Tuesday, August 25, 2009

God is at work in our midst

We meet in this passage from Philippians an awesome truth: God is at work in the midst of Christ's church. "... work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure." We sometimes miss the significance of the "God is at work in you" part of this verse because we get caught up in trying to figure out what Paul means by "work out your salvation". When we finally get around to thinking about what he means by "God is at work in you" we consider its meaning in a limited way, regarding it as Paul's way of clarifying his remarks about our need to work out our salvation. We imagine Paul turning the phrase, "work out your own salvation" and immediately thinking to himself, "I need to make sure that they don't think I am saying that their "working out of their salvation" contributes to their salvation so I need to remind them that it is God who is really the one who is at work. Thinking about these verses in this hyper-individualistic framework tells us more about our concerns than it does about Paul's. Paul is not here concerned about the doctrine of salvation by grace alone and through faith alone (though, we think he teaches this in the whole of his theology). Here he is concerned with the Christian community in the form of the local church (the pronouns are plural and the overall context of this passage suggests his remarks are about the life of the community). Specifically, he is concerned that the Philippian Christians grow in their knowledge that God's work in their midst calls forth from them a certain kind of life, a life of working out their salvation, together, in community. Before we think about what shape this working out of salvation is to take we do well to pause and consider the importance of Paul's modifying phrase, "with fear and trembling".

The words, fear and trembling, are deliberately evocative of the Old Testament language used to describe the response of God's people when he revealed himself to them in his glory and majesty. These self-revelations were always awe inspiring, and often marked by the language of fear and trembling. In Philippians Paul wants these young Christians to be similarly moved, awe-struck, and humbled by God's work in their midst. This posture of fear and trembling which we are to adopt is foundational, giving shape to the working out of our salvation. So, it is well worth asking the question, "do we have a proper understanding of what it means to respond to God in fear and trembling?". Annie Dillard, a wonderful contemporary author, thinks that too often we do not. She writes: “On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.” -Annie Dillard in Teaching a Stone to Talk

I suspect that Annie Dillard may have had in mind a certain kind of church, staid and self-satisfied with their rote liturgy. I doubt that is our problem in the Grace Chicago community. But, I imagine we have our own issues which make us not "sensible to conditions". I wonder, for instance, if many of us have become so accustomed to wearing the fashionable clothes of self-congratulatory cynicism that we have lost the ability to be awe-struck by the promises of the almighty God to be at work in our midst. Perhaps this, in turn, has led many of us to have a narcissistic desire that demands for our God to be as cool, fashionable and accepting as we are before we could ever conceive of being awe-struck by his work in our midst. On the other hand, many of us (including me), at one time or another, have developed self-protective callouses that refuse to meet God because we have permanently registered ourselves in the victims hall of fame; we will allow for God to be awesomely at work in our midst when he does a penance to us for the bad things that have happened to us on his watch. Regardless of what circumstances keep us from having the appropriate response to God's work in our midst we need to sort them out and ask God to create in us a proper response to his holiness in our midst. What would a proper response look like?

Too often Christians imagine the appropriate mode of fear and trembling before God to be cowering in the corner, wallowing in shame, guilt and inadequacy, hoping against hope that one day we might measure up to God's holiness. This condition is just as bad as those of either the cool cynic or proud victim mentioned above because it does not take into account God's all enveloping love of his children. The Christian who thinks fear and trembling means being terrified of God's wrath has not come to understand the gospel as fully as she should.

C.S. Lewis in his Narnia series gives us great images (perhaps the best ones we have in contemporary literature) of what it looks like to be in "fear and trembling" before God. More than once Aslan is presented to the children as being wild, absolutely good but not safe. Mr. and Mrs. Beaver's conversation with Susan and Lucy is a great example:

"Ooh!" said Susan, "I'd thought he was a man. Is he--quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion."

"That you will, deary, and no mistake," said Mrs. Beaver, "if there's anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they're either braver than most or else silly."

"Then he isn't safe?" said Lucy.

"Safe?" said Mr. Beaver. "Don't you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you."

And later in the Lion, Witch and Wardrobe we hear Mr. Beaver remark: "He'll often drop in. Only you mustn't press him. He's wild, you know. Not like a tame lion."

In another place in Lewis' Narnia series we meet the little girl, Jill, who meets Aslan on her way to get a drink of water from a gurgling stream. Here is that exchange:

“Are you not thirsty?” said the Lion.
“I'm dying of thirst,” said Jill.
“Then drink,” said the Lion.
“May I - could I - would you mind going away while I do?” said Jill.
The Lion answered this only by a look and a very low growl. And as Jill gazed at its motionless bulk, she realized that she might as well have asked the whole mountain to move aside for her convenience.
The delicious rippling noise of the stream was driving her nearly frantic.
“Will you promise not to - do anything to me, if I do come?” said Jill.
“I make no promise,” said the Lion.
Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she had come a step nearer.
“Do you eat girls?” she said.
“I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms,” said the Lion. It didn't say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it.
"I daren't come and drink," said Jill.
"Then you will die of thirst," said the Lion.
"Oh dear!" said Jill, coming another step nearer. "I suppose I must go and look for another stream
"There is no other stream," said the Lion.

An appropriate response to God at work in our midst begins with a sobering realization that we must come to ourselves through God; there is no other way than to be naked before him. This means, among other things, that we must learn to do things God's way - to come to take ourselves and our place in Christian community more seriously than we are apt to without this realization. Community is the context in which God works on us. So, we are to take ourselves seriously not because we as individuals are so very important; it is quite the opposite. We are to take ourselves seriously because God's work in the world is so very awesome and important and he concentrates this work intensely in the midst of Christian community. There we are reminded that a proper realization of God's work in our midst should make us realize that what God intends to do in us and through us is more important than what any single one of us could ever want for ourselves, our families or the world. Taking God's work seriously in the context of Christian community teaches us that we do not come to ourselves by asserting our own plans and agendas, even if those plans are to do great things for God. Many a person has undertaken to do great things for God at the expense of the gospel, humility, loving one's neighbor, working for the common good, and at the expense of desiring to love and forgive one's enemies. Positively, taking God's work seriously in the context of Christian community teaches us that the way to growth for us is to live in and through the self-giving love of Christ which Paul calls us to in the poem immediately preceding the two verses we are looking at here. In Christian community God works in us as we come to ourselves through each others' witness to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. On the way to ourselves, our fears, our sins, our deceit, and our pride we meet our sister or brother struggling in the same way but in the struggle bearing witness to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus through faith and repentance. This is what we owe each other in Christian community. To work out our own salvation in fear and trembling is a serious response to God's work in our midst which may very well "draw us out to where we can never return". But to work out our salvation is to do so in the context of unfathomable love, grace and patience before the one who is not safe but who is goodness itself.

Questions for discussion:

1. What does being before God in fear and trembling look like for you? Would you have answered this question differently at another time in your life?

2. Can you think of an occasion when you thought you would do great work for God but violated the gospel in the process? OK maybe that is too personal of a question to hope for an answer in community group so can you think of some examples of what that might look like hypothetically?

3. When you think of your responsibility to live faithfully (not perfectly but faithfully) within Christian community is it a responsibility that you think you regard with appropriate seriousness?

4. Have you ever thought that simply by grounding yourself more deeply in a healthy Christian community that you might be helped more individually in your relationship with God than you could have ever experienced by remaining at the margins? Would you have answered this question differently at another time in your life?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

when obedience is an expression of God's love

This week we returned to our study of Philippians. We began what will be at least a two part meditation on verses 12 and 13 of chapter 2. This little portion begins with Paul's call to the Philippians to continue in their obedience whether he is present or absent. Many of us have negative feelings that immediately boil up when we hear the word, "obey" - especially when someone is telling us to do obey. Many have good reasons for these negative feelings. Many have suffered from the abuse of authoritarian figures who demanded, in God's name, our obedience to their demands - in many cases this sort of abuse was perpetrated by a family member. Perhaps less harmful, but disturbing and destructive nonetheless, are the cases where leaders in the church castigate those in their charge, debasing the person in the process. However, Jesus does call us to certain sort of obedience so we need to come to terms with what this obedience looks like.

New Testament scholar, Gordon Fee, comments that in his appeal for continued obedience that Paul is echoing his words from earlier in the letter (1:27 vv.), where he urges the Philippians to live their life in a manner worth of the gospel: "But that automatically means obedience to Christ, the only kind of obedience to his own words that Paul could care anything about. In his view faith in Christ is ultimately expressed as obedience to Christ, not in the sense of following the rules but of being devoted completely to him. This appeal, after all, closely follows the twofold reminder of Christ's own obedience (2:1-11) that led to the cross and of his present status as Lord of all (Fee)."

Let's now unpack what Fee is saying and implying as we ponder what obedience to Christ is about and how it should feel to us. Here we get some help from Jesus' words to his disciples in John 15:9-11:

"As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete."

In this passage we have a theological backdrop for Paul's line of thinking about obedience in Philippians 2, and, in both passages (John and Philippians) we are invited to contemplate our obedience in light of Jesus' obedience.

We usually think of obedience as a conforming of our will to what is morally right. This way of thinking is not without merit but it proves ultimately to be an inadequate and incomplete conceptual framework in which to think about Christian obedience to God through the gospel. A more helpful framework is suggested by our passages at hand. In these passages we see Jesus, the God-man, our new humanity, keeping a command because of love, but even more importantly we meet a commandment that is unlike the commandments with which we are familiar. The commandment Jesus keeps (John 15) by not regarding equality with God as something to be exploited (Philippians 2) is a commandment which is formed from divine love, shaped by divine love, and an expression of divine love. This is the love into which we are invited to abide.

So, when Paul calls the Philippians (and us) to obedience he is calling us to obey the gospel - to confess to God through Christ that our lives and wills are broken and that in order for us to love him, neighbor, and ourselves we must be transformed from within by and through his loving and empowering presence. In thinking of obedience in this framework we are invited to understand our brokenness and sin as symptomatic of a lack of God's love. As people of the new covenant, eternally forgiven, we come to understand that at the center of our spiritual formation must be a tenacious and courageous repentance of our lack of love, coupled with a daily asking for more of God's love. Rather than conceiving of our problems within the framework of a need to conform our will to what is morally right - we are challenged to think of our lives as incomplete until we find fullness in Christ by being saturated in the self-giving love shared between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As Christians we are called to see our lives as moving more and more towards the day when our obedience, like that of Jesus, will be itself an expression of divine love.

Case Studies for Discussion Questions:

1. Someone finds their job a great place to escape from their family. Round this character out in your head and imagine some areas in which this person has not experienced God's love as she needs to. Offer examples. How should this "character" you have imagined repent and for what should she repent?

2. Someone is a poor steward of the gifts God has given him. He is sometimes thought of as lazy but really he is just addicted to self-sabotage. Imagine this character in your head and think of some ways he needs to experience God's love. What should he repent of?

3. Imagine someone who is either addicted to sex or to the approval of others. How does God's love need to be experienced by this person? What does he or she need to repent of and what sort of prayer should they pray when they ask for God's love to be poured out on them?