Monday, April 27, 2009

Discussion Questions for an N.T. Wright Homily

Greetings all. For this week I have developed the following questions to accompany this sermon given by N.T. Wright. Due to the lingering paint fumes in our worship space we cut church short of the homily so I will post a recap next week. Here is the link to his sermon and here are the discussion questions for the community groups.

Questions for discussion:
1. How often do you think of your present in light of the future promised to us by God? How does thinking about our present and past in light of our promised future help us in the present?

2. When Wright says that the struggle for holiness will remain a struggle what does he have in mind?

3. How would you know if you were drifting towards the "neutral" version of Christian endeavor? What sort of distortion(s) of the truth would you have to believe in order to believe that remaining in neutral was the way to go?

4. How would you know if you were drifting towards "the Holy Spirit hasn't done what is said it would on the tin" version of Christian endeavor? What sort of distortion(s) of the truth would you have to believe in order to say, I tried this and it did not work and so it is not for me?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Our Labor is not in Vain

In Jesus' resurrection appearance in Matthew 28 (the context is Jesus commissioning of his disciples to carry forth his mission) Matthew mentions that "some doubted". I decided to comment on this Sunday as we prepared to receive communion. Here is the essence of those remarks. We take great encouragement in Matthew telling us that some doubted because we are reminded that God's love for us comes to us in the midst of our doubts and takes those doubts into account. Rather than feeling weak for doubting we are rather encouraged to take heart that God has taken account of them and is determined to work through our doubts to increase our faith.

I don't often include the remarks made around communion in the homily recap but apparently these words were encouraging to a number of people who have told me since Sunday. So, I include them here in gratitude that the Lord does work in mysterious ways; I had not planned on saying anything about doubt until I walked up to mic and started speaking. The Holy Spirit is our teacher, truly.

In the homily we spoke about some of the truths of the gospel that Jesus' resurrection teaches us.

When Jesus says, as the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ, that all power on heaven and earth has been given to him he is looking backwards and forwards - backwards to the Lords' prayer where he asks that God's kingdom come and will be done on earth, and forwards to the work of the church. Evangelicals who tend to be more familiar with theological reflection on the cross than the resurrection sometimes miss the profound implication of what Jesus is saying in what is often referred to as the great commission. He is saying that because of his resurrection form the dead that his prayer has been answered and that the Kingdom of God has begun in earnest. The implications of this are vast and grand, to borrow words from a friend of mine. One way of applying this truth to our daily lives is by thinking through how God thinks about the mundane activities we are involved in.

Recently I experienced an interruption in my schedule that ended up consuming several hours after all was said and done. I had to clean our car and baby's car seat in the aftermath of some projectile vomiting (I know - that's gross and too much information but it is what it is). I found myself incredibly annoyed in the midst of all of this and could not put my finger on why exactly. Then it hit me. I thought deep down inside that this interruption and the shape of it was beneath me. My schedule was full of important things and in my mind this was an affront to that. God taught me through that realization though that the resurrection spoke to my attitude. If all authority on earth has been given to Jesus then that means that the mundane is important to God and is the object of his redemptive love. I was humbled and repentant. As I continued to think about this and what I had learned I thought about how the implications of the resurrection speak to a kind of sin that, in my opinion, is rampant in our society. Here is how I would describe it: the sin of placing comfort and self-fulfillment principally above serving others in love. When we do serve it is often with the left-overs. The good news of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection offers the deepest hope that this sin will not have the last word in our lives. Let's think about that for a moment.

This offers as good a time as any to talk about how a theology of the resurrection is necessary to understand the gospel more fully. When Jesus comes to his followers after his resurrection he confronts them as their victim and, by virtue of who he is, as their judge. But his purpose in coming to them was to draw them to repentance and give them the power of the resurrection. Their sin (our sin) did its worst in the death of Jesus on the cross. But the resurrection teaches us, and I paraphrase Rowan Williams, that when our sin had done its worst God raised Jesus from the dead. Sin and evil do not have the last word because the resurrection teaches us otherwise. Jesus is the only face we will ever look into and receive at once a wincing judgment against ourselves and the warm eyes of the one whose redeeming love will not let us go.

Now we come back to the sin of placing comfort and self-fulfillment before serving others in love. The resurrection prompts us to simultaneously see the truth about ourselves and gives us the forgiveness, hope and power to live in the knowledge that all power on heaven and earth has been given to Jesus and that he is with us always.

Questions for discussion:

1. Do you count yourself as one who sometimes feels doubtful that Jesus is raised from the dead? Do you think this is a normal part of the human condition for the follower of Jesus? How do you deal with the doubt?

2. Roy Anker, in a review of Slumdog Millionaire for Books and Culture wrote: "Exhilarating and infectious, Slumdog swept the Hollywood Foreign Press Association's Golden Globe Awards: picture, screenplay, director, and score. And it is no wonder, really. Humankind seems a patsy for this sort of thing, no matter how much conscience and brain tell us to prefer high-minded, and usually dire, realism. Simply put, (fairy) tales as disparate as Rocky and Slumdog play to another part of the self—the soul's deep thirst for repair of some small slice of the world's incalculable woe. Fair enough." It was suggested in the homily that the desire for the repair of some small slice of the world's incalculable woe is addressed by the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. How does Jesus' resurrection from the dead speak to you when you find yourself soaking in despair and thirsting for repair? How can this truth move from an objective concept totrans-formative power?

3. Let's say you find yourself in a similar situation to the example offered above (the car-seat example). Let's say you tell a friend what you are struggling with and they respond to you by saying, "you should not feel that way - that's selfish". What does that say about that person's understanding of the human condition? How would you respond?

Monday, April 13, 2009

Thoughts on Baptism from Easter Sunday '09

These are some of the remarks shared during the baptism of one of our members this Easter Sunday:

Partaking in baptism does not make the person being baptized a better person, much less a better Christian. Her partaking in baptism is not a sign of her fortitude but is a sacramental gift of herself to us and to the whole church for she is making a picture of what God does not just for her but for all of us; her baptism opens the sacramental window between this world and the next and we see what God is doing in our church community and in all church communities, bringing us from the chaos of sin and its consequences by immersing us in his love, and giving us new lives in Christ.

It was customary in the early church to have baptism on Easter Sunday. The reason was simple. Baptism is one of two signs Jesus left the church to be visible and tangible symbolic enactments of the mystery of the gospel; in baptism we die with Christ and are raised with him in the power of his resurrection. Death is where sin and evil take us as they separate us from the good and sustaining life of God but Jesus has let death do its worst to him so that he might take away its threat of judgment to those who come to his vicarious death and receive the grace of forgiveness that flows from it, the mystery of the atonement - the exchange of Jesus' life for ours - is what is meant when we say that we have died with Christ in baptism. The resurrection is the newness of life that comes to those who have been freed from sin, evil and death. In the words of one theologian, when we have done our worst God remains God and remains committed to being our God. He who raised Jesus from the dead will give life to us and so this is why the words in the baptismal liturgy speak of being raised with Christ in newness of life.

Prayers from Good Friday and Easter services

Prayer of Calling on Good Friday:
O God of grace, mercy, and love. You have shown us in the death of your son that at the heart of who you are and what you do is a love towards people that is a bright light that never dims, a strong arm with a far reach that never grows weary, a resolute mind set on redeeming humanity that never changes, and a patient disposition which never wears out, inviting us time and time again to be forgiven and renewed. Teach us this evening more than we knew before about the meaning of Jesus' atoning death which we commemorate together this Good Friday evening. For you are the one who revealed so much about yourself when you came among as Jesus, who regarded his equality with you not a matter to be taken advantage of but took upon himself the form of a slave, even to the point of death.

Benediction on Good Friday:
Tonight O God we stand with Peter, Judas and the rest of the disciples. Of our own wisdom and moral strength we surely would have left Jesus as did they. Yet, we leave in hope, knowing as we do on this side of the resurrection that death could not drown your love for humankind or your creation. Grant to us though that we do not take hold of the hope of the resurrection in giddy self-confidence but instead bring us to Easter joy through the suffering of the cross, so that our shouts of joy at the resurrection of Jesus may come not through our wisdom but in our repentance, called forth by your power and love which alone raised Jesus from the dead.

Prayer of Calling on Easter Sunday:
O God of grace, mercy, and love. You have shown us in the death of your son that at the heart of who you are and what you do is a love towards people that is a bright light that never dims, a strong arm with a far reach that never grows weary, a resolute mind set on redeeming humanity that never wavers, and a patient disposition that never tires, inviting us to be forgiven and renewed time and time again. On Good Friday you have taught us more than we knew before about the meaning of Jesus' atoning death - revealing in Jesus your heart, who regarded his equality with you not a matter to be taken advantage of but took upon himself the form of a slave, even to the point of death. We praise you for defeating death in the death of Christ; we praise you for atoning for our sins through Jesus' vicarious death; we praise you for the newness of life that you have granted in the resurrection of Jesus and may we live into that power as we follow Jesus in faith and repentance. Grant us God that we who have died with Christ may today celebrate his Resurrection with great joy and happiness for you have wept and suffered with us so that we might laugh with you in everlasting joy. Amen (the last sentence of this prayer is based on a quote from Jurgen Moltmann: "God weeps with us so that one day we might laugh with him"

No One Expected the Resurrection (Easter Sunday)

The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is at the heart of the gospel and at Grace Chicago we often talk about the resurrection in this vein. Two examples: the theology of the resurrection comes up when we talk about the presence and work of the Holy Spirit and when we talk about the doctrine of salvation. Paul explains in Ephesians 1:20 that the same power that brought Jesus back from the dead is now at work in us and in our midst as the Holy Spirit brings the blessings of Christ's life into ours. In Romans 6:4b we find Paul talking about our inclusion in the resurrection of Jesus as the evidence and means by which God keeps our lives inextricably linked to and included in Jesus' story and life. So we see that very soon after Jesus is risen from the dead that a theology of his resurrection emerged, together with a theology of his life and death. Juxtaposed to this are the rather raw accounts of Jesus' resurrection in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. As N.T. Wright and others point out these accounts are neither adorned with theological reflection and argument nor framed as examples of the fulfillment of OT prophecy. In this way they differ remarkably from the accounts of Jesus' death which precede them. Interestingly, some NT scholars cite the raw features of these narratives as yet another example of evidence that the resurrection passages are made-up by the disciples to keep the memory of Jesus and his mission alive. N.T. Wright and others counter that the raw and rickety form of the resurrection narratives actually strengthens the likelihood of their historical authenticity. "These stories are extremely peculiar, and the type of peculiarity they possess is not one that would have been invented. It looks as though the Gospel writers are struggling to describe a reality for which they didn't really have adequate language (N.T. Wright)." They are struggling to describe because the resurrection of Jesus takes everyone by surprise; it presents a category of salvation that is without precedent and is completely unexpected. Those who believed in life after death and those who believed that resurrection was part of this did not expect a resurrection to occur in the midst of ordinary life before what they would call the end of the world. That one man is raised in the middle of history defied imagination and was completely unanticipated. Flabbergasted, confused, and joyful to the point of tears would be good words to describe the disciples' initial response. This response to Jesus' resurrection opens our imagination to an aspect of the doctrine of the resurrection which is sometimes overlooked. Because the resurrection cannot be caused or even anticipated by human reason or power we meet the only action within history that at once helps to define our deepest need and solve it. Some theologians speak of this need in general terms as a need to be redeemed and saved from the human condition which is marred by 'original sin'. Rowan Williams has a wonderful summary of the human condition in his book, Tokens of Trust: "The Christian belief that is summed up in the language of 'original sin' is basically a way of saying that this is a tangle that goes back to the very roots of humanity.... In humanity's history, the ingrained habit of turning inwards, turning in upon ourselves, is passed on. We learn what we want.... by watching someone else wanting it and competing for it. Before we begin to make choices, our options have been silently reduced in this way. To speak of original sin isn't necessarily to speak as if there were a great metaphysical curse hanging over the human race; it's just to observe that our learning how to exist is mixed in with learning what does not make for our life or our joy. And every failure and wrong turn in the history of a person as in the history of our species locks us more and more firmly into ourselves. No wonder we drift further from peace, become less and less free to give. Something needs to reverse the flow, to break the cycle..... Only a human word, a human act will heal the process of human history; it isn't ideas and ideals that will do this, but some moment in history when relations are changed for good and all, when new things concretely become possible." The moment of history is the resurrection and the new things becoming possible is new life in Christ. It is only when we acknowledge that our lives need resurrection as well as forgiveness that we can begin to be open to how God will help us unravel the messes that he and he alone can unravel.

The last sentence raises a question. What does it mean to acknowledge that we need resurrection? A couple of weeks ago I mentioned in a homily that when applying the gospel to the nitty-gritty of our lives requires an exercise in imagination and invites us to think in terms of analogies. For example: the cross is foolishness to the Greeks and a stumbling block to the Jews. How might this truth of the gospel, by way of analogy, help you discern how to choose a spouse, etc.? What other questions, by way of analogy, might this truth of the gospel prompt you to ask when choosing a business partner? Would the person's pride cause you to pause based on thinking analogically about this aspect of the gospel? In the same way the resurrection opens up windows for us to look through. For example, you may find yourself trapped in a pattern of negative thinking. You have nothing good to say about anyone or anything - not even yourself. Thinking of the resurrection as what God did that no one expected can offer an analogy for a situation like this. First, because of the resurrection we can say that there is something good to say everyday and that is that the future is open to new possibilities that stagger our imagination because God has raised Jesus from the dead. The second thing we can do is confess that only God can open this future up to us so we must repent of this extreme negativity that shuts us off from desiring God's love, God's future, etc. and ask God to open us to his work in our lives.

Questions for discussion:

1. The forgiveness that comes from Christ's death on the cross is a truth of the gospel that when meditated upon or applied to our life circumstances by way of analogy can be of great encouragement. When you come at the gospel from the angle of the resurrection as a complement to coming from the angle of being forgiven through Jesus' death on the cross, what perspective do you gain in the complement? How is you vision enlarged?

2. Can you think of an aspect of your complex life around which you need to remember that the resurrection is without precedent and took everyone by surprise? How can this thought encourage you?

3. When Rowan Williams (see above) talks about being locked into oneself and needing redemption from that what do you think he means? Can you put this in your own words? Does it follow from the way he sketches out his definition of original sin that there is a condition that underlies our individual sins that needs to be addressed in its own right? Does the resurrection shed some light on how to address this condition?

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Palm Sunday and Holy Week

Palm Sunday began Holy Week. Holy Week invites us to contemplate our relationship to Jesus as he prepares to go to the cross.

Rowan Williams puts it this way: "We begin with identifying ourselves with the people who welcomed Jesus on Palm Sunday. We bless palms and palm crosses, we wave them around, we shout Hosanna, and for that moment we are the people on the first Palm Sunday who were glad to see Jesus and welcomed him in. And then during the week we have to come to terms with the fact that when Jesus actually does arrive in Jerusalem he turns out not to be so welcome after all and we have to ask ourselves, 'What about us?' When Jesus arrives in our world, in our lives, are we actually glad to see him and if Holy Week is going well we really begin to understand why it is that Jesus can seem threatening and dangerous to our safety; and why we, just like the people in Jerusalem in the first Holy Week, don't want him around."

As we have often noted in our teaching at Grace, many 1st Century Jews wanted a revolutionary leader in Jesus who would organize a band of brigands and put it to the Romans. These folks wanted a display of power and might, retributive justice against Rome. There were, of course, others in leadership who did not want any sort of revolutionary leader in Jesus. Some of the religious hierarchy had already made their comfortable deals with Caesar and were fat and happy because of it. Despots often allowed corruption to fatten a certain number of their mid-management types in client-states like Israel in order to shore up their hold on power (in the case of Jerusalem much of the priestly class was guilty of this and, of course, Herod). So, Jesus disappointed many of the masses by not seeking to overthrow Rome while simultaneously alarming the Jewish ruling class and their Roman masters. By the Friday we call good, the triumphal entry of Palm Sunday had given way to Jesus' murder.

"Archbishop William Temple once remarked that some sorts of modern theology gave you the impression that Jesus went to Jerusalem to deliver a course of lectures on the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of man (motherhood and apple pie, as it were), and met with an unfortunate miscarriage of justice, quite incomprehensible to us. Who could possibly disagree with his message of love and reconciliation? In fact, the answer is, 'plenty of people' - in his day and ours. Given the explosive political and religious atmosphere in which Jesus worked, the claim to speak on behalf of God so as to create a new people or nation, to establish a new government, and to change the way they thought of their relation to God, was very far from motherhood and apple pie." - Rowan Williams

The kind of theology that Temple had in mind was probably a kind of bland liberalism that mainly emphasized Jesus' moral teaching at the expense of his death on the cross. Most who read or hear this homily are likely not guilty of that sort of theological error but we believe things that bring about the same result because we imagine that we are better than those who yelled 'crucify him'. Surely we Bible-believing Christians are of the sort of moral stuff that would have kept us right there by Jesus' side and on the same page with him throughout Holy Week. Sometimes I think this is partly because Christians in the United States cannot imagine being on the wrong side of history since there has always been so much in American folk-religion to suggest that our 'city set on a hill' must always be on the right side of history. In this way of thinking the cross is a good idea because of the triumph of the resurrection and Jesus is seen as a winner from the start. But the truth is that Jesus was seen as a loser according to our way of thinking about winners and losers and the resurrection is the astonishing insight that against the wisdom of the world the way of the cross was the way of salvation. It is often quite disingenuous to want to separate ourselves from the ugly and likely reality that we too would have shouted crucify him - disingenuous in the same way it is disingenuous to like the scruffy guy at a party only after you find out he is the CEO of a Fortune 500 company and just likes to wear wrinkled and well worn clothes.

There is another kind of preaching that has often led to anti-Semitic assertions - what I am thinking of here are the Christians who sometimes make it seem as if the Jews killed Jesus without any help from the Romans and they killed him because they hated, in advance, the Christians who would follow him.

The reason it is important for us to be careful in how we imagine our response to Jesus during Holy Week, had we been there, is that each of needs to be reminded that the theological and devotional center to this week - indeed to the whole of our faith - is the great revelation that resurrection, victory, or what some of the Greek philosophers called the summum bonum, cannot be had without the cross. This is what Christian theologians mean when they say that Christian theology - to be Christian - must be cruciform.

N.T. Wright has some wonderful devotional insights into what we might learn from what many of Jesus' contemporaries wanted instead of the cross. Like them we want patience from God when it comes to us but swift retributive justice when it comes to our adversaries. Many in Israel wanted to be rid of Rome in a bloody but successful revolution. Jesus wanted them to be rid of that sort of systemic evil oppression too - just as he wants that for all of humanity. But his way of dealing with systemic evil is by dealing with it on the cross as he made atonement for our sins. By letting evil do its worse to him, the son of God, broke it so that it is living now on borrowed time. And so, Jesus' death on the cross uncovers our deeper desires; just as the oppressed wanted victory over their oppressors but also received the answer that they had plenty that needed to be forgiven too, the cross confronts each of us as persons in need of as much forgiveness as the next and teaches us that it is our relationship as individual people to Jesus and his cross that is to be where we start from when it comes to our relationship with anyone. Here are some of Wright's thoughts in this regard:

"Uncovering our deeper desires... you may ask God to fix your loneliness problem and his answer is to go to work on you at a very deep level and make you wrestle with deep seated fears, frustrations, a lack of love for other lonely people, who knows what all....

You may pray for your annoying friend, spouse, boyfriend or girlfriend to change, --- you may be praying to God for him to fix this or that about them and God's first answer to the prayer is to begin prompting you to repent of your pride in relationship to that person... your inability to sympathize with the weaknesses they have being tied directly to your smug satisfaction with yourself....

Then there is the meaning that is tied closes to the context at hand.... Israel will not receive a victory over Rome... Jesus will offer a victory over the evil that it as at the core of Israel's oppression... the evil that it is always present in the hearts of human beings and builds structures of evil in families, organizations, and nations.... "

Questions for discussion:
1. Can you think of an occasion in your life when you wanted one thing but learned through that wanting that there was a deeper desire which God wanted you to deal with? If not, can you imagine an example (since you know yourself) which might be true at some point?

2.Does it help you to know that many who welcomed Jesus and celebrated his entry to Jerusalem also deserted or betrayed him? If so, how? What is the first word that comes to mind if you are reminded that Jesus' death on the cross was also intended for the eventual forgiveness of those who put him there?

3.Because God has revealed himself through the foolishness of the cross should we be careful about how much confidence we put in our own ability to solve our problems, etc.? If so, then is it also tempting to reduce complicated problems to simplistic Christians-speak and solutions that are so unrealistic as to be of no help? Here is a case study to apply this question to: one of your friends is a self-described liberal Democrat who argues that the best way to help poor people is by making government programs better funded and more efficient. Another of your friends self-describes as a Ronald Reagan Republican who thinks the best way to help poor people is through the private sector. Each is a Christian person including you. How might you encourage each of the people and yourself to check these thoughts in light of how God speaks to us through the cross?