Monday, June 29, 2009

Philippians - God Vindicates because of Jesus

This week we continued our study of Philippians (1:12-26). We met Paul again meditating upon his imprisonment. The last couple of weeks we lingered over his response to the news that there were those preaching the gospel from bad motives - some in such a way to attempt to try hurt him personally while he remained in prison. We noted that his response to this news went way beyond magnanimity. Surely, some of his response is because of a generous spirit but the real treasure trove lies in realizing that Paul had come to view the gospel as being more important than the messenger (see the last couple of recaps for more on this).

This week we find Paul building on this idea when he reflects on his imprisonment, realizing that regardless of the outcome - whether he is released or martyred - that it is his "eager expectation and hope" that he and the gospel will not be "put to shame". Indeed he says that he is confident that the outcome will "result in deliverance".

Interestingly, this passage is often read in very individualistic terms with a lot of pious observations of an almost sentimental nature ("oh, may it be that each of us is always longing to die and be with Christ for that is so much better, but if we must remain here let us work hard in ministry"). Well, there is a kernel of truth in the notion that each of us should cultivate a longing to be close to Christ whether here or beyond the veil but this is not what Paul is talking about here. He is talking about something that is 180 degrees in the opposite direction of that kind of individualistic focus on personal suffering. The meat of what Paul is saying here is that his hope lies in his situation being located in the bigger picture of what God is doing in the world. Here is why we know this is what he is up to.

1. The phrase "result in my deliverance" is a direct quote from Job 13:16 from the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagent). In this passage, Job is contesting the claims of his critical friends who have said to Job that his suffering must have been brought on by his sin. He responds to them in the presence of God by insisting that one day he will be delivered and that his life will be vindicated. In spite of all of the "evidence" to the contrary, Job stays the course and insists that God will vindicate his life one day (Job 13:18). Somehow, deep in his bones, Job knew better than to let others say that he is evil and deserving of punishment when he knows this is not true. Though not claiming to be perfect, Job claims in the narratives in the book bearing his name that he is faithful to God. Perhaps in Paul's quoting of this passage we find a clue to what his enemies were saying about him being in prison. Perhaps they were saying, you must have done something to end up being treated like this by God. Regardless, Paul, by turning this phrase with an inter-textual echo from Job at its heart, is saying that he is not worried about how he or the ministry of the gospel will be judged. God will always vindicate the righteous who suffer because God has promised to right all wrongs in the shalom of the world to come.

2. The phrase "eager expectation" is an example of Paul quoting himself from Romans 8:19. This Greek word, which some think Paul may have coined, is used only twice in the New Testament. It is translated "eager longing" in the NRSV and is translated, "eager expectation" in Philippians. Clearly, Paul sees his suffering as part of the big picture of God's cosmic plan of redemption in the world (see fuller context of Romans 8).

3. Because of his eager expectation of God's promised redemption he hopes (and I think we are to hear in this an eager and expectant hoping) that he will not be "put to shame". Again, Paul borrows language and categories from the Old Testament to invoke the big picture of God's redemptive promise for the world. Throughout the Psalms and Prophets the cry of the righteous is that the poor, the oppressed, and the powerless will result in God not letting them be "put to shame". Living on this side of the resurrection we know that God answers this cry because of what Christ has achieved in his life, death and resurrection from the dead. This brings us to our summary.

Paul is expressing confidence in the midst of his suffering in prison not by starting with himself and his circumstances but by understanding his plight against the larger backdrop of God's redemptive work in the world. He can find hope in the story of his life by locating the story of his suffering in the story of God's redemptive work in the world, replete with OT echos of redemptive hope to fill out the picture. This model of locating our suffering in the bigger picture of God's redemptive promise is surely the comfort that we are to turn to when all of the circumstances in our life point towards despair, the opposite direction of redemption and hope. When circumstances make it appear that God is against us or, when we are tempted to think that God does not exist, our hope lies in God's vindication of Jesus ( the fulfillment of Job's hope and the reason that all those who trusted in Yahweh would not be put to shame). For, in Jesus' life he shares our suffering, and in his death he shares our feelings of being abandoned by God. Moreover, his death appeared to be the end of hope, presenting circumstances that appeared to final and hopeless. Yet, Yet!, there is vindication in the resurrection. This is the gospel. We are invited to share in Christ's story, to locate the story of our lives in his story. We share in Christ's resurrection and are confident that we will not be put to shame because Jesus has not been put to shame!

Questions for discussion:

1. As discussed above, vindication for Paul could occur as a result of either dying a martyr's death or being found not-guilty and being returned to ministry. In your own words talk about what Paul thought vindication consisted in. How can this help you think about situations in your life where you feel that you are being unjustly accused of something? What should your goal be in the midst of that sort of suffering?

2. In the midst of your mundane, day to day life can you think of any examples or occasions when you lose sight of the big picture of what God is doing in the world and how it should inform the way you think of your life against that backdrop? What can bring you back to seeing your life in the context of God's big picture?

3. Do you have a hard time sensing that things will be OK when you are in the midst of adverse circumstances? Are you inclined to doubt God's existence in those moments, or, at least, his goodness? What sort of exercises can we do to build our trust in God for when times get very tough?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

the foolishness of the cross

Texts for the Homily and Worship Service
I Corinthians 1:10-17
I Corinthians 1: 18-24
Philippians 1:12-18

This week we continued our study of Paul's letter to the Philippians. Last week we talked a bit about how Paul could come to say what he did about those who were preaching the gospel from sinful motivations. Some apparently were preaching in such a way as to hurt him while he was in prison. To this scenario Paul responds (see text address above) What does it matter? If the gospel is preached that is what matters. See last week's recap for more on this passage. This week we turned to I Corinthians where we find Paul laying the theological foundation that enabled him to always recognize the importance of the gospel being preached regardless of the motives of the messenger. The Corinthians passage underlines that Paul's statement in Philippians - "What does it matter, as long as the gospel is preached" - goes way beyond magnanimity; what he is pointing to is that the gospel must be understood as transcending its messenger and when it is not understood in this way there may be trouble brewing.

In Corinthians Paul is speaking against a factionalism that had grown up in the church around human personalities. At least part of the reason for this factionalism had to do with a corruption of the gospel message in some quarters of the church. Some had apparently co-opted the message of the gospel into the category of human wisdom and philosophical inquiry. Paul speaks against making the gospel into a message of sophia, or Greek wisdom, consisting of eloquent rhetoric and thoughts about Christ and God based on human reason. He is saying that the gospel is supra-rational on the one hand and, on the other, does not depend on rhetorical eloquence in order to be preached or grasped.

There is much to be unpacked from this passage in Corinthians but here is what I would like us to think about.

* if we are experiencing the gospel in its power it is because we are meeting the gospel in our weakness, acknowledging our profound need for salvation

* there is a way to speak about and engage the gospel so as to rob the power of the message for oneself and others

* the gospel must be thought of as transcending its messengers and also transcending, in some sense, those theological summaries its messengers attach to it

We'll start with the third point. The gospel is the good news that Jesus has inaugurated his kingdom through his life, death, and resurrection. The blessing of the kingdom, including forgiveness of sins and newness of life, come by participating through faith in Jesus' life, death and resurrection; the image and words associated with baptism offer a useful summary: Romans 6: 3.... "Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life". Different theological traditions offer differing theological explanations, or theories, for how God forgives our sins and conquers evil in the death of Christ on the cross, how and when certain aspects of newness of life become a part of our being, and how much our wills contribute or don't contribute to our new life in Christ. When these summaries and theological explanations are regarded as equally important to the gospel itself one runs the risk of robbing the gospel of its power by turning it into a putty of ideas that must be shaped in accordance with one's understanding of systematic theology. The problem is that our understanding of theological truths is not the same as God's understanding of the truth; our fallen condition effects not only our behavior but our knowledge (sometimes referred to as the Noetic effect of sin). Our minds are fallen. Our theological reasoning is imperfect. Paul's argument about the message of the cross reminds us that God has invited us to partake spiritually, by faith, first and foremost in Jesus' life, death, and resurrection - not a theory or set of doctrines about how it all works. This is NOT to say that endeavors to do systematic theology are unimportant or superfluous but they play second fiddle to the gospel itself.

Now to the first two points. The cross of Christ is where God has dealt with the cosmic problems of evil and sin. Though human efforts to deal justly and mercifully with the effects of evil and sin are important and often commendable we must not confuse these efforts as holding the same sort of redemptive promise as the gospel of the cross of Christ. To confess that the problems in the world are ultimately irremediable but for the salvation that comes through the cross of Christ is as unpopular with the wisdom of the world today as it was in Paul's day. But this is the message of the cross. We meet its power of when we acknowledge that the line between good and evil runs through each and every human heart and that the only lasting hope lies in dying with Christ and being raised to newness of life.

Questions for discussion:

1.Read the Corinthian passages listed above. Why do you think they (and we) like to identify our faith with human personalities in a way that can produce factionalism and rob the gospel of its power. What's in it for us when we do that sort of thing?
2. Why is it important to acknowledge that our theological summaries of the gospel and our broader systematic theologies are imperfect and provisional?
3. Why is it a worthwhile effort to do the work of systematic theology anyway?
4. Does acknowledging that the line between good and evil runs through each of us challenge our thinking about how we ought to respond to evil when we see it at work in others (friends or enemies)?

Monday, June 15, 2009

more from Philippians

This week we returned to Paul's letter to the Philippians 1:12-18. We focused on Paul's attitude towards those who were preaching the gospel out of insincere motives. We cannot be sure who these people were and why on earth they would have wanted to bring Paul hurt, especially while he was in prison. Assuming a Roman imprisonment, some have suggested that these insincere preachers were from the church at Rome. Paul had, after all, unsettled a few apple carts because of the letter that he had written them. Much of the letter to the Romans focused on getting Jewish Christians to be sensitive to Gentiles and vice-versa. Showing charity, patience, and open-mindedness when it came to cultural customs and food laws were no little things and Paul probably made some people mad. Maybe those who were irritated with him were stepping up their preaching of the gospel and putting Paul down in the process since he could not readily defend himself. This theory is plausible but not provable. What we do know is how Paul responds.

Essentially Paul says of these people, "I am not going to worry about it. The gospel is being preached and that is more important to me". Wow, is the first word that comes to my mind. I don't know if I could have said that. I really might have been more inclined to say my Philippian friends, "hey, can't you do something to shut these people up!?" They are driving me crazy and the gospel should not be preached by people who are motivated in this way." This raises an interesting point. Is Paul some kind of super-Christian who can do things this way because of a hidden super-power? I fear that sometimes we approach statements like this one in the New Testament and push them into that super-Christian category which make them not something for us to do much with except admire the super-power and perhaps wish that maybe, just maybe, we will have the super-power one day. One way that people do this is by saying, "look, Paul is a minister and he is to be expected to say things like this - these are the sorts of things ministers say." I think this is the wrong approach.

A better approach understands that Paul's life, like our lives, was a life filled with struggles, temptations, suffering, confusion, joy, etc. His ability to write the words, "What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice", comes from a life where one learns slowly but surely that the gospel is more important than the things that we often place so much importance in. In other words, Paul was able to write such words of grace and truth for the same reason a married couple seeks reconciliation rather than truce or separation - because the gospel has taken hold of their lives and enabled them to see that forgiveness is what God desires; or, for the same reason why someone struggling with a recurring sin knows that the only and life come from the gospel. In other words, I find it more plausible to understand Paul's view of the preaching of his adversaries within the context of a life shaped by the gospel - the same kind of life you and I can live, where we find ourselves believing the gospel in spite of ourselves, sometimes when we have painted ourselves into a corner and have come to see that the gospel really is more important than the passions and beliefs we often place in front of it.

Questions for discussion:

1. Do you find yourself thinking of categories of Christians - really good Christians who are saints and then you and the rest of everyone? What is the difference between thinking in that way and simply acknowledging that (a) people are gifted differently from each other and that (b) each person is at a different point of maturity along the way?

2. How does Paul's emphasis on the gospel in this portion help you think about how you should regard Christians who, though they believe the gospel, espouse other theological views you regard as erroneous?

3. Paul, at some level, did not care too much about what people thought of him (in a good way). This passage at hand highlights that uniquely. Do you worry to much about what others think of you? Does this get in the way of your confidence in the gospel? Does this cause you problems in your relationships? How can the gospel help you grow to not care too much about what others think of you?

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

love and knowledge

We continued this week in our reflections on Paul's letter to the Philippians. We focused on his prayer for this young church, particularly on this portion of it: "And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best." We noted that God's word reveals that there is a dynamic interplay between love and knowledge. Knowledge needs love in order to be full, robust and play its role in offering us guidance in living. Love, of course, is not just any old love but the love at work in a Christian community - the love the Holy Spirit brings to us through one another (Romans 5 - the love of God is shed abroad in us). This is the love that God has revealed in the the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. This interplay between love and knowledge is said here to give insight, moral wisdom, which will help us make good decisions about what we do and how we live. We can't really talk about this, though, without butting our heads up against the question that so many well meaning Christian people always want to ask of these verses and other like them: "How can I know God's will for my life?".

I love Tod Bolsinger's comments on this from his blog:"when most of us talk about God’s will, we couldn’t be further from the truth. Most of us think of God’s will as a clear, step by step blueprint or map for living. That God has every detail of our lives completely and utterly mapped out and that our job is to find out what that will is and live accordingly. We think of life like as an Amtrak training heading from “this world to heaven” And that God is the conductor of the train and our job is make sure that whenever we have to change trains or make a decision that we are on the right train so that we never get off track. Getting on the wrong train or making a decision outside of God’s perfectly mapped out will is a tragedy, leading to missing what God wants for us. So then, we spend a lot of time fussing over the perfect decision. If God has every part of my life mapped out like a cross-country train track then there must be one perfect will of God for which school I attend, which person I marry, which job I take, how many children I have, when I retire and so forth, right? I mean if we miss the will of God in these decisions we are doomed, right? We might eventually make it to have eternal life with God, but we won’t experience the blessing of living God’s will here and now, right? Wrong. There is absolutely no place in the Bible where we are told that God’s will is about figuring out every single detail in your life according to some master plan. Indeed, there isn’t one master plan. Not one place in the Bible are we told to discern the will of God as we make decisions in our lives.In fact, the Bible says that God’s will for us is really just one thing and is the same for all of us: To make us more like God. To change our lives so that we are in every way like Christ. This is what it says in 1 Thessalonians 4:3: For this is the will of God, your sanctification… or as it says in another translation, “God’s will is for you to be holy…” You see God’s will is that we would be changed, transformed, become more like him. And when we make decisions in life, when we pray for God to be at work in our lives, God’s concern is that we would be transformed people, sanctified people, holy people. God’s will is not in the details of the journey but in the end point, the goal.

Some of you are going to be troubled by this. What? Some of us say. You mean there ISN’T God’s perfect will about which school I attend, which church I join, which career I enter? There isn’t one perfect person to marry, one perfect will to live as a Christian following Jesus? Doesn’t God love me and have a wonderful plan for my life? Yes. That plan is that you would become like Jesus in every way. That your life would reveal God's saving work to the world in every aspect. That you would become sanctified. (Romans 8:29, 1 Thes 4:3)."

Great we may say. That sounds weighty and freeing all at the same time but what does it look like to live that way? Here are a few suggestions:

* That your life would reveal God's saving work to the world in every aspect can be an intimidating prospect and invites those with perfectionist tendencies to abandon ship or become terribly self-righteous in their desire to look "right". It is important to remember that revealing God's saving work is by believing the gospel in obvious and observable ways in our failures and our successes.
* In evaluating decisions, especially complicated ones, we must remember that love and knowledge must work together. For example, a parent who has shown little love and grace to a child over her formative years will want to think very circumspectly about what discipline means when the child acts out in her teenage years with drugs and alcohol. Or, in a marriage relationship, if one spouse imagines that all of the problems of the marriage lie with their partner it is usually the case that the "innocent" spouse is not allowing knowledge to be shaped by love. Or, in the case of some who are single: the constant complaint that "no one will be my friend" often betrays a character trait of selfishness wherein one demands to be befriended without wishing to be a friend - here again, one's knowledge in evaluating a circumstance is not shaped by love.

To elaborate on Bolsinger's quote above we might say that God's main purpose for our lives is that we become better at reflecting the love of Christ to others as we come to a deeper understanding of Gods' character as revealed in Jesus' life, death and resurrection.

I had the privilege of interviewing Rick Bayless at Frontera Grill a few years back. He spoke enthusiastically about the longevity of the average tenure of their employees. He said something to this effect: Profitability is important; you can't keep things going unless you are in the black. But we also measure success by whether this is a place where people can flourish for, if they wish, their whole work-life. If we are not sustainable in that way, we are not profitable (please note, this is my paraphrase of Bayless from memory - if you want a PDF of the article email me and I will dig it up). Back to the point: I know, all of my finance, business and econ friends are either shouting Yeah! or Nay! right now but the point is this: Bayless' way of thinking through decisions offers us a stimulating example of how life's decisions should be approached from multiple angles; for the Christian, life's decisions must be informed by the dynamic interplay of knowledge and love.

Questions for discussion:

1. It was suggested in the homily that our approach to decision making is often so wrong-headed that we don't even ask the right questions, much less find the right answers. What is an example from your life or a general example of not asking the right questions?

2. If you obsess over finding God's perfect will in every decision you make (see Bolsinger above) how might this approach impact negatively on your community of friends and loved ones?