire, of course. Sip on an appropriate winter beverage and ponder what it means that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome / understood it (the Greek word in John 1:5 demands both senses of the word, by the way, which is ponder-worthy in itself).

And if you live on the shores of a gorgeous frozen lake, and if you currently have a beautiful white husky for a roommate, better yet. So tonight I built an enormous fire, undecorated and burned my Christmas tree, and enjoyed the light shining into the darkness, all the while savoring the light show overhead, the January stars proclaiming the glory of God (see Psalm 19) in a spectacular way as Orion climbed over the tree-covered hills to the east and the Northern Cross stood on the western horizon.

For those of you who, having been reminded of the Twelve Days of Christmas, have the carol stuck in your head, here's one more way to do Christmas, Day 12.

So tomorrow is Epiphany. The liturgical calendar was developed in a context where the church completely dominated the power structures of society -- so everything, including the passage of time, was governed by the church. The seasons of the liturgical calendar (which very few people understand anymore, and which our culture has walked completely away from, so don't hear me trying to reinstate the liturgical calendar) were a powerful way to proclaim Jesus Christ. That proclamation was structured into everything from the changing amounts of light in each day to seasons of planting, growth, and harvest, to the amount of food in your larder. All those things and many more were wrapped into that shared calendar of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost, to tell the story of Jesus and proclaim his glory.

Tomorrow is Epiphany, marking the revelation of Jesus to the nations, to the entire human race, not just to the Jews. It's a powerful season, set at this point in the calendar to mark the return of light into the world after the darkness of the winter solstice. It's a time of clear, cold days and long, starry nights, of glory pouring into the world.

But the times have changed. People don't pay much attention, as a rule, to the liturgical calendar these days. And that's okay. But the church needs to figure out how to proclaim an unchanging Jesus Christ to a changing world. We stand in the gap between the two. Our Lord doesn't change, but our methods of proclaiming him might need to.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness neither overcomes nor understands it. So take heart this Epiphany. Jesus is still the light of the world, even in a world where everyone has a flashlight on their smartphone. That little bulb will do nothing to illuminate the darkness of the human heart, and that is the context in which we need to faithfully proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord these days.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Jesus and morality

One of the major questions we need to face if we are to proclaim Jesus biblically, faithfully, is what is Jesus' relationship to our sense of morality.

When it comes to the question of morality, most of us have never thought very deeply about our views. We assume that there is Good behavior and Bad behavior, and we rarely examine why we think that way, or what distinguishes one from the other. Some of you, right now as you read this, are thinking to yourselves, "Of course that's the way things are. Why is he questioning that?"

Be careful.

You might recall that it was the desire to distinguish between Good and Evil that got human beings in trouble in the first place, according to the story at the beginning of Genesis. The tree Adam and Eve ate from, disobeying God's command, was "the tree of the knowledge of good and evil."

So apparently, God's original plan for us did NOT rest on our being able to distinguish good and bad behavior, doing good and trying not to do bad. Yet most of us believe what God wants us to do is "be good." Do good and try not to do bad. Morality. By far the most common statement you'll encounter if you try to tell someone about Jesus and his love is, "Well, I've tried to live a pretty good life." Because in people's minds, religion is about being good.

And here's the deal: The church has caused this problem by preaching something called "works righteousness." Works righteousness means that in some form, you're made right with God by doing good. This is NOT the good news of Jesus, it is the old, bad news of morality. It's the stick we wave over people's heads to get them to shape up.

Or sometimes it's the carrot we dangle in front of people to try to get them to want to be good, like the half-stick of Wrigley's Spearmint gum my mom used to give me on those rare occasions when I was quiet and attentive all through a church service. Most often we do this with the idea of heaven. Be good and God will take you to heaven when you die. We would never say it like that, but we have dozens of ways of communicating that message without saying that way. It's all works righteousness.

The by-product of moralism, of works righteousness, is shame. Whenever you see a church or a religious person wielding shame like a baseball bat, you know it is moralism, not the good news of Jesus, that is in the driver's seat.

For most of us, this move -- separating Jesus from morality -- is a tremendously difficult leap to make, because "being good" and "trying not to do bad" have been so deeply entrenched in our thinking and our living and our internal shame. So let me put you a little bit at ease here by saying that I'm not going to suggest that it doesn't matter what you do. Quite the opposite. Our behavior is tremendously important, for some very good reasons. But being good and trying not to do bad is NOT what we are called to proclaim. It is NOT the message that Jesus proclaimed, nor is it the message he sent us to proclaim.

The trouble comes in when we set out to proclaim Jesus and then, either in our words or our actions, we tell people to shape up. Suddenly the non-gospel of Moralism leaps in to take Jesus' place, and we believe we have faithfully proclaimed the good news in a faithful, biblical way without ever realizing that we've done exactly what Paul railed against in the book of Galatians -- we have replaced Jesus with the Law.

In fact, the whole New Testament is chock full of this idea -- that knowing Jesus as Lord and Savior, that "being saved" (though the New Testament only sparingly uses that language) is separate from our moral behavior, or lack of it. That's what Paul's letter to the Galatians was all about. That's what the first great council of the Christian church was about in Acts 15.

And it should turn our heads a little bit that it was the guardians of public morality who crucified Jesus.

So what was God's original intention, if not for us to be good people? What is the good news of Jesus all about, if not rewarding us with heaven? Stay tuned ...

Sunday, December 31, 2017

An excursus for New Year's Eve, 2017

Contrary to habit, I have been
tracking deer through the clean snow, following
the prints and drag marks and sizing the tracks
while I await sunset, and dark, and the end
of another bowhunting season.
I eat well these days, and I am
not hungry enough tonight to sit quiet in the bitterness,
in the twenty-below cold, listening to the trees pop
while the feeling goes out of first one, then the other, foot, nose, finger,
and I debate whether my cheeks are really frostbit --
though I have gladly spent so many recent evenings just that way.

Tonight I am moving, tracking, carrying my bow, arrow on string
as an afterthought, more than half amused
to see the leavings of those I have come to know:
I see many, many places where Momma has led her tiny twins
up, down, around through these acres. The yearling has been here
and there, hungry, and generally out foraging earlier
than the others. The big doe and her single fawn appear here
and there. A larger set of prints, solo, jags through at odd angles
and I wonder: A buck I have not seen? Or is it
that screwy forkhorn I have glimpsed a time or two? Though
I did not think his tracks would look so large?

I wander along the trails, down between the swamps and up the far slope
and I begin to look ahead. I am thinking now not about the deer but
about my woodpile, and how I burn through so much oak
when the cold draws the mercury so far down, down, down.

I am looking for seasoned wood I can burn yet this winter, and
I find myself standing, looking around, planning for the next few months' heat
and for the summer's wood-gathering, and for the winter after that,
sizing up trees and trails and saw-blades and whether that space is
wide enough for my trailer. I realize I am standing
in the old ox-cart trail that enters the property at the north end and wanders
like a dotted line, appearing and disappearing,
to the south. Shy of two hundred years ago, before these oaks appeared,
they drove here, the ox-carts. I imagine the interminable screech of those
wheels without bearings, screeching for bear-grease,
bearing furs and goods from Pembina to St. Paul.
They say two thousand a day, sometimes, came hauling wealth
into that infant city, plodding behind the oxen. They were so many
and so often and so long, they wore deep trenches on this land
that stand still today where the housing developments and highways
and plows and tractors have been merciful.

I cannot help but think of those drivers and their quiet beasts
day after day on this track, and what they must have been like,
living their unremarked lives out while doing their erosive part
to leave a mark, a route, a trench.

I am standing in one of these, half a grave in depth, looking back to the history
that made me, and the tracks that I have left this year, and the ephemeral
web of which I am a part. Then, too, I am standing, peering
forward to tomorrow's weather and next summer's work
and next fall's hunting, and next winter's heat. Wiser
than a year ago, perhaps, and more free? It may be
too soon to tell. I wonder. The future is dim at best,
and as much as I wish otherwise, I can only watch,
and wait as the light fades and the stars like fiery swans
appear silently overhead.
I turn back on my own footprints
pondering paths taken and paths left, and in my mind weighing
that big chunk of oak in the woodbox and whether it
will be warmth enough for tonight.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Mary's task

As we covered in the last post, it is critically important for us to know Jesus as a figure in history -- as the one who was born during the reign of Caesar Augustus, while Quirinius was governor of Syria, and all the other details that the New Testament gives us about Jesus in his historical context. But just knowing Jesus does not cover the needful task of the church. We are called to proclaim Jesus.

Lately I've been reading through the gospel of John, a chapter each day. This morning I read John 20, the Easter narrative. I was struck over and over as I read by the task Jesus entrusted to Mary Magdalene -- to proclaim his resurrection to the disciples. "Go to my brothers and say to them ..." Jesus directs her. When Jesus, who was entrusted by his Father with the task of proclaiming the kingdom of God, commissions these disciples, he says "As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you." Just as Jesus was sent to proclaim, so are we. And first and foremost, we proclaim Jesus himself.

I've been thinking that after I finish reading John I might well go read Paul's letters to the Corinthians. Paul, when he wrote to the Christians at Corinth (1 Corinthians 2), described that proclamation: "I resolved to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified." Really? Paul, that brilliant intellect, that expert in church planting and leadership development and rabbinical argument and application of the Levitical laws, resolved to know "nothing ... except Jesus Christ"?


It is tempting for the church to make our proclamation about "Jesus and ..."

... and our particular structure of church governance.
... and tithing.
... and our church's new capital campaign.
... and our particular theological bent about baptizing only adults (or mostly babies).
... and the inerrancy of scripture.
... and whatever else we love to include in the good news.

But the good news is simply about Jesus. He is the beginning and the end of the good news.

So the church, if it's following the biblical models given to us, proclaims Jesus. Like Jesus, we proclaim the kingdom of God, which we'll get to in a bit. But even the kingdom of God is, at its core, about Jesus -- about Jesus being king. Our proclamation starts and ends with Jesus, because in Jesus all the fullness of God dwells (Colossians 2).

What does this mean? It means that if your church is not talking about Jesus constantly, your church is missing the boat. Every sermon should focus on Jesus. It means that as a Christian, if you aren't completely focused on Jesus, you're missing the mark.

So one of the things we like to do with this is, we like to focus on being good. We like to focus on the rules and how well we keep them and how other people don't. So Christians get known as people who are against stuff, because we feel the responsibility to point out the errors of the world's ways. That is so sad, because the one thing Christians should be known for is our passion for Jesus and our desire to be like him. Our words and our actions should proclaim Jesus -- and if we think Jesus is a moralistic preacher of the law, one who shames sinners, we need to go back and reread the gospels a few times.

Proclaiming Jesus in words and actions is probably the single most important task of the church.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Proclaiming Jesus Christ

We're moving on to the third major priority / task of the church -- not that we've thoroughly covered "stewardship of creation" or "stewardship of community" by any means. Lots more to say on each of those.

Oswald Chambers' devotion, My Utmost For His Highest, has become a regular part of my morning routine for a very long time now. This morning the meditation included this interesting statement:

"If you try to hold back the Holy Spirit within you, with the desire of producing more inner spiritual experiences, you will find that He will break the hold and take you again to the historic Christ."

One of the many dangers of our individualistic context is that all spiritual life becomes self-referential, and a little bit narcissistic. So we measure all of our spiritual life in terms of what it does for me, here and now. We value experience rather than truth. It is an indication of Chambers' keen biblical insight that he understands the historic figure of Jesus Christ as the counterpoint to subjective spiritual experience. Sadly, however, most of us these days discount the value of history and believe we're somehow exempt from its lessons.

Christ-followers above all can never give in to that temptation. Christianity is, from start to finish, historically rooted and grounded. If we try to divorce some set of spiritual lessons from the historic person of Jesus, we are lost.

So it's appropriate that in the last hours of Advent, coming up on the celebration of Christmas, we recognize the birth of the historic figure of Jesus of Nazareth. The most famous biblical passage about Christmas firmly roots Jesus' birth in clear historical context: "In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled ..." (Luke 2). All the New Testament writings are clearly rooted in specific historical contexts, but Luke is especially careful to make sure we know exactly when and where these things are happening.

It's not enough to love Jesus, to worship him -- we need to know him in order to do those things. And knowing Jesus means knowing him first as a person in history: his birth, life, death, and resurrection as they occur in first-century Palestine. Our meditations and teachings about Jesus are invalid and dangerous if they don't line up with what we know of Jesus historically through the New Testament documents.

Once we know those documents, we find that Jesus becomes greater and more meaningful, not less.

So this Christmas, take a few minutes to ponder the fact that Jesus is born not in some universal sense, but in this specific village in Judea, in a specific time in history, to a specific set of parents and in a specific cultural and historical setting. Just as you live in a particular context, so Jesus came to a particular context. Know him in history, and then begin to experience what he can do to transform your context, your circumstances, your life.

Merry Christmas!