Tuesday, March 31, 2009

3.29.09 Lost at Home

Prayer of Calling: God, Our Creator and Redeemer, you are the one before whom we are laid bare. Our fears, our hopes, the things we hide from others and try to hide from ourselves are open to you. We pray that we may understand that your knowledge of all of this is within the context of the loving intentions you have for each of us - to come to know you as our redeemer, as the one who change us from the inside out so that we may come to be like Jesus in whose image we are made and in whose image we are to be remade. We ask this in Jesus name, who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever AMEN.

Last week we looked at the parable which is commonly referred to as the story of the prodigal son and considered together some of the lessons it teaches us about the gospel. Last week, we mainly considered the picture of God's love in the way the father met his returning rebel son. We called attention to among other things:

* the way in which he met him coming home, intercepting him and protecting him from the shame the village would surely hurl his way
* we considered the love of the father as the occasion and cause of the younger bother's repentance
* we loved the quote of Volf: the father's.... "eyes that searched for and finally caught sight of the son in the 'distance' tell of a heart that was with the son in the 'distant country'... the father kept the son in his heart as an absence shaped by the memory of the former presence (Volf)".

This week we took up the lessons about the gospel that can be learned by the older brother's negative response to the father's love for his younger brother.

The first thing to keep in mind about the older brother is that he represents the religious leadership of Jesus' contemporary Israel. These people were always shocked and scandalized by his desire to have dinner parties and social engagements with those considered to be outside of God's covenant love - the prostitutes, the tax collectors, the gentiles, the half-breed Samaritans and the like. And, it is a similar confrontation with these people about his table fellowship that occasions his telling of this story in Luke 15. Tim Keller observes: "When the message of the gospel is clear, moral people tend to dislike it, while irreligious people are intrigued and attracted. The way to know that you are communicating and living the same gospel message as Jesus is that “younger brothers” are more attracted to you than elder brothers." He goes on to say "The gospel does not agree that there are spiritually two kinds of people in the world — 'good' and 'bad'. Instead, it says there are just two different kinds of “running from God.” You can run away by breaking the rules or by keeping them. But you are running nonetheless."

Keller's point in all of this is to draw us deeper into our thinking about what problem the gospel is meant to solve. The gospel means that we can be made new from the inside out as we follow Jesus in faith and repentance. Embedded in the meaning of the gospel is the claim that everyone needs this. Whether one delights in being a rebel and the other takes pride in being good both need Jesus to make them new. This is one of many aspects of the meaning of the gospel that make it the unique message that it is - the assertion that human beings do not search for what they ultimately need unless God's grace as revealed in Jesus informs that search.

We concluded our reflections by considering the provocative words used to describe the character, Hazel Motes from Flannery O'Connor's, Wiseblood, about whom it is said in her story: " he knew the best way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin". This Jesus that Motes sought to avoid was the Jesus of Southern Fundamentalism who is the savior only of those who come to hate themselves more than God hates their sin. In that sort of world the trick is to make credible your profession of faith through the subtle indicators of self-loathing while at the same time wearing a religious facade in order to trick everyone into thinking you are relatively free from actual sins (accept for the culturally acceptable ones) => the result is that the real Jesus and genuine Christian community is kept at arms length.

Finally, the really good news of this story is that the father refuses to be un-fathered by either son which reminds us that God does not give up and does not play favorites. The religious leadership - the older brother types - who lambasted Jesus for sharing his table with "sinners" also nailed him to the cross. About those people Jesus said: "forgive them".

1. When we come to Jesus we come out of the shadows and into the light. When he told the story, what light did he shed on the "older brother" types who were listening in? Do you have a part of you that is like the older brother? What sorts of beliefs and circumstances have built up that part of you? Under what sorts of circumstances does it rear its head?

2. What do you think about that O'Connor quote about avoiding sin in order to avoid Jesus? Do you feel like you have your own version of this?

3. What role do you think Christan community has in helping us see ourselves more clearly (e.g. being in community with others can make us resentful of older brother types if we are younger bother types and vice-versa).

Monday, March 23, 2009

3.22.09 the progigal son story - love not rules

Scot McKnight, a friend who teaches New Testament and Religion at North Park University has a category of preaching and teaching that he refers to as "grace grinding". Here is Scot: "There is a kind of writing, preaching, and talking about grace that instead of offering grace and extolling the goodness of God, seems to use grace as the backhand of God that is used to grind humans into the ground as it talks about grace. I'm having a hard time being gracious about this. It is the sort of communication that does extol grace, God's good grace, but it makes that grace an angry thing God has to do because he is gracious. God, being so loving but downright ticked off with humans for their sins and stiff neckedness and hard-heartedness, is still gracious to us. That sort of idea. This is a massive distortion of what God actually does to us. James tells us, don't forget, that if we ask God in faith that God gives to us simply or unbegrudgingly -- and the grace grinders tend to make God a begrudging God of grace rather than a delightful and pro-active God of grace." These are comments from some time ago from Scot's blog called JesusCreed.

As I think about this issue that Scot raises it occurs to me that this grace grinding approach can come from any number of ways of misunderstanding the gospel. This Sunday we looked at the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15) - using it to correct three misunderstandings of the gospel that can lead to what Scot talks about as grace grinding.

Misunderstanding One: God's love is defined by his justice. Not so. The gospel arises out of God's love - not because of the logic of a schema devised to satisfy his justice but because of a heart set upon reconciling women and men to himself (Romans 5:8). God's goal for new creation is not a world where the scales are balanced but a world where justice is transcended. Miroslav Volf's quote is helpful here: "Justice demands nothing less than the undoing of the world, past and present, and the creation of a new world.... A world of perfect justice is a world of love. It is a world with no rules in which everyone does what he or she pleases and all are pleased by what everyone else does; a world of no rights because there are no wrongs from which to be protected; a world of no legitimate entitlements because everything is given and nothing withheld... a world with no equality because all differences are loved in their own appropriate way; a world in which desert plays no role because all actions stem from superabundant grace. In short, a world of perfect justice would be a world of transcended justice because it would be a world of perfect freedom and love. The blindfold would be taken from the eyes of Lady Justice and she would delight in whatever she saw; she would lay aside the scales because she would not need to weigh or compare anything; she would drop her sword because there would be nothing to police.... If we see human beings as children of the one God, created by God to belong all together as a community of love, then there will be good reasons to let embrace - love - define what justice is."

Misunderstanding Two: Rules make-up the basis of our relationship with God. The story of the prodigal son corrects this understanding by showing us, quite dramatically, that love - not rules - forms the basis of our relationship with God (his tireless love for us). The father in this story never lets go of his relationship with the son who leaves and brings shame upon himself and his family. The son broke the rules and imagined that the relationship was lost as he indicated by devising a way to come back to his father's homes as a hired hand. But the father's "eyes that searched for and finally caught sight of the son in the 'distance' tell of a heart that was with the son in the 'distant country'... the father kept the son in his heart as an absence shaped by the memory of the former presence (Volf)".

Misunderstanding Three: Repentance is a way to earn God's love. Repentance is necessary and fundamental to move us away from sin and autonomy and towards God and joyful life. It is not a way to earn God's love; on the contrary, God's love is the occasion and setting for repentance. "After failure in the distant country, the son reconstructed his identity as a 'son-not-worthy-to-be-called-a-son'. By the sheer joy of his father's embrace, without a word, his identity starts to be changed again.... With a command.... the father reconstructed the prodigal's identity. He ordered a robe - the best one - put on him, a ring placed on his finger, and sandals on his feet, and then, as the prodigal was transformed before our eyes, he called him 'son of mine' (Volf).' Reading the parable with a keen eye to how the social norms of this society would have pressed the father to do the opposite of what he does, Volf points out that the father reconstructs the identity the son had made for himself (a hired hand) by claiming him as his son who had come home. The relationship is the occasion and the context for confession and reconciliation. Brilliant!

Questions for discussion (a note to community group facilitators: there are a lot of questions here to choose from.... the idea being that you will choose the ones you want to work with and will be the happiest to work with).

1. We remarked in the homily that we do not attempt to preach one size all application sermons at Grace. Instead, we try to offer the gospel and the wisdom of God's word in a way that challenges us to find analogs which we can apply to our life. For example, if I know that rules do not define God's love for me then I can imagine that this might be in some way a model for how I ought to relate to others. Can you think of ways that this truth, by analogy, can help you in your relationship with God and others?

2. If you think of repentance as a way to earn God's love how might you view the sins of others? What attitude might you likely take towards them?

3. Do you ever find yourself "grace grinding" yourself or others? What makes you do that? What role do you think a desire to be in control may have in your own tendency to grace grind?

4. Do you think you sometimes construct a new identity with God (like that of a hired hand)? If so, what makes you do this? How can you keep from doing this? If you feel that you need to construct an identity like the prodigal son did with his scheme to become a hired hand, do you think this might make you want to force others to do the same if they fail you?

5. What sort of analogy does the parable of the prodigal son offer you when you think of your relationship with your children (if you have children or hope to have them)?

Monday, March 16, 2009

more thoughts on boasting

This week we revisited some of the themes we have been dwelling upon lately. Coming back to the Philippians passage we talked some more about what was likely in Paul's mind when he gave his challenge for us to have the same mind in us that was in Christ Jesus (Philippians 2). We noted, as we did last week, that applying this exhortation can be very slippery because it is ever tempting for us to reduce the gospel to some kind of moralism - in this case an imitation of Jesus' behavior - which puts us in charge in of our lives, our character development. In order to shed light on how Paul's exhortation complements the basic message of the gospel we turned to two later exhortations within the same passage: (1) the call to obey Paul and (2) the call to work out our salvation with fear and trembling.

Paul's call for his churches to obey him is read by some as an example of authoritarian leadership based on his apostolic authority. A similar interpretation is sometimes offered which prefers to see the obedience called for as obedience to God's word which Paul is uniquely qualified to understand interpret and teach. A finer point is sometimes put on this latter view; seeing the contradiction of a minister of the gospel practicing an authoritarian style of leadership, some interpret his command for obedience being in reference to the office of leadership in general. There is some truth in that interpretation insofar as other New Testament passages point to a kind of obedience to the church that is proper and beneficial. However, it is hard to imagine that obedience to an office of leadership is what Paul has first in his mind here, following on the heels of the beautiful portrayal of Jesus' self-abnegation. Most likely what Paul was saying to these young Christians was something along these lines: "The salvation you are working out is a new way of understanding God and his love in light of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. There are only a few of us who have learned our need for the cross to be at the center of our lives. Follow my example insofar as I have the 'same mind that was in Christ Jesus'. If I don't exhibit this cruciform pattern then don't 'obey me'." As we continued to think about this during the homily we looked at what Paul had to say about the danger of boasting in the wrong things (Romans 5:1-11).

The two sorts of people that Paul probably has in mind in this passage are his contemporary Jews on the one hand, and pagan Romans on the other. His fellow Jews tended to boast in race instead of grace. Whereas, his Roman contemporaries often boasted of their good works as works of benevolence for the common good to be admired by all. In the face of all of this boasting Paul exhorts us to boast in Jesus who died for us while we were sinners. In doing this Paul confronts not only his kinfolk, who had the wrong idea about God and his grace, but he also turns on its head the moral framework which inhabited the patron-client relationship of the Roman world. One might die for the "good man", but the gospel reveals that the only really "good man" died for us. The patron-client frame is turned upside down; the patron dies for the client. This brings us back to the Philippians passage where Jesus reveals God in giving himself away - not regarding equality with God as something to be exploited. We noted last week that one of Paul's points in telling the story of God in this way was to confront the story the Roman emperors told of themselves. The emperors shamefully exploited their power in the name of god and propped up their ersatz peace and justice with a diabolical theology that normally deified their rule. Paul's point: the true emperor does not regard his power as something to be exploited.

The point of all of this ---- when we boast in the cross of Christ we boast in the same thing Jesus does and share in his mind. He boasted in the cross because he knew this was the way to bring salvation to the world. This is at least a bit of what it means to have the same mind that was in Jesus. We are to boast in our need for the cross, what the cross does for us, what the cross reminds us of, and how the cross helps us think about others and the whole world. The cross brings us to God in repentance and puts us in a posture to receive Jesus' life in us, a far cry from moralism. This brings us to our (2) from above. Many have read Paul's exhortation, to "work out our salvation with fear and trembling, knowing that it is God who is at work within us" as a proof-text that part of our salvation is up to us and part of it to God. We would suggest that is not what Paul has in mind. He evokes the most common language of the Scriptures (fear-of-the-Lord) to remind us that it is God who is the one who is at work within us. Our call is to respond God's work in the world and us in reverence, worship and awe, because it is God at work in our midst.

We concluded our homily with some thoughts from Eugene Peterson's excellent, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places. "The Christian Life is the lifelong practice of attending to the details of congruence - congruence between ends and means, congruence between what we do and the way we do it..... Christ both the means and the end playing through our limbs and eyes to the Father through the features of our faces so that we find ourselves living the Christ life in the Christ way." The ideas are taken form a sonnet by Gerald Manely Hopkins where he suggest poetically that we will have Christ play through our limbs and eyes as surely as kingfishers catch fire and dragonflies draw flame. His point is that there is no quick route to maturing in Christ. It will only come in time as we follow the cruciform pattern and understand that our means and end are one and the same.

1. What sort of means do we tend to imagine to be congruent with our end that are, in fact, incongruent? What makes a means incongruent with respect to our end? What makes a means congruent with our end?
2. What could you suppose that Peterson might mean by living in the Christ way? Does the Philippians passage help you with this?
3. What role do you think Sunday worship (and weekday worship) plays in helping us live the Christ life? Could you do this without the church community?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

May I never boast in anything other than the cross of Christ

This week we continued in our reflections on the Philippians 2:1-13. We also included these passages in our readings during the worship service (Mark 8:29-35 and Galatians 6:14-15).

In returning to the Philippians passage we noted that there are at least five big stories that find their resonance in the poem of Jesus' portrayal of God as the one who gives himself away:
1. The story of God revealing himself in the unique God-man, Jesus, as the one who gives himself away.
2. The story of the very human Jesus who demonstrates that the way of the cross is the fertile soil from which human flourishing sprouts.
3. The echo of the story of Adam who did regard equality with God as something to be exploited as he succumbed to the serpent's temptation to snatch and grab at equality with God; yet, the other part of the Adam and Eve narrative is that humans will flourish because of God's promise to provide salvation - Jesus does not regard equality with God as something to be exploited. Jesus succeeds where Adam, Eve, and we fail.
4. The story of Israel who was always meant to demonstrate God's love to the world in the form of a servant. What Israel did not do Jesus fulfilled.
5. An anti-Emperor story. Emperors in the ancient world were lauded by their court poets as those who were pressed into the form of their leadership because of their magnanimous and humble citizenship; because they were humble they were pressed into the position of leaders. Moreover, their power was supported in the name of god and emperor worship was on the rise as Paul wrote this Epistle. This political rhetoric of the emperor being pressed into service because of his humility was, of course, BS propaganda meant to prop up a justice and peace that was justice and peace in name only. Jesus is the true Emperor. This is Paul's point.

The main point of Paul's poem, as we noted last week, is that Jesus reveals the character of God in precisely this way: to quote Rowan Williams, ""A story of a God who is the way he is by giving away: that's what it's like to be God. Jesus, in the form of God, knowing what it was to be God, does not think that being God is a matter of grasping and clinging and defending. The divine nature is the absolute opposite of this and that means that not only in time but in eternity, God is pouring out God into what is other."

The exhortation to us in the passage is that we are to take this mind for ourselves. Applying this sort of teaching can certainly be slippery. Very quickly the exhortation can feel like a moralistic challenge to make ourselves behave like Jesus which will just make us tired. Instead we find the best clue in the allusion to the cruciform pattern that Jesus' life took - "let the same mind of Jesus be in us" - is achieved by us through living our life through the cross. So, our understanding of ourselves is shaped by the knowledge that we are in the need of the daily crucifying of our egos, our pride, our hate, our envy, our lusts, our idolatrous pathologies - the list goes on. A fitting meditation for Lent, no doubt. But, is all of this crucifixion language, this challenge to die daily, this plea to see ourselves, along with Paul, as those who have been crucified to the world and the world to us - is all of this so morbid as to leave us feeling that the only way to maturity is through being forever sullen about our failures and our weaknesses? On the contrary! A Lenten disposition towards our egos and an emotionally appropriate response to our sin is a sign of maturity and that we have embraced reality instead of a parody of reality. However, being crucified to the world is meant to lead us to a happy freedom, knowing that the cross has freed us from guilt, shame, and ways of life that are based on the crushing burden of varieties of moralism and shallow and lonely attempts at self-improvement.

Questions for discussion:
1. You are having a conflict with a friend or loved one - what sort of practical application can you make of the call to "never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ? "May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and
I to the world. For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!" Galatians
2. What do you think Paul have in mind as things that we might rather boast in other than the cross?
3. What do you boast in other the cross and what are you more proud of than the cross?
4. In the situation at Galatia about which Paul wrote that, "neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything but a new creation is everything", it was the case that a sect of Jewish Christians had argued that conformity to the rituals of OT Law was necessary to ones life as a Christ follower. This is not a struggle for us in our setting but what sorts of similar things do we embrace that pervert grace? Why does Paul appeal to a new creation as the final judgment against his Judaizing opponents?

Monday, March 2, 2009

comment on my recap

I mentioned in the homily that we must sometimes not continue giving ourselves away to others if the relationship in question becomes toxic. I said that sometimes a boundary must be placed that might even end the relationship. However, I said that how we do this must itself be in the pattern of self-giving love. I suggested to say to someone that you love them and pray that they might experience the same love of God that you hope to experience; but that you can no longer be in relationship with them can be a very loving thing to say and do, knowing that Jesus lives in the new space between you and that person. I went on to say that you can, in that sense, continue to love that person through Jesus. Agree? Disagree?

3.1.09 Jesus gives himself away

We began the season of lent at Grace Chicago Church by reflecting on the famous passage from Philippians wherein Paul challenges these young Christians to have the same mind in and among themselves that Jesus did - namely that he did not regard equality with God a thing to be exploited but took the form of a slave (Philippians 2:1-11)

This passage has been both a sobering challenge and stirring inspiration to countless followers of Jesus over the years and much has been said about it. Unfortunately, it has often been misunderstood. Some have taken it to mean that to simply imitate Jesus' life is at the heart of the gospel. Others have suggested that the passage teaches that the way up is always down - that becoming humble in attitude and circumstances will put one on the sure path to eventual exaltation. Some of this thinking stems from an interpretation of our passage that runs something like this example of a common view popularized by the New Testament Scholar, Ralph Martin: Jesus Christ, equal with God as the eternal Son, made a decision not to use his deity as a means of "snatching a prize but chose rather to divest Himself of that advantage and take the form of a slave as an act of voluntary humiliation..... He had equality with God as His Image, but refused to exploit it to His personal gain (Martin quoted in N.T. Wright's The Climax of the Covenant." This view suggests that Jesus, in spite of being God, became humble. Another view, and the one subscribed to in the homily depends on a different interpretation.

In 1970 C.F.D. Moule suggested that we should read the passage this way: Jesus did not regard equality with God as consisting of snatching, exploiting, or grabbing (like the pagan deities) but instead he regarded equality with God as consisting of giving himself away. Building on Moule's study, N.T. Wright puts it this way: "the one who.... possessed diving equality did not regard that status as something to take advantage of, something to exploit, but instead interpreted it as a vocation to obedient humiliation and death; and that God the Father acknowledged the truth of this interpretation.... God acknowledged Christ's self-emptying as as the true expression of divine equality (Wright in Climax of the Covenant)."

The difference between these two views is subtle but important because the first view suggests that Jesus set aside the privileges of being God in order to set forth a pattern of humility which led to exaltation. In contrast, the second view suggests that Jesus understood that to be the incarnate one, who, to quote the creed, for us and our salvation came down from heaven, meant that he was to give his life away; at the very heart of what it means to be God is to give and not get. We have, therefore, not Jesus teaching that the way up is down but instead offering an understanding of God based on the gospel. "Against the age-old attempts of human beings to make God in their own (arrogant, self-glorifying) image, Calvary reveals the truth about what it means to be God. (Wright in Climax of the Covenant)." So, to "let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus" will be for us more a confession than a description of those who have figured out how to imitate Christ by our humility. For, to let the same mind be in us as was in Christ, is first and foremost a confession that love, healing, forgiveness, and God-likeness can only be found at Calvary. The extent to which we give ourselves away to others will depend on the life of the Spirit at work in us, which, in turn, depends on our death to self that occurs only in our death with Christ through repentance.

Rowan Williams has some excellent devotional remarks on this text:
Philippians 2 is "A story of a God who is the way he is by giving away: that's what it's like to be God. Jesus, in the form of God, knowing what it was to be God, does not think that being God is a matter of grasping and clinging and defending. The divine nature is the absolute opposite of this and that means that not only in time but in eternity, God is pouring out God into what is other. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit pour out their lives into each other with such freedom and intimacy that they are one God eternally. And when the world comes into being it is because God has let the same pattern of self-giving draw out something quite other to God, a world. And not only does God make that world to be loved, to be the recipient of his outpouring; he takes on the shape of a slave. The form of a servant is of course the neat religious way of talking about it. But what it says is the 'shape of the slave'. God initiates a human life on earth which more and more is entirely given over into the hands of others. That's what slaves experience, their lives are given into the hands of others. It's shocking, bold, difficult language when you think of what slaves really were at that time. The form of a servant can still perhaps conjure up somebody in a uniform, serving you a cocktail. The shape of a slave evokes something rather deeper and rather more threatening. The slave is the person whose life is in somebody else's hands and God's love is such that he puts himself in somebody else's hands. The form of God becomes the shape of a slave; being God finds its ultimate revelation, its final embodiment in a life given into the hands of others, into our hands, into the hands of human beings with their selfishness, their resistance to love. And in the middle of that the entire world is turned around. That's the story."

Questions for discussion:

1. In your own words can you talk about the difference between the two views of Jesus' self-emptying sketched above? Do you think there is a difference between the two of them in the end. After all, each view suggests that Jesus' humility is important and is in some sense a model for us?

2. What do you think we meant when we suggested that having the same mind in us as was in Christ Jesus is more of a confession than a description of those who have figured out how to be humble?

3. Does it make you uneasy to think of God revealing himself and his love in the form of a slave? Williams suggests that it is threatening. What do you suppose he thinks is threatening about it?

4. The Second Lesson for this Sunday's liturgy was taken from 2 Corinthians 8:1-9 where Paul uses language similar to the language we have been considering above when he encourages Christians to give in the midst of adversity: "For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich." Does this passage speak to you in the midst of the economic downturn which is touching so many of our lives? If so, how?