Tuesday, February 23, 2010

more holiness as human flourishing

For this week's homily we continued in the same passage from 1 Peter that we looked at together from last week (1:13-25). Before I recap some of what we said about that I want to talk a bit about the remarks we considered leading into communion.

This Sunday was the first Sunday of Lent so we took up a typical Lenten passage (Jesus' temptation in the wilderness, Matthew 4:1-11). When Jesus enters the wilderness to be tempted by the devil for 40 days the image of Israel wandering in the wilderness for 40 years is clearly in view. The message is clear: Jesus enters into the sufferings of God's people through subjecting himself to the brutality of profound temptation, but Jesus succeeds where Adam and Eve, Israel, and we have failed. He does not give into the temptation to put his own agenda ahead of God's will for him. In this act of solidarity with God's people Jesus prefigures what will later be said of him in the Epistle to the Hebrews: 4:14-16 "Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need."

Jesus' role as the one who died for our sins is usually the first thing that comes to mind when many of us think about his role as our mediator. But we need to remember that his priestly role in our life also characterized by his patience and sympathy towards us. He cares about our pain, our suffering, and the hardness of our struggles with temptation and brokenness. It is important for each of us to remember this as a cornerstone of our theology of spiritual formation: "no matter what don't think that God don't love you because he does", as one person has put it!

Jesus' suffering with us also tells us that God has chosen to incorporate mysteriously the experience of human suffering and brokenness into himself. The scope of what that accomplishes is beyond our ability to comprehend, due to the limits of our human capacity to understand the mind of God; but it does speak mightily of God's love for us and of his concern for this broken world.

During the homily we came back to some thoughts about holiness. I am indebted to Aaron Kuecker, a member of our Grace community who teaches New Testament at Trinity Christian College, for some of what follows (he wrote an excellent paper on 1 Peter recently). In the section of 1 Peter we are reflecting upon, Peter quotes from Leviticus in his exhortation to his people to be holy: "You shall be holy, for I am holy". This tantalizing citation from the Old Testament gives meaning to Peter's overall discussion of holiness, even as its meaning is made more clear by Peter's gospel saturated remarks on holiness. Peter affirms the heart of the OT's teaching on holiness, recognizing that God's presence among and calling of his people meant that they were holy, set apart from the world, unique, and different. Building on that affirmation, Peter says: "do not be conformed to the desires you once formerly had in ignorance"... and reminds his people that "you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors". So far so good, but the questions remain, conformed to what; and ransomed for what purpose? The answer to these questions can be too ethereal to be of practical help if we just say something like this: we are to be Holy like God is Holy, or we are to live to glorify God, etc. Thankfully Peter brings its meaning down to us - into the midst of our community life together. "The emphasis on virtuous living as a foundation..... is normed by the injunction to 'love one another deeply from the heart' instead of following the desires you formerly had..... (Kuecker, 1 Peter and the Subversion of Social Identity, SBL 2009). What Peter is exhorting us towards is both rich with hope and full of mystery: we are to imitate God in his holiness by loving as he does.

So, what does it mean that our virtuous living is "normed by the injunction to love one another deeply from the heart"? It is most likely that Peter has in mind here that we are to live in the stream of God's love towards us through practicing the disciplines of grace we spoke of in the last homily recap. Living in that love gives us the opportunities to imitate Jesus, while we participate in God's self-giving love to us. I take it to mean that the more we learn to love others as God has loved us the more likely it will be that we will: not steal from neighbors, respect those who have authority over us, dispense authority with compassion, keep our promises to our friends and spouses, desire to forgive our enemies, and the list goes on.

Questions for discussion:

1. Does Jesus' sympathy for you come quickly to mind when you are struggling with temptation? How can you help it come more quickly to mind?

2. If we are to love one another deeply from the heart as the alternative to "un-holy" living, what will help us to say no the "un-holy" living and yes to the loving one another deeply from the heart? What role does Christian community have in all of this?

3. Can you think of a time recently when you realized that, through God's gracious provision, you loved someone deeply from the heart? What did getting to that point look like? Was prayer involved? Was repentance involved? Or, are you just that good? (kidding, smile).

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Holiness as Human Flourishing

This week we returned to 1 Peter and came upon the topic of holiness. "Therefore prepare your minds for action; discipline yourselves; set all your hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring you when he is revealed. Like obedient children, do not be conformed to the desires that you formerly had in ignorance. Instead, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; for it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.' (1 Peter 1:13-16)."

In general, for many of us an image comes to mind when we think of a holy person. Some may think of gentle old ladies with doilies, sensible shoes, and long dresses, whose gentleness and moral standing set an example for the young which they can aspire to grow into. Some may think of a wise old man who offers sage advice to the young and foolish; he is a teacher of virtue. There is, I think, a popular notion that whatever holiness might be that it belongs to the older and wiser - perhaps because they have grown wise and virtuous with their age or maybe because they are too old to engage in frivolity and lusty living. Still others, have particularly negative visions of Christians claiming to be holy people. For the cynical who quite often have good reasons to be cynical, the word holiness gives them the creeps. What comes to mind for them are so many Christians who say that they take holiness seriously and claim to be "holy" themselves; they stand in opposition to all kinds of sins loudly, and demonize sinners as a group of people with whom they have nothing in common while secretly abusing their children. Or, perhaps the ones imagined are of the variety who decry adultery in the public square while controlling their wives and family with the iron fist of manipulative rage.

So, it is understandable that so many, within and outside the church, have a negative, cynical reaction when they hear Christians talking about holiness. I would suggest that one of the reasons for the negative reaction that so many have is that human beings know deep down that holy living ought to be something more than the images of it that are suggested by various religious groups or those common in contemporary popular culture. Happily and thankfully God thinks so too.

When God talks about holiness in the OT and the NT it is within the context of his great narrative of redemption. After delivering his people from slavery, in the great Exodus, God declares that they are a people set apart, to be the recipients of his covenant of grace and love, destined to grow and flourish as human beings who are set free from slavery and given life. They are his "treasured possession" and "holy nation" (Exodus 19:5-16). So, we note that holiness is an identity created for us by God, a gift, before it is anything else. As his holy people God desires for us to live into our identity and we learn along the way that this is nothing more or less than learning to live into God's gifts; disciplines are the order of the day to be sure, but they are disciplines from and of grace.

Peter is certainly at home in this narrative. He begins his letter by reminding his audience that they have been given "a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable (1:3,4)". As those born into a living hope, they are to "set all their hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring... when he is revealed (1:13)". It is here, at verse 13, that Peter makes a transition from the worshipful acknowledgment of a new identity to a section where he exhorts us to live into this new identity according to disciplines of grace. The first exhortation to his audience is to not be conformed to the desires that formerly governed their lives. Remember, we think that most of these people to whom he is writing were Gentile converts whose desires would have been governed according to the religious, moral, and societal norms of the later Roman empire; suffice it to say that God's way of living prescribed for them would have turned their moral and social words upside down and inside out. (Incidentally, God's holy ways should turn our worlds upside down too.)

The word that Peter uses, which is translated, "conformed", is an interesting one. The word means to take on the form of something: to be shaped in a mold or form. "For Peter, 'desire' and 'holiness' appear as opposing forces each capable of drawing persons into its orbit, conforming human character and actions to its ways and so sculpting human life (Joel Green from his commentary on 1 Peter)."

So, we need to learn to think of our participation in God's holiness as a matter of being shaped and formed by God's ways and not the ways of the gods of this world. On this model becoming holy is not an invitation to grasp frantically at unattainable standards of moral perfection and seek to put them into play. Rather, we are to seek each day to have our imaginations and desires shaped according to the good life that God wants for us, a life of human flourishing.

In this way of thinking, participation in God's holiness is about a perpetual turning (repentance) away from the sculptor that deforms us as God's image bearers and being sculpted by the one in whose image we were made and in whose image we are being redeemed. When we actively seek God's life according to his grace in this way we find our imaginations shaped according to God's holiness and not the desires of this world. One way of contemplating our participation in God's holiness is to consider it as a way of thinking, imagining and being that puts together things that belong together but are usually getting pulled apart in our broken and fallen world. Here are some examples, of raw materials that need to be perpetually shaped and reshaped by the mold of God's holy life for us: sex, desires for material things, participation in and the exercise of power and authority, and one's attitude towards one's own beauty. Our sexual lives and desires need to be shaped by Christ's self-giving love, moving away from the objectification of sex or the temptation to see sex as a kind of drug that exists for the purpose of giving us pleasure (e.g. this is why the New Testament offers marriage as the appropriate context for the full and uninhibited giving of one person to another. Nestled in a promised and hoped for future, husbands and wives learn to give themselves to each other as gifts and help each other develop and flourish as individuals along the way). Our material pursuits for money and wealth must also be shaped by Christ's self-giving love and an imitation of God's generosity in order for those desires to not become little gods we worship. Similarly, the way we approach and possess power needs to be shaped by a desire to advocate for the powerless or we are corrupted by that power. And for the one who possesses great physical beauty, she needs to benefit from the security and warmth of God's love for her so that she will not be defined by her physical beauty but by God's love for her.

We must not forget for a moment that this growth in holiness is a life-long endeavor. Brokenness will continue to effect each of us and ongoing repentance is the key to being shaped by God's life and not the desires of this world. Patience and perseverance are the order of the day, towards others and ourselves!

Questions for discussion:

1. When you hear the word holiness what image comes to your mind? Does the image have positive or negative connotations? What formed this image; where did it come from?

2. We say above that holiness is an identity, and a gift before it is anything else. Do you feel like you have a pretty good handle on this. Can you put it in your own words? When it comes to preaching the gospel to yourself, in what sorts of circumstances do you most need to be reminded of your identity as gift?

3. I mentioned in the homily that a friend of mine had shared with me that he imagined holiness to be an all or nothing thing. He imagined that holy people never sinned so he thought he would leave holiness along. What does it look like to pursue and participate in God's holiness while still struggling with sin? How can you tell whether you are being faithful or sloppy?

4.. What sorts of things can we do on a daily basis to participate more fully in God's holy life he desires for us? How can we join prayer, knowledge, community and other disciplines of grace to help us pursue a life of holiness?

Monday, February 8, 2010

Knowing What Time It Is 1 Peter 1:3-12

This week we talked directly about a prominent theme in 1 Peter: suffering because of being identified with Jesus Christ. It is really hard for us to enter into the theological thought world in which 1 Peter was written and even more difficult for us to relate to the socio-cultural circumstances in which Peter's young Christians found themselves. It is the best scholarly consensus that Peter's people to whom he wrote were not yet in the midst of the full-on persecution of the Roman empire. It is too early for that. What they were suffering from - and this is particularly difficult for those of us who benefit from the pluralism of Western democracies to understand - is a profound and sustained social bullying from their neighbors. Luke Johnson captures the situation here: "Persecution and martyrdom, after all, have a certain clarity and comfort. Lines of allegiance are obvious. However difficult the choice, it need be made only once. But scorn and contempt are slow working acids that corrode individual and community identity. Social alienation is not a trivial form of suffering. Persecution may bring death but with meaning. Societal scorn can threaten meaning itself, which is a more subtle death (Luke Timothy Johnson)."

It is important to note that when Peter approaches the question of suffering he does not engage in an apologetic addressing the issue of why suffering is allowed by a good and all powerful God. This sort of theological exercise can be found elsewhere in the Scriptures but Peter here addresses the specific issue of suffering because of one's faith in Christ, which he regards as part and parcel of being identified with Christ in a world that resists his rule and grace. Moreover, Peter teaches us that to be a part of God's mission to bring the world to Christ through the gospel one must suffer rejection as Jesus suffered rejection from the gods of this world and those who worship them. This is because the pattern of God's redemptive work from the time of the fall to the present is a pattern of working through suffering to bring glory (e.g. the Exodus, the Exile, etc.) This is at least part of what Peter means when he talks about the Spirit of Christ testifying in advance to the sufferings destined for Christ: "Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that was to be yours made careful search and inquiry, inquiring about the person or time that the Spirit of Christ within them indicated, when it testified in advance to the sufferings destined for Christ and the subsequent glory. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you.....". This theological insight is a different way of saying what Jesus said about the OT on the road to Emmaus: "Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures (Luke 24:25...)". What Jesus is teaching his disciples and what Peter is saying is that God's pattern of redemption in the Old Testament, to bring glory through suffering, is the prophetic pattern that Jesus' suffering and glory fulfill. Peter is reassuring these new converts that God's mission in the world is executed not in spite of suffering but through suffering and that their suffering - due to their identification with Jesus Christ - means that they are on the right side of history; they have become a part of God's mission to bring his redemptive love into the world.

We titled this homily, "Knowing What Time It Is", because that, in a sense, is what Peter is wanting for his people: to know the time. Throughout this long introduction and blessing, Peter has chosen to call attention to time, again and again. Suffering is for a little while, there is an inheritance awaiting God's people, and the last day is anticipated as a time of joy because Jesus' praise and glory will be our praise and glory. Finally, the prophets are invoked in order to link the present situation of suffering to God's work in the past, specifically to help these Gentile converts find their place in God's ancient story of redemption. These new Christians in what is now Western Turkey are encouraged to see their suffering as evidence of their identity with Jesus Christ. His suffering brings to fruition God's pattern of working through suffering to bring redemption and glory to this fallen world. In this time (for a little while) they and we are to regard suffering as evidence that we are a part of God's work.

We are far removed from the time and place of this letter on the one hand. On the other hand the clock hands have not moved too much when it comes to what we should expect regarding suffering because of our identity with Christ. Because we enjoy the religious freedom afforded to us in our socio-political setting most of us do not suffer the acids of scorn and contempt in the same way as did Peter's people. However, we must be careful that we don't take advantage of our socio-political setting to hide our identity with Christ like chameleons. In my opinion there is no one-size-fits-all formula to follow in order to be a perfect disciple of Jesus, suffering the perfect amount of scorn, etc. Each person must ask God's Spirit to search her heart and come to her own conclusions about whether or not she is a chameleon or not. Here is what I wrote in my devotional as I pondered this topic:

"If you want to be popular tell everyone what they want to hear; learn how to ingratiate yourself to others. Exploit insecurities in other people so that they need your praise and approval to feel OK about themselves. Remove the suspicion that you are a sycophant by criticizing people who are sycophants and doing so very loudly. Alternately, carve out for yourself a position of power in relationship to other people. Make them need your gifts or make them need a relationship to your persona in order to have currency with others. From this position you can tell them whatever you want without worrying about whether what you say is true or loving because your dependent community will not push back at you for fear of losing you as a patron. But if you want to suffer in this life - identify with Jesus and tell everyone by the example of your life and the words from your lips that sin and evil have been conquered on the cross and that this is the place where God must be met if any of us are to have hope. Tell everyone by your influence (not by coercion) that you believe that the line between good and evil runs through each human heart and that each of us has played a sinful role in the breaking of the peace of God's world. When we live in this identity we will suffer; and when we do we are to respond with the love of Jesus, not returning evil for evil but good for evil."

Questions for discussion:

1. In our socio-political setting, due to our religious freedom and influence, is it possible for us to invite scorn and contempt for positions we take as Christians but not actually because of our identity with Christ and Christ crucified? Examples?

2. In our socio-political setting, what does it look like for us to be scorned simply because of our identity with the message of the gospel? Examples?

3. Many non-Christians in the U.S. think they are rejecting the gospel when they are really rejecting aspects of Christendom. What do you think many have in mind when they are rejecting "aspects of Christendom"? Can you think of creative ways to help people encounter the simple message of the gospel? What role do you think your church community can play in supporting you in introducing the gospel to others? Examples?

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

dry bones: Live!

This week we returned to the powerful metaphor of new birth, returning specifically to this passage in 1 Peter 1:3
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead....

Last week we talked about new birth as a conversion of the imagination (see last week's recap). This week we focused on our need for God's power to change our lives (new birth and perpetual revivification). We began thinking of this theme when we reflected on the stirring poetry of Ezekiel's vision of the valley of the dry bones as our call to worship. In this passage Israel is pictured as so many dry bones. God speaks to the prophet and asks him if those bones can live. The prophet responds by putting the issue back to God - Lord you know if they can. Then the Lord challenges the prophet to prophesy to the dry bones to live; he does and they do. They become living people again as God breathes his life into them. The vision comes to a close with the promise of God to bring salvation to Israel just as surely as he gave life to the dry bones in the vision. The sign that is given by which Israel will know God has kept his promise to give them salvation is resurrection (Ezekiel 37:12....).

Ezekiel had no idea that the resurrection he was pointing to was the resurrection of the Son of God, but that is exactly what those who witnessed the resurrection of Jesus tell us again and again in the New Testament. Paul tells us in Ephesians 1:19-20 that the same power of God that brought back Jesus from the dead is now at our disposal as we live into and participate in the new life of Jesus Christ. This is the same mysterious truth that Peter is telling us using the metaphor of new birth; we are given new birth THROUGH the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (see passage above).

We concluded our time together on Sunday by asking ourselves: so what? The metaphor of new birth is powerful and stirring and can move us like Ezekiel to have hope where we have lost hope or perhaps never had it all. But in order for this good news to revivify us we need to "live into" the power of Jesus' resurrection. But how does one "live into" the power of Jesus' resurrection? I suggest we need a pattern to follow, similar to a pattern a dressmaker uses to sew a dress, or what a woodworker uses to cut her wood into the pieces that will become a beautiful new cabinet. The pattern given in Scripture that we are to live our lives by - in all things - is the same pattern by which Jesus lived his life: Philippians 2:5.... "Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God, as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.....". When we live according to this pattern we are not trying to imitate Jesus in a wooden way; rather, this pattern we are called to live into is a pattern we can participate in through the power of the Holy Spirit, as we participate in the very life of the risen Lord Jesus Christ. Living into Jesus' pattern of self-giving love (life in the form of a slave) = living into his resurrection life, bringing our lives into the power of the new birth, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

Here is what it might look like in the mundane moments of our lives. Let's say you or I are struggling with selfishness towards our friends or loved ones, or lust is threatening to capture our imagination and displace the affections of our hearts, or we don't have patience towards our children. Whatever the temptation may be, the pattern we are to live into is the same.

* confess to God that we are powerless in our own lives and patterns of selfishness to resist the temptation
* prophesy (preach) to ourselves and to each other that God desires to give life to our dry bones which are powerless
* ask God to give us the power to live into the pattern of Jesus' life, death and resurrection - a pattern of tireless, self-giving love
* repent of the occasions when we do not do this as we should and ask God to draw us, in the joy of forgiveness, back into the pattern of Jesus' self-giving love

Discussion Questions:
1. Are you quick to confess your powerlessness to God? Under what circumstances are you more likely to confess your powerlessness before God?
2. Do you place yourself in a position throughout your days to be "preached to" that God desires to give us newness of life? What does this look like for you, especially in the midst of a busy schedule?
3.Do you repent of the occasions when you do not ask God to help you with your struggles? Do you think God's grace is sufficient for you when you fail to avail yourself of his power? Does God ever give up on us? What role does God's grace and forgiveness play in moving us toward him when we have distanced ourselves?