I write this on Saturday night, while thinking of the day ahead tomorrow.
Preachers – when you preach there may be someone in the auditorium for whom this is the first time they have heard of Christ. Will they hear the gospel? There may be someone in the auditorium for whom this will be the last sermon they hear. Will they hear the gospel? Preach as if this will be the first and last sermon someone ever hears.
Congregation – if the minister is speaking from the Bible, he is speaking the Words of God. Are you listening? What is God saying to you, to your congregation, to your city, state and to the world. Don’t treat the next few moments frivolously. You are in the presence of God. Be careful how you respond.
I will be doing a lot of studying on the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) in the next few days/weeks, and so it only made sense to me to work through some of my thoughts through the avenue of this blog. If you are going to fly in the fog, you had better use the best instruments and have your plane in the best working condition that you possibly can. If you are going to be a disciple of Christ, you had better understand what is the basic meaning of that commitment. Doing theology in this bent and broken world is tough enough, but it becomes virtually impossible if we refuse to consider the very foundation of that theological process. I believe very deeply that Matthew used the “Sermon on the Mount” as a thematic statement for what he wanted his church(s) to know or to remember about Jesus. (Note: Luke uses another of Jesus’ “sermons” in the same way – but the two writers chose different sermons!)
So, if we are to examine the Sermon on the Mount we must begin with a key term for Jesus (and therefore Matthew) in this passage, and that is the word “blessed” (Matt. 5:3-12). I have previously dealt with my understanding of the word here and here so there is really no need for me to re-invent my own wheel. Suffice it for me to say here that we as Americans need to get over the idea that “blessed” means “happy” here (or just about any other place in the Bible!) if we are going to ever understand what Jesus, and therefore Matthew, is trying to tell us.
Notice for the moment how Jesus describes the end result, or the fruit, of this blessing. We will look at each of these in greater detail, but let us simply summarize here:
- The reality of the Kingdom of Heaven
- Inheritance of the earth
- Fullness of righteousness
- Reception of Mercy
- Seeing God
- Reception of the name “Sons of God”
- The reality of the Kingdom of Heaven
Now, note in the above list from verses 3-10 that Jesus begins and ends with the Kingdom of Heaven. But there is an additional point that is often overlooked. In v. 3 and in v. 10 the verb is in the present tense – the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs, it presently belongs to those who are poor in spirit and to those who are persecuted for righteousness. All of the other verbs in this opening section are future tenses – things that will happen. I believe this is significant in ways that I do not even yet understand.
There is a thematic structure to this passage as well as a grammatical one. Jesus wants his disciples to know that the Kingdom is near – in fact it is already present for those who will accept it. It is not “pie in the sky by and by when we die.” The Kingdom, the rule, the realm, of God is present for those who will submit to him. Yes, there are other blessings that will follow. But we do not have to wait for the Kingdom of God.
But there is a price to pay. This kingdom is not for everyone. I know this plain and simple truth is anathema to hard-core Calvinists, those who believe that we as humans are incapable of responding to God of our own initiative. However, as brilliant a theologian as Calvin was (and he was that!) he totally misunderstood Jesus. And so I am going to follow Jesus here, and not Calvin.
Our human response here is bracketed with the concepts of being “poor in spirit” and being “persecuted for righteousness.” I will deal with these terms in greater detail in the coming days and weeks, but because of the grammatical and thematic structure of this passage I believe they are very closely related. I would like to suggest here that being “poor in spirit” is both cause and effect of this list of characteristics of discipleship. Being poor in spirit leads to the mourning, the hunger, the gentleness etc, ultimately leading to our persecution for the cause of righteousness. But, each of these characteristics then deepens the poverty of our human spirit – we are shown by exercising these traits just how much we depend upon our God. But, I do not want to get too far ahead of myself.
I hope that through this study I will be able to incorporate more of these “pinnacle” traits of discipleship in my own life. Perhaps I can help you or someone you know as well.
Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the LORD’s hand double for all her sins. (Isa. 40:1-2)
This verse has become one of the most treasured verses in the English world, mostly due to Handel’s oratorio, Messiah. That is why I quoted it from the KJV, as it tends to be the most lyrical and measured.
I think of this passage today for a number of reasons. One, Handel’s music is flowing through my mind. And two, after a week of the kind of hell that I have lived through in dealing with the massacre in Newtown CT, I simply wanted to hear a word of comfort.
Isaiah 40:1 marks a significant change in the tone in the prophecy. So significant that a number of scholars think that an entirely different author is at work here. I reject that proposal. I think those who argue for a second (and sometimes third) prophet in the book of Isaiah simply fail to understand the nature of prophecy and the overall picture of what is going on. Just because an author changes tone and outlook does not mean that he has surrendered his pen to another writer, especially one several hundred years after he first wrote.
So, Isaiah changes tone. Why? Because he can see God’s judgment, God’s punishment. Jerusalem will receive “double” what her sins call for. She will be broken, and broken to the extent that only the LORD can call her back to health. So God also allows Isaiah to see his comfort. God has punished, but God will restore. Comfort.
I do not want to suggest that America has received “double” for her sins. Hardly. I don’t even think that God has yet fully begun to punish America for her pride, obstinacy and violence. But I do want to pray that within his punishment he reserves a measure of comfort. It is true that America stands guilty of a great many sins, but America has, primarily due to her Christian citizens, been a beacon of hope and life to countless millions of people.
I used to equate being an American as something to be proud of. I don’t think that way any more. Being an American is an accident of my birth. I did not choose America, America did not choose me. I am an American just like I am a male – it just happened that way. I am proud of America’s great accomplishments, and I am sickened by her arrogance, her overweening will to power, and her increasing rejection of all things spiritual.
However, I did choose to be a Christian, a disciple of Christ. That is my commitment. It is my belief and my faith in Jesus that will identify me as one of God’s people, not the nation on my birth certificate.
And as one of those people, I pray for God’s comfort during this time that we focus on the birth of the Prince of Peace.
This world is not my home, I’m just a passing through
My treasures are laid up, somewhere beyond the blue;
The angels beckon me through heaven’s open door,
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.
Dum de dum dee dumm…..we finally arrive at # 15 in my trek through ruminations and explanations of the 15 Undeniable Truths For Theological Reflection. This has been an entertaining little jaunt down memory lane for me (some of these truths date back many years) and I hope these posts have at the least stimulated some thoughts for you.
Here is #15 and its corollary:
15. The practice of doing theology requires the honest appropriation of lessons learned from history. We cannot handle the text of Scripture honestly today if we ignore, or even worse, disparage the work of theologians in our near or ancient past. This is true both of those theologians with whom we agree, and with whom we disagree. To borrow a phrase, “Those who do not learn from history (or past theology) are doomed to repeat it.” History is a beautiful thing.
15a. However, the above truth does not mean that we slavishly follow every conclusion reached by earlier theologians. We must read theology with a discerning eye, knowing that all humans are capable of great spiritual insight, and all humans are capable of great sin. We are to respect our forefathers and foremothers, not worship them.
Those who read this blog regularly know that I am a member of, and minister to, congregations of individuals associated with the churches of Christ. At our best moments we live out the ideal of non-denominational Christianity, simply taking the Bible as the Word of God and, without adding to it or taking from it, we seek to follow all that God has revealed in the Bible. However, when we fail to live up to that ideal our failure is, well, spectacular. In many respects we have turned a movement of non-denominationalism into one of the most hardened denominations you can possibly imagine. Some of our more vociferous leaders have mouthed the words, “we speak where the Bible speaks and we are silent where the Bible is silent” only to speak volumes where the Bible is silent and to remain utterly silent where the Bible shouts. But, I dare you to find ANY religious body ANYWHERE that lives up to its stated goals and aspirations. I would far rather associate with a group that fails to meet heavenly goals than one that meets every earthly goal with absolute perfection. It does not take any courage to curse the darkness. It takes some real vision to light a lamp. I want to be one that lights a lamp.
Oops, kind of got off on a tangent there…
What I wanted to point out was that like many different groups, the Churches of Christ in America have all too often been guilty of a sense of “historylessness” that has crippled it as a movement. If you have a bent sense of humor such as mine this can and does make itself manifest in the strangest of ways. For example, a generation or two ago one of the most prickly invectives you could use against a member of the Church of Christ was to call him or her a “Campbellite.” This is because of the powerful influence Alexander Campbell had in the creation of what has been labeled the “American Restoration Movement.” This movement spawned three related religious groups – the Disciples of Christ, the Conservative Christian Church and the Church of Christ. So, to label a member of the Church of Christ as a “Campbellite” was a real slur, seeing as how Campbell never wanted his name to be associated with his efforts to restore New Testament Christianity, and indeed his goal was to go back to the New Testament and simply live those teachings. Now, what is funny today is that if you called a member of the Church of Christ (especially someone under the age of 40 or so) a “Campbellite” they would stare at you like you had a third eyeball right in the middle of your forehead. The irony is palpable. Older members do not want to be called “Campbellites” because they do not want to be tied to an early 18th century historical figure, younger members are absolutely clueless as to the existence of this early 18th century figure. And so many members of a group with one of the most richest, interesting, and provocative stories in the history of religion in the United States simply do not know of or they refuse to acknowledge their diverse and compelling history.
Hence my 15th Undeniable Truth For Theological Reflection. This one is for me – a reminder of who I am and what my brightest stars call me to be. I need to acknowledge the fact that I could not see as far as I can see if I were not standing on the shoulders of giants. I cannot read my Bible today without hearing the voice of my mentors – some of whom have joined that “cloud of witnesses” that awaits their final reward. But those men (and women!) all heard the voice of their mentors when they read Scripture, and on and on it goes back throughout all of history. You can only read the Bible once as if you had never read it before. Every other time your reading is influenced by your first reading, other teachers, other books, other influences. If we attempt to excise those influences we rip the fabric of our story – our history - and we lose far more than we gain in the process.
The more that I read of Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone and Moses Lard and “Racoon” John Smith and David Lipscomb and many others the more I am enthralled by their courage and their spiritual insights. These men were truly prophets crying in the wilderness. They saw something that was truly unique, and they attempted to get others to see, to understand, and to accept their vision. Their goal was a united church, one that could stand only on the pages of the New Testament, without all of the competing creeds and confessions of faith and human structures. They differed on a great many issues, some of which were substantial. For example, Barton W. Stone never felt comfortable with the concept of the Trinity, because he felt like that was a human word and not a divine word. They differed on the exact meaning of baptism (Campbell was more precise than Stone) and on the invitation to the Lord’s supper (Stone was a little more generous) but they all agreed that if we could return to the New Testament teachings then we could return to a pure church.
In addition to my closest spiritual relatives, however, I am also captivated by the insights of some more distant cousins. I love reading the Roman Catholic Henry Nouwen, and the Anglican C.S. Lewis wrote the second largest section of books in my library. The largest section in my library was written by the Lutheran Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I also have selections from Ignatius of Loyola, St. John of the Cross, Thomas a Kempis, Julian of Norwich, Thomas Merton, Eugene Peterson, Richard Foster, and Richard Peace. In other words, I try to read as broadly and as deeply as I can, realizing that no one single group has a corner on truth, and that for all of their mistakes and misunderstandings, these men and women all communicated some profound spiritual truths. If the teaching initially comes from Scripture, I am not particularly concerned about who God uses to put it in words I can understand.
But now for the corollary - I must and do recognize that all of these men and women, Campbell and Stone included, are all merely mortal human beings. Yes, they all communicated some great spiritual truths. But they all had failings as well. Campbell and Stone were both blind to the fact that they were creatures of history, and that it was impossible to erase 17 hundred years of history to “restore” a culture that was long dead and buried. As much as I am transfixed by the spiritual insights of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I recognize that he had his blind spots as well. The moment we place anyone, in any time period, as THE model for our teachings or behavior we have created an idol, and God will have nothing of our idolatrous worship.
AND THAT INCLUDES MY INTERPRETATIONS AS WELL!
When everything is said and done I have one redeemer, one savior, one messiah – Jesus. I have one God, the Father and creator of all. The Bible is not to be an idol I worship, but a sign and a pointer to Jesus and His Father. It is they whom I am to worship, not my leather-bound Bible, nor my immediate mentors, nor my long distant and dead mentors. I can learn from all men – some more than others but none exclusively. I can give thanks to God for their insights, but I can never put any of them on a pedestal.
I have a rich history, and you can take it from me when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers. I will not surrender an inch, nor a decade, of what has been given to me. My parents gave me something that cannot be bought, measured or sold. They gave me a faith that is over 20 centuries old and is as new as the dew on the grass this morning. It is as real as my daughter’s gentle kiss and as profound as the love of my wife. I will never understand it, but I will always live in its shadow. And that might be my greatest undeniable truth of all.
As I write this the political rhetoric is heating up on both sides of a bitterly contested election. The words I offer here are appropriate for this time, but I also believe they are appropriate for every time – I hope they transcend the limits of a particular time and circumstance. So, I offer a few meditations that I hope you will find are worthy for us as disciples to consider, now and at many times in the future.
1. America, the United States, is a wonderful country, but it is not the “promised land” of the Old Testament nor is it the “new Jerusalem” of the New Testament. We are a creation of time and circumstance, both blessed and cursed by our constitutional republic, and susceptible to every vice and sin known to other countries.
2. Disciples of Christ in America have taken advantage of our great freedoms and opportunities and have done great things both in America and throughout the world. We need to be thankful for our forefathers and foremothers.
3. Disciples of Christ in America have done untold damage both in America and throughout the world. We are not perfect, and to say that we have not been guilty of racism, militarism, greed, and covetousness would be to utter a profound lie.
4. While it would not be wrong to pray for God to “Bless America,” neither would it be wrong to pray for God to “Bless Canada, Mexico, England, France, Germany, – in fact, the whole world!” We are not God’s chosen country. We are not God’s chosen people. We certainly have enjoyed many blessings – but God makes the sun rise on all this place we call earth, not just the United States.
5. While it would not be wrong to ask for God to “Bless America,” it would be far more appropriate to pray that America would once again honor God. Let’s face it – why should God want to bless us when we so utterly disrespect him? We have removed God from the city square, from our schools, from the center of public discourse and increasingly we have removed him from the pulpit of our churches. And we want him to bless us? Um, I ask again, why should he?
And so, as recipients of some of the greatest gifts and freedoms that have ever been enjoyed by human beings, we as Christians in the United States need to pray a prayer of thanks to God – thanks for things that we receive that we have not earned and that we have no right to expect. We need to pray for forgiveness – for the sins of our fathers and our own failings. And we need to ask God for strength to do better – to right the wrongs that we see and we need to pray for vision to see the wrongs to which we are currently blind.
As disciples of Christ, we should be far less concerned about the political situation in our country and we should be far more concerned about the spiritual condition of our own places of worship and our own hearts. It is always easier to stick our noses in someone else’s business than it is to take care of our own. The world has a right to reject our call to follow Jesus if we who claim the name refuse to play the game. While we do not need, and it would actually be wrong, to forget the world and only focus on ourselves, let us be careful to “remove the plank from our own eye” before we attempt to “remove the speck from the world’s eye.”
Our Heavenly Father, so many times we get things all wrong. We ask you to bless us when we are cursing you. We place ourselves in a position of expecting blessings for which we have no right to ask. We congratulate ourselves for victories we did not win and we blame others for our own miserable defeats. In other words, we are following in the footsteps of so many of our spiritual fathers and mothers.
We pray for forgiveness of these and our other many sins. We are proud, stiff-necked and rebellious. We glory in our military and our self-sufficiency. We claim to be gloriously attired, not realizing how poor and naked we really are. Forgive us, Father, not because we deserve it, but because it is in your nature to do so.
We ask for strength to do better. We need to clean up our own nest. We need to tear down our idol poles and our high places and we need to burn them in Gehenna. We need to purify our places of worship, and then we need to purify our public square. But first, Heavenly Father, we pray with David that you will purify our hearts. Make us new people, and then possibly we can make our world a new world.
Teach us to be more grateful, dear God. We are such a blessed people, even when we are blind to those blessings. We are free. We are prosperous. We have more natural resources than we can possibly use. We have more beauty than we can see in a lifetime. We are well fed. We have more leisure time than any society before us. And yet we complain and whine and bicker. Before we lose what we have, teach us to see it, and to be thankful for it.
Bless our neighbors with your love as you have blessed us. Show others the depth of your grace as you have shown it to us. Let others see the love of your Son as you have shown him to us. May we be instruments of your mercy as others have demonstrated your mercy to us. Let us shine your light in every dark corner of our country, and then in the world.
We are sorry for our arrogance, but we are thankful for your love. Like disobedient children who see the pain we cause our parents, we do see the pain we cause you, and we are sorry. As a loving parent who must discipline, yet who forgives a wayward child, we ask you to discipline us in your love, but to forgive and to hold us close to your loving breast.
We ask, for we cannot do any other, in Jesus name,
I am teaching a course in the Philosophy of Religion. Initially I was less than enthused, but I am warming to the subject with each passing week. Part of it is my class – six wonderful young people who help me tremendously. But, another reason is that the course is forcing me to ask some questions that, to be quite honest, I am uncomfortable asking. Growth is never painless, so I hope that means I am growing. But pain is never fun, so there is a sense in which I could do without the mental workout that I am forced to expend every week.
From my own faith stance I am coming more and more to the realization that we cannot put God in a box. I know that phrase is used to the point that it has become trite. But it is absolutely, beyond any shadow of a doubt, positively true. When we attempt to put God in any kind of a box, but particularly a box of Greek thinking, He will always find a way to destroy that box. Another way to say it is that we cannot define the indefinable. As soon as we say “God is…” we limit Him. We put Him in a box. The only definitions I am comfortable with are those give specifically in Scripture, and you may or may not be shocked at how few those definitions are. John comes the closest, telling us that God is love. From my study however, I am wondering if that is as much a “definition” as we have made it out to be.
When I was younger I assumed the basic trilogy of “definitions” as given by Greek philosophers – that God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. I just assumed that they were given in Scripture somewhere, perhaps the book of First Opinions or maybe Second Tribulations. And, if you want to believe in these definitions there are certainly verses you can pull to defend your belief. It is said that God knows our thoughts even before we do, that He can create the world with the simple spoken word, that there is no place on this earth where we can go to escape God.
There are at least two problems with this “Greek philosophy” kind of thinking. One is that there are other passages of Scripture which suggest that God is not omniscient, omnipotent, or omnipresent. For example, in Gen. 22:12 the angel of the LORD stopped Abraham from harming Isaac and said, “…now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” Well, if the LORD only knew now then he could not have known before now what Abraham would have done. Or consider 2 Chronicles 32:31. “…God left him [Hezekiah] to himself, in order to try him and to know all that was in his heart.” God allowed Abraham to “bargain” with Him in regard to the number of righteous people that would spare Sodom and Gomorrah. God allowed Moses to “bargain” with Him in regard to destroying the Israelites and starting all over again with Moses.
Examine the concept of omnipotence as well. Can God do everything? God could not keep Adam and Eve from sinning, could not keep the Israelites from deserting him time and time again, could not stop Judas from betraying Jesus. Jesus could not stop the rich ruler from walking away from him. Well, you argue, God gave man free will, so all of these examples are times in which men used their free will. But if you argue thus you just made my point for me – man’s free will limits God’s omnipotence. Or, perhaps stated more accurately, God invokes his own self-limitation in order to give free will to man. Self-limitation is a limitation none-the-less, so the purest definition of omnipotence is false when it is applied to God.
What about omnipresence? Is God everywhere? I have a lot of fun with this one. One commonly held belief [that I most emphatically do not agree with] is that God abandoned Jesus on the cross. One of the supporting reasons given for this belief is that God cannot be in the presence of sin, and since God made Jesus to be sin for us, he could not be in the presence of Jesus, therefore God abandoned Jesus on the cross. Now, this particular belief has more problems than a fish net has holes, but let’s just play with it for a minute. If you believe that God cannot be in the presence of sin then you have just limited God’s omnipresence, and if you limit it, it is no longer omni. Now, because I do not believe in the idea that God abandoned Jesus, I also reject the idea that God cannot be in the presence of sin, but I never-the-less reject the concept of God’s omnipresence. If there is any realm x in which the presence of God cannot extend, then God cannot be omnipresent. I would argue that there is such a realm in which God’s presence cannot extend – the realm of “hell” or eternal punishment. If God cannot go there, or to be more precise once again, removes his presence from that realm, then he is limited. There may be no place on this physical earth where God is limited as to his presence, but any time omni is limited it ceases to be perfectly omni.
So, if we attempt to put God in the omni box, whether it is omniscient, omnipotent or omnipresent, we put Him in a box. And we cannot put God in a box. He refuses to stay there. This is particularly true of Greek philosophical boxes. He simply shatters them, and if we put our faith in our boxes instead of in God, we end up with a bunch of shattered boxes.
The second problem I have with Greek philosophical terms to define God is that they are ultimately self-contradictory. If God is omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent then there is simply no way you can avoid the conclusion that God created evil, and not only created it but actively uses evil in the world. This, however, is in direct contradiction to the concept of God as all loving, benevolent and good. Philosophers and theologians have been tying themselves in knots for centuries trying to untangle themselves from one or more of the resultant issues related to these philosophical terms, which is good for Philosophy of Religion teachers because it gives us job security. But no one has solved the puzzle yet, and due to the fact that the issues are self-contradictory, it will never be solved using these definitions.
When we listen to the text of the Bible we learn much about God in the way He wants us to learn about Him. But, ultimately, He remains God, He remains mysterious. “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways” God tells us through Isaiah. Why can’t we learn this? Why do we keep trying to put God in boxes?
And, as I ponder all of this I am drawn to perhaps the greatest definition of God – that of Jesus Christ. God did not give us Greek philosophical terms so that we could understand Him. He gave us his Son – He gave us Jesus. And Jesus died on the cross to redeem mankind from its foolishness and sin, so that we could once again enjoy God’s Divine presence. I know that does not answer all the questions about omniscience and omnipotence and omnipresence. But those are our questions, not God’s questions. I do not have to answer those questions. Paul said it best – “I want to know Christ, and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.” (Phil. 3:10-11).
That is all – to glory in the mystery of God, and to share in the life of his Son. The transcendence and the immanence of God. That is my calling.
(6th in a series)
In my last post in this series I briefly pointed out how Paul used the phrase “mind of Christ” to communicate what I am referring to as a Christian worldview. Or, stated more correctly, what I am referring to as a Christian worldview is best summed up in Paul’s beautiful phrase. As promised, in this post I will show a little more clearly (hopefully) how Paul relates all of the solutions to the Philippian problems to this one, over-arching concept.
A common misconception about the book of Philippians is that the Philippian congregation was the one congregation that Paul wrote to that had no problems. The entire book is just about rejoicing and loving each other and one great big “kumbaya” moment. That we would come to such a conclusion is evidence of how skillfully Paul did deal with the Philippian problem(s). However, I believe that there are a cluster of problems within the Philippian congregation, and although the letter is not presented as a systematic theology, there is a wonderful symmetry to the book that underscores Paul’s major point.
To begin with there is a problem of disunity within the congregation. Paul begins by rehearsing his strong bond with the members, (1:1-11) and then in 1:27-30 encourages them to “stand firm in one spirit” and to “(contend) as one man for the faith of the gospel.” Then, of course, there is the famous injunction to Euodia and Syntyche to start getting along with each other, and to the rest of the congregation (or one person?) to facilitate that reunion (4:2-3).
Next, Paul deals with an authentic call to Christian service/ministry in 1:12-26 and again in 2:19-30. Apparently Paul is concerned that the Philippians are not walking the walk that their talk is leading them.
But, that talk is important as well, and so the truth underlying the talk must be properly defined and defended (1:9-11; 2:12-18; 3:1-4:1).
Finally, as is so frequent in Paul’s writings, there is a call to genuine Christian gratitude (4:10-23).
This, then is a rough outline (it can be tweaked a little, and certainly given some more definition, but it is a solid outline of what I think Paul is trying to communicate) of the book of Philippians. And, notice what is at the center of all of these exhortations to the Philippian Christians – the profound Christological hymn of 2:1-11. In other words, although Paul is not writing systematically, he deals with several issues around a core truth. If we “have the mind of Christ” then issues such as Christian unity, Christian service and ministry, Christian doctrine and faith, and Christian gratitude all fall neatly into place. But, if you remove the “mind of Christ” from his followers and all we have left is a mind set on “earthly things” (3:19) and that will lead to destruction.
On a rabbit chasing tangent, this sets the context for that bug-a-boo verse in 2:12 where Paul exhorts the Philippians to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” Often mis-interpreted and greatly abused to mean that we are somehow responsible for at least half of our salvation (meekly allowing God to take care of the other half), this verse teaches directly the opposite! If the “mind of Christ” is in us, then the works of Christ should flow out of us. We do not earn our salvation. Far from it! We cannot earn even half of our salvation. We can only “work out” what God has worked within us. As verse 13 makes blatantly clear: most of our mis-interpretations occur because we do not read the verse preceding our pet verse, or the verse following it. The only “work” we can do is the work of the “mind of Christ” which is in us. Paul says substantially the same thing in 1 Cor. 2:16 – “we have the mind of Christ.”
So returning to our main thesis. The book of Philippians is a concise and beautifully written letter that presents not only what a Christian worldview is (the “mind of Christ”), but it relates to us how that Christian worldview is relevant to solving so many of our current problems. Granted, Paul does not dot every “i” nor does he cross every “t”. That will be our continuing mission – to flesh out exactly what the “mind of Christ” has to do in a world that utterly rejects any part or parcel of the Christian mindset.
This series of articles evolved from a sermon series (actually, they fed each other) that started with a mid-sermon comment that the church is losing entirely too many young people. That led to a full sermon on the necessity for the church to develop and maintain real, genuine faith in her young people. That led to a challenge to the commonly accepted view that one can be a faithful disciple of Christ outside of the church. It is my unwavering position that is a lie. There is no discipleship outside of the body of Christ, and that body is the church. In my last article, which was a subset of my last sermon, I pointed out how Jesus himself allowed people to walk away from him, and even challenged his disciples as if to say, “Others are deserting me by the score – are you willing to stick by me or do you want to leave too?” Today I turn “from the phraseological to the real” (to repeat a beautiful quote from the most excellent Dietrich Bonhoeffer) and look at the cold, hard reality that the church is dysfunctional. So, how do we deal with it?
To begin with, let me define my terms. By saying “Church” I am referring to Christendom in general – not getting into any discussion of “true church” or “false church” (although that is a legitimate discussion, it is not appropriate here). Next, when I say “dysfunctional” I mean bent and broken, a far cry from the pure bride of Christ that is taught and intended within the pages of the New Testament. As with any generalization, you may feel free to quibble with either or both of my definitions; as the old commercial said, “Your mileage may vary.”
If I was a non-believer looking in at the church today I really do not think I could ever be convinced to join up. To begin with there are simply too many different types to count, let alone attempt to visit. Next, there is a bewildering number of doctrinal differences between “churches,” and they are major, significant differences! Then, there are horrible moral and ethical collapses by all sorts of church leaders – some of which are protected or at least “minimized” by the official position of the church involved. And then, so many “churches” have so fully embraced the filth of modern culture that they are virtually indistinguishable from the “world” that they are supposed to be separate from. Yech! Who would want to become a part of that? If I can be a sexual predator, drunk, liar, cheat, fraud, sexual pervert, adulterer, malingerer, racist, bigot and be a part of your church, why would I want to? I will just cut out the middle man and feed my own narcissism at home.
So, the first step in dealing with a dysfunctional church is to admit the dysfunction. The church is viewed as divided, sinful, hypocritical and in some cases perverse. Okay, let’s admit it – in all too many cases that is true. We need to learn from that great teacher Ezra and pray in the first person plural – “We have sinned” and get rid of the finger-pointing. A big part of that is admitting personal sin – “I have sinned.” Until the church confesses sin there can be no hope of redemption.
Second, the church needs to address the specific sin. In Ezra’s case it was a blatant disregard for the command to avoid intermarriage. Today it could be adultery, racism (I am sickened by the anti-Semitism that I hear every Sunday expressed by “Christians”), perverse sexuality (including, but not limited to pornography, homosexuality, gender manipulation among others), a disregard of authority (beginning with our elected officials, but extending to our school teachers and our aged population in general), and the list could continue. These are not minor offenses! To say that these practices are rampant in the world is one thing – to allow them to exist in the church is simply unforgivable!
Third, the church needs to learn how to practice discipline again. That’s right, good old church discipline. As in, if a brother or sister is caught up in a sin, you go to them and discuss it. If no change occurs, you take a couple of others and discuss it some more. Then, if no change is forthcoming, discuss it among the family, still with the intent to regain your brother or sister. Finally, after every avenue of reclamation is exhausted, we need to remove the offender from the church. In modern terminology we need to get back to “boundary maintenance.” The world needs to know that there is a place where purity to one’s stated beliefs is not only expected, it is demanded.
Let’s see, I’ve suggested humble self-evaluation, open and honest confession, and sincere repentance. Sounds kind of like what the apostle Paul endured in that three-day period after his vision of the risen Christ. In other words, it sounds like conversion.
What I am suggesting is no less than the church needs to be converted to Christ again. We need to become what we say we are. We are not left alone in this quest. We have the Bible (Old and New Testaments!) as our guide. We have the Holy Son of God as our model incarnate. We have the Holy Spirit as our intercessor and teacher. All we lack, apparently, is the will to do what Jesus has called us to do, and to be what he has already empowered us to be.
Will anyone join me in the quest?
In my last post I argued that an individual who claims to love Jesus but not the church is, intentionally or not, lying. In this post I want to show that biblically you cannot separate Jesus from his church, and in future articles I will get into other issues surrounding this movement.
To begin here I am at a loss as to how anyone could separate Jesus from his church. The first words out of our Lord’s mouth following Peter’s stunning confession included the promise, “I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). Therefore, Jesus is the one who formed and “built” his church, so to use words disparaging his creation hardly fit the category of “loving” the one who created it.
Second, even getting past this passage, those who want to eliminate the church must also eliminate the letters of Paul from their New Testament canon, especially the book of Ephesians. Take for example the concluding verse of the magnificent first chapter, “…and gave him as head over all things to the CHURCH, which is his body, the fullness of him wo fills all in all.” (ESV, emphasis mine) Or how about 3:10, “So that through the CHURCH the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” If the church is to be abandoned it would seem that God’s manifold wisdom is not worth very much.
Third, moving on from the explicit mentions of the word “church” to Jesus, there is Paul’s use of “body” language which he relates to Christ. One primary text here would be 1 Corinthians 12, especially v.27, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” Remember that the Corinthian letter was written to the CHURCH of God at Corinth. Now, if the church is the body of Christ incarnate on earth, what does that say about those who claim to love Jesus but hate his body?
The bottom line is that there is no way, either biblically or theologically or ontologically, or philosophically, to separate Jesus from the physical church on this earth. Attempts to do so can be traced back to two fundamental mistakes: a misunderstanding of the nature of the church, or a misunderstanding of what it means to be unified with Christ.
I will note here, and I fully intend to discuss at length in a later post, that a person can truly love the church of Christ and be deeply disturbed by, and there seek to correct, the current manifestations of that church. To say that I love the church does NOT mean that I have to blindly accept all of its current weaknesses. In fact, one aspect of love is the desire to see the best for the object of one’s affection. If we love Jesus we will love his church – but that does not mean we will love or blindly defend every congregation or group that professes to be that church. Much more on that in a later post.
Those who say “Jesus Yes, Church No” cannot appeal to Scripture, which is fatal to their argument, since it is only through Scripture that we come to know Jesus as the Christ and Lord. I wish more theologians and ministers would point this out. As a lover of the church and also one who recognizes her human faults, I refuse to be held hostage by someone who makes claims of a Christological nature that are theologically impossible.
In other words, don’t try to make me feel guilty by telling me a lie.