Tuesday, September 29, 2009

God's Promises vs. Empty Promises

When we meet Paul's language about circumcision in his other letters and in chapter 3 of Philippians we know that we are encountering an issue that was very hot for Paul. In his letter to the church at Galatia it was almost the only thing he talked about. This is because in the teaching of those who tried to persuade the church that Gentile Christians must convert to the Mosaic law in order to be true believers Paul saw a great danger to the gospel. In Paul's world, circumcision and the keeping of Torah were not symbolic of a humble people following Yahweh in faith and repentance, awaiting an opportunity to share God's love with the Gentiles and the whole world. Instead, circumcision and Torah-keeping were outward signs which symbolized (1) the point of view that God was more interested in rule keeping and ritual than he was the condition of one's heart and (2) an attitude of spiritual pride based on ethnic superiority. This had been Paul's life until he had come to understand that Christ's revelation of God on the cross was the true circumcision of the heart that the old fleshly symbol of circumcision had only pointed to. This is why Paul can refer to himself and the Philippian Christians as "the circumcision" (3:3) and the false teachers as "dogs" (3:2). Those who belong to Christ in faith and repentance are those who have the circumcision of the heart. Those who would argue for the circumcision of Gentile Christians are referred to not as those who want to circumcise but as those who want to mutilate (3:2); and he drills home the seriousness of his position with another bit of word play, accusing these mutilators of being "dogs" (ironically, the term many of the Jews of Paul's day used disparagingly of Gentiles).

Does Paul's rhetoric here suggest that he who often admonished to love one's enemies is guilty of not practicing what he preached? I would suggest the answer to this is mainly no. First of all, we can't tell from what he says in this letter all of what he was wrestling with in his heart. If he is like most of us, and there is no reason to think that he wasn't, he probably had flashes of rage at his enemies which he then had to deal with before the Lord of grace and mercy. But we must remember that Paul had been dogged by these "Judaizing" teachers since he began his work of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles. If his words sound confrontational and angry it is because they are. But his stern frustration is directed primarily towards the position of the teachers which he sees as a contradiction to the truth about what God has done in the death of Jesus on the cross. A concern that the gospel be rightly taught and rightly believed should register deep emotional responses from all of us.

Now, let's turn to some application. It is helpful for us to remember that Paul's rationale for evaluating what opposed the gospel is as important as the conclusions he drew from it. In short, Paul understood that Jesus' death on the cross meant that to look for God other than on the cross is futile. In the Christ poem of Philippians 2, the pagan approach is shown to be futile and the exact opposite of Christ's self-giving love. The quasi-divine Caeasar was given the most honor in the Roman scheme, while slaves and those crucified on the cross were at the bottom of the heap. Similarly, to look for God in Torah-keeping was futile because that rules-based scheme did not look for God's love and acceptance at the cross. Ultimately, to deceive oneself into thinking that one has found God anywhere other than in the self-giving love of Jesus on the cross is a sure-fire way to believe in empty promises which separate one from the love of Jesus.

On the other hand, the power of the gospel enables us to see the world more and more as God sees the world. When we see the world through the self-giving love of Jesus on the cross we are given the wisdom and power to break with the empty promises made to us by self-absorbed love. Since none of us have been asked to keep Torah lately or worship the emperor, let's think of some examples more common to us of the empty promises of self-absorbed love.

1. The empty promise that I will be better off by regarding myself as better than others in order to justify my lack of love for them.
2. The empty promise that it is better to control my inner life by my habits of self-loathing even when it means that to do so is to shut myself off from God's love and the mutual love of others.
3. The empty promise of measuring your own worth and the worth of others by their material success instead of seeing each person as uniquely valuable to God.
4. The empty promise of worshiping sex rather than seeing as it as a gift to be adorned with and nurtured by mutual promises of fidelity and a love that surrounds and protects.

Each of the above examples require a lot of self-deception on our part: a great deal of confusion about where to find God and his love. But this is what life is like when we look for God's love apart from the cross of Christ - we meet ourselves as a twisted caricature, turned inward and mangled like narcissistic origami, crying from a lack of true love. The magnificent beauty of the cross of Christ is that at the cross the exploitative power that comes from self-absorbed love is defeated by the power of Christ's self-giving love. So, through the cross of Christ we are helped to see our self-deception for what it is and, in repentance, find our self-absorption, over time, transformed into Jesus' love. It is not for spiritual pride that Christ died on the cross; it is not for the exclusion of those we regard as our enemies that he died on the cross; it is not so that we may remain locked in our self-absorbed prisons that he died on the cross. He died on the cross to create a new community, a new humanity where human beings flourish based upon the consistent manifestation of self-giving love, given, received, given again, received again..... repeat.

Questions for discussion:

1. Do you resort to rule-keeping to measure how well you experience and understand God's love for you? Give an example that is suitable for the group. Why is it so tempting to reduce our relationship to God to rules. Does your rule keeping extend to your evaluation of others? If so, how so?

2. If self-deception is easier to come by than we would care to admit, how can we get free of it? What helps us focus on the gospel and take us away from self-deception? Does community play a role in this? If so, how?

3. It is through his self-giving love that God accomplishes the atonement of our sins and the redemption of this fallen world and there is a strong suggestion in the Christ-poem of chapter two in Philippians that Christ's self-giving love at work in us is the means to our transformation. If participation in Christ's self-giving is foundational to our relationship with ourselves, God, and others, how does it help us when we are in the throes of temptation to sin?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Circumcision? Come on, what's the big deal?

What's the big deal about circumcision? Well, here is some context that we will need to have in the back of our minds as we consider the overall thrust of Paul's discussion which we will take up below. From the beginning of Paul's ministry of church planting he was followed by a faction of Jewish "Christians" who insisted that Gentile converts be circumcised in order to be true followers of God; we also think they required adherence to the Old Testament ceremonial law in other ways. Paul regarded such teaching as poisonous because it took the focus off of Christ and Christ crucified. Circumcision was regarded by pre-Christian Paul as an ethnic and religious boundary marker, separating the pure lineage of Israel from the dirty Gentiles. This boundary marker is removed by the gospel and so it has no place in the Christian church. Now, on to the rest of the recap.

We have been working our way through Philippians and finding it relatively easy to get into Paul's thought world about the concerns he has for the flock in Philippi. He is in prison, likely in Rome, and wants to encourage this young church he planted not to lose heart on account of his suffering. In talking about his own suffering he sets the stage for the remarks he makes about what he anticipates to be their imminent suffering under Roman persecution. They are to take heart for the same reason he does. The gospel will not fail because it is God's work; the resurrection vindicated Christ's suffering and the suffering of Christians will be vindicated in the end because suffering in this fallen world never has the last word. The resurrection has the last word. This theme leads us straight into the poem about Jesus in chapter two and the revelation of the character of God in him. Rather than regarding equality with God as something to be exploited he humbled himself and gave himself away to the point of death. Here we meet suffering again. It is not that Jesus is willing to suffer for a while to be exalted - the way this passage is so often interpreted; it is rather the case that Jesus reveals true exaltation as consisting in giving rather than taking, even when it means death on a Roman cross. As someone has said, God is not the God of power and weakness, God is the God who reveals his power in weakness. This poem is also a direct confrontation to Rome and the way Rome looked at power. At the top of the heap in the Roman world was the Emperor, who presented himself as quasi-divine. At the bottom of the heap was anyone who dies on a Roman cross. The Caesar cult in Philippi would have celebrated this view of power by inscribing the words, "Caesar: savior and lord", on public facades and shouting them in the mantra of cultic worship. This rich poem about Christ and what he reveals about God serves as a reminder to the Philippians to seek their identity not in the power of the world but in the power of the crucified Christ who is the true savior and lord. It is this theme of power found in humility that carries over into the discussion about circumcision and gives us the context for for those remarks. There are several clues that point to this:

Paul traces the pattern of Jesus' refusal to exploit his power when he recounts his setting aside of his proud ethnic heritage ("whatever gains I have I count as loss") in order to become a Christian. Also, he echos the great theme of the Christ poem from chapter two when he says that knowing Jesus is to know him through cruciformity. (For our purposes let's define cruciformity this way: to have one's life shaped by the cross of Christ; finding one's identity and one's hope in the resurrection only through participation in Christ's suffering.)

The pattern of setting aside that which might be exploited and finding power in the crucified Lord is the pattern that is traced in the whole discussion about circumcision if we understand what circumcision really stood for in this context. Circumcision was the badge of honor that stood for favor with God. It had become in Jesus' time - and even before - an emblem of ethnic pride. Rather than a cruciform messiah who preached love of enemies, did love his enemies, and spoke the good news to Gentiles, many of Jesus' Jewish contemporaries wanted an ass-kicking Jesus to vanquish Rome in a bloody revolution. This is what being God's people meant to many of God's people and because Jesus subverted this approach he was seen as an enemy of God. It was this kind of Judaism that pre-Christian Paul had practiced and that led him to persecute the church murderously. This approach to knowing God he came to see as something to be set aside: Philippians 3:7 - "Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8,More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ". Paul set aside that which he used to think of as true and Godly power, his proud ethnic heritage with circumcision as its emblem, and declared that what he really wants is to know Christ by sharing in his cruciform life: 3:10, I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death".

Paul knew that the world's version of power that is always the enemy of the gospel could come to the church in a Roman version or through those who taught circumcision as necessary for true knowledge of God: either is dangerous and both he opposes.

Questions for discussion:

1. Though we are not being asked to be circumcised or to follow the Jewish ceremonial law in order to truly know God, what sorts of approaches to God might tempt us to turn from the cruciform Messiah and trust in human wisdom rather than in the wisdom of the cross?

2. Read this question (2) in total before you reflect on it.
Circumcision in the context in which we have been discussing it equaled ethnic and cultural pride. Do you think that we purposely or unwittingly claim Jesus in our own cultural and/or ethnic image? It is easy to see this sin in others (e.g. Serbian Christians who are wiling to kill Croatians in the name of ethnic pride) but when does it happen with people like you and me?

3. What sort of danger signs do you recognize in yourself that signal to you that you are about to pivot towards the world's vision of power and away from Christ crucified. How can you bring these demons to the surface and deal with them?

4. Is a desire to forgive one's enemies a measure of how much you take your identity from your participation in Christ's cruciform life? Why or why not?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

praying to become those who genuinely care for the welfare of others

Here is this recap for this week. Excuse the typos... I don't carefully edit this. Feel free to point out typos in your comments though (smile).

If you have been following these recaps you will know that we are lumbering through Paul's letter to the church in Philippi . As we move through the second chapter we have been noting that much of what Paul says by way of encouragement and challenge does not make sense unless it is heard, absorbed and applied within the context of Christian community. We noted last week that human relationships forged in Christian community are key to our individual growth in our experience of God's transforming love and grace. Paul brings this understanding of community to life quite vividly and tangibly by offering Timothy and Epaphroditus as examples of two people who live their lives into the lives of others for the sake of the gospel. (Here it would be best to just read the whole of chapter 2 of Philippians).

Earlier in chapter two Paul had challenged the church to have as its mind the same mind that was in Christ Jesus. What would this look like in the church community? What do a group of people look like who are slowly but surely, imperfectly but steadily, becoming more and more controlled by Jesus self-giving love. One descriptor he uses as he introduces the poem of Jesus' self-giving love is that we ought not look to our own interests but to the interests of others since we are, in humility, to regard others as better than ourselves. Certainly what Paul does not mean in this is that we are never to look after our own affairs or well being - if we were to live that way we would have no self to give and nothing to share. No, and at the risk of redundancy, what Paul has in mind is that our whole beings would be taken over by Christ's self-giving love as the Holy Spirit grows his love in us. As this happens, we will naturally reflect Jesus' concern for others in our thoughts and actions.

Now, let's come back to Timothy and Epaphroditus. Paul devotes a great many words to these two who are already known to the church and he crafts his language carefully in order to echo what has already come before. Note well: Timothy is coming to them precisely because he has looked to the interests of Jesus and not to his own (hear the echo from earlier in the chapter?) and Epaphroditus is obviously included in this category of person because of the way Paul talks of his great sacrifices for the gospel. Paul wants the Philippians and us to see in Epaphroditus and Timothy as walking, talking, flesh and blood examples of the sort of people we are to become. We should pray that God makes us into people who can be commended to others as those who will be "genuinely concerned for welfare (2:20)".

New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, in his popular commentary, Paul For Everyone: The Prison Epistles, points out that we often have a long list of things we are looking for in a minister that come before the simple description of Timothy offered here, as one who will genuinely care for the welfare of the Philippians. Surely we must want our pastors to be those who handle scripture responsibly, lead worship sincerely, safe-guard the orthodoxy passed on to us, etc. and we see much of this discussed in Paul's' Pastoral Epistles. But if he or she does not genuinely care for the welfare of the God's people the rest does not much matter. Now, let's turn to the question of what it looks like to genuinely care for the welfare of others (this is a trait all Christians should want to be characteristic of them).

I mentioned in the homily that I used to run screaming whenever anyone in the church declared themselves to genuinely care for my welfare - all I could imagine is the busy-body approach to discipleship that is built on a model of Christians who regard themselves as better than other Christians helping the Christians who are not their equal to become better. Yuk. Thankfully, Paul paints a different picture of what genuinely caring for the welfare of others may be like. Our first clue is in the first part of chapter two where we are encouraged to not think of ourselves as better than others but in fact to think of others as better than us. This sort of humility is muted, absent or converts to spiritual pride when Christians set out to pull others "up to their level". To genuinely care for the welfare of others begins with a sincere concern to connect others to the redeeming and renewing love of God found in the gospel by revealing our weakness to them (of course within appropriate and respectful boundaries). Our connection point with others is on the ground we share in our mutual brokenness acknowledged as such. Spiritual maturity that leads, so to speak, is a vulnerable leading that points first and last to the solidarity we share as people who sin and are all-together in need of God's forgiveness. The atonement, of course, is the perfect model for this - God makes solidarity with us before he does anything else: while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

Questions for discussion:

1. Give an example of how you can bring the gospel to someone else in a way that genuinely cares for them and their welfare in a way that makes them feel your solidarity with them. Give an example of how you can bring the gospel to someone in a way that makes them feel inferior to you or someone else in the church.

2. Why are boundaries important when you are being vulnerable?

3. What happens to us when we think of ourselves as better than others?

4. Is it possible to confront someone while maintaining an attitude of not thinking of yourself as better than them? Is it possible to confront someone and do so in self-giving, self-sacrificial love? What does this look? What does it not look like?

Bonus Question: What Greek god or goddess is Epaphroditus named for?

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

bright lights shining

Philippians 2:14 Do all things without murmuring and arguing, 15so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world. 16It is by your holding fast to the word of life that I can boast on the day of Christ that I did not run in vain or labour in vain. 17But even if I am being poured out as a libation over the sacrifice and the offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you— 18and in the same way you also must be glad and rejoice with me.

Given the overall pastoral concerns that Paul has for this young church, especially his desire that they be unified and reconciled to one another, it is not surprising that we would encounter the exhortation "to do all things without murmuring and arguing". The phrase uses a word that echos Old Testament language, referring to the period of Israel's life when they grumbled and murmured in in the desert (Paul also uses the same word in 1 Corinthians 10:10, invoking the same period of Israel's life, as a sober warning to the Corinthians to take stock of their need for renewed faith and repentance).

Paul often, in shorthand fashion, retells Israel's story in order to help the church understand her mission as a continuation of Israel's vocational calling, to be a light to the world. However, each time he does so he retells the story so as to make a particular point within a specific context. In the context of his overall concerns in his letter to the Philippians it is likely that Paul was concerned about what impact persecution and suffering would have on the community with regard to their relationships with each other. The pressures that come with suffering in general, and persecution in particular, often tempt those who are in pain to be suspicious towards everyone - even their friends, to allow cynicism to replace faith, and to doubt God's promises and goodness. Israel, even right on the heals of the Exodus, doubted God's gracious promises and wished to return to slavery in Egypt because at least in Egypt they knew what they would eat and where they would live. Paul anticipates this temptation to come upon this community and wishes to head it off by reminding the Philippians of the great promises of God in the gospel, promises for now and the world to come that have been ratified in this broken world through Jesus' resurrection from the dead. To drill this point home he evokes the Israel story again when he calls the Philippians bright lights shining in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation.

Interestingly, "the crooked and perverse generation" language was originally applied to Israel in Deuteronomy 32 but the Philippians are referred to instead as bright lights and not a crooked and perverse generation. This kind of retelling of Israel's story prompted the theologian Karl Barth to refer to it as something like a triumphant parody of the Deuteronomy narrative. New Testament scholar Frank Thielman puts it this way: "Pauls' language seems to be formulated to signal the Philippians' status as the newly constituted people of God, who unlike Israel of old unblemished and who rather than constituting a crooked and perverse generation, stand in contrast to it (From Story of Israel, ed. Marvin Pate)." In the gospel God has brought his promises of redemption to a climax in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, who has succeeded where Israel (and you and I) have failed; any crookedness and perversity that remains in the world remains because it has not yet been conquered by the gospel. So, in the end Paul's pastoral concerns for the interior life of the Philippian church community prompt him to remind them of their mission to demonstrate the gospel in word and deed even to those who may become their persecutors, for in so doing they will, in turn, experience God's grace and love themselves.
Questions for discussion:

1. Why is it so tempting to run from the freedom of the gospel back into slavery?

2. What, in Paul's retelling of Israel's story, is particular encouraging to you?

3. If the gospel is always triumphant why do we need to be encouraged to keep on track? Does the passage about "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling knowing that it is God at work in you" help you answer this question?

4. How does being reminded of our mission to be bright lights in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation help us keep focused on the gospel? Do you think Paul calls those outside of the Christian community a crooked and perverse generation in order to make the Philippian Christians feel superior to those outside of the church? Why does their attitude to outsiders matter - what difference does this make?