Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Palm Sunday

In Chicago we are all too familiar with the phenomenon of the false Spring. Somewhere along in March (and it happened this way just this month) we get a couple or three days of amazing spring weather and we get all excited. It's spring. Then, sure enough, we get wintry mix and are called back to our senses. The great preacher, Fred Craddock, cautions us to resist the temptation to turn Palm Sunday into a "false Easter". We have the children waving their palms, and the music is programmed to celebrate Jesus as King. And we are right to celebrate. The Pharisees who opposed Jesus and his radical expression of God's love and grace are the ones who did not want a celebration, and Jesus said to them that if his disciples did not celebrate the stones would cry out. Indeed, in the words of Saint Paul, so deep is the pain caused by the brokenness of the world, so deep is our craving for grace and love to remake that which is broken, that creation itself groans for the revealing of God's new creation and the restoration of his divine-image-bearers to co-regency with him (Romans 8). We celebrate on Palm Sunday! But how? I think a New Orleans funeral parade is a good image for us to keep in mind when we are thinking of how to wrap our emotions around Jesus' entry to Jerusalem. I have only seen these amazing spectacles on TV but I can imagine that what is meant to be conveyed in a NOLA funeral procession is the intermingling of joy, sorrow, and hope, with hope gently moving things along.

Jesus' entry to Jerusalem at the beginning of passover week is a complicated affair, full of paradoxes and irony. He performs prophetic acts that invite his followers and those pilgrims traveling with him to laud him as the one coming to take David's throne, to be a just king, to bring in God's rule. As to what Jesus is thinking on his way we know from the gospels that he regarded this pilgrimage to result in his death. One can't help but think of Saint Paul's poetic summary of Jesus' life in the second chapter of Philippians, when one thinks of his entry to the holy city: "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, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross."

Commenting on this passage, Rowan Williams remarks that: "it opens up those infinite horizons onto what it's like to be God; a God who is sufficiently free in himself to give himself into the hands of others, to put his life into our hands, to take what we might think the greatest risk imaginable. And then of course the whole thing turns round to us because Paul is telling us this because he wants us to... have the same habit of thought, the same self-understanding, in you that is in Jesus. Think of yourself as Jesus thought of himself, think of yourself as realizing who and what you are in gift so radical that it may mean you put your life in someone else's hands. A gift so radical that it could mean a self-forgetting, deeply costly and totally transforming. So as always in the New Testament, the story about God turns round upon us to put to us the basic questions of conversion. What's the form in which you think of yourself? How do you understand yourself? You may understand yourself very much as Paul hints, in terms of someone who retains their security and their freedom, by reaching out and taking , by building around yourself a careful construction of self-hood that is anchored and secure. What if you understood yourself, your humanity utterly differently? What if you understood that you were so rooted in the love of a God who at unimaginable risk put his life into our hands so that we could live? What would it be like to have such confidence in the love of God that you actually felt able to take risks, to put your life in the hands of others so that they could live?"

When Jesus took on the form of being a slave, it led him to the cross. At the end of that week we have come to call Holy Week, he was opposed for many reasons but one big reason is that no one wanted a Messiah who was not willing to form a revolutionary group and fight the Romans. New Testament scholar, N.T. Wright, suggests that many of Jesus' Jewish contemporaries had located Satan, cosmic evil, in Roman Imperial rule. In turn, they saw their salvation coming about through Roman blood flowing in the streets. Jesus' unpopular message of locating the problems with the world in the hearts of all human beings, including the children of Abraham, coupled with his emphasis on forgiving one's enemies, even Roman rulers, is at the heart of the gospel; however, it remains a hard message for us to hear, even today.

The events that transpired in Jerusalem, leading to and including Jesus' death on the cross forced Jesus' followers to radically re-evaluate their understanding of what it meant to know God. Halden Doerge puts it this way in his blog, www.inhabitatiodei.com, which I sometimes read. In considering the degree to which our infantile, self-centered, and malformed hopes must be reshaped by God, Doerge says this in a Sunday sermon on Palm Sunday: "Christ comes to dash such hopes, to extinguish and transform such desires, to redefine our lives and our longings. He comes to replace our infantile and self-centered hopes with a vision of the fullness of God’s love. Christ comes, not to fulfill our hopes, but to dash them. He is the great disturbance, the ultimate interruption. What we learn on Palm Sunday is that we cannot even hope in God rightly until we allow God, revealed in Christ to define for us what the promises of God truly are. We are, all of us, bound and inclined to find in God’s promises the answers to our desires as they stand. We all think that God’s salvation will mean the fulfillment of our desires as they stand and the removal of all things holding us back from that fulfillment."

As we consider our spiritual formation a worthwhile question we should put to ourselves is this: how do our hopes need to reshaped by God in order to ask the right questions of ourselves, in order to hope for the right things?

Questions for discussion:

1. When Williams, above, talks about taking risks in our imitation of Christ, he presumes that we understand and feel ourselves as being "deeply rooted in the love of God". Do you see yourself as being deeply rooted in the love of God? Do you relate to this description more as concept or more as feeling? How can you tell whether or not you are growing in your understanding of yourself as one who is unconditionally loved by God? How can your relationships with others help you administer this kind of self-examination?

2. Can you point to an example of your hopes being reshaped through a deeper understanding of the meaning of Jesus' death on the cross? What are some desires that we have that can easily become too important to us and, in turn, not leave room for a deep participation in the life of Christ?

3. The ruling class in Israel at the time of Jesus' crucifixion did not want to hear his message for lots of reasons (suggested reading on this: N.T. Wright's, Jesus and the Victory of God, and the Resurrection of the Son of God.) What do you think are some particular ways that the church - in our times and in our socio-cultural setting - does not wish to hear Jesus' message?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A Kingdom of Priests

Today we come to a passage which invites us to see our role in the world as those who proclaim the good news of what God is doing in the world. In the mission statement of our church, Grace Chicago, we put it this way: we are here to the seek the good of individuals and the welfare of the city by embracing the good news of God's redemptive promise.

In Peter's call to us to live this way he hearkens back to the promise of God in the OT, to make his people a priestly kingdom, a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:6). Previously in this letter Peter has been echoing and citing lots of Old Testament imagery. In the opening of the letter, Peter takes the imagery of Israel in exile and offers it to his audience as the canvas upon which God has portrayed their identity in Christ. In 1:16, he challenges his audience to live out God's challenge to his people in Leviticus 19, to be holy because God is holy, by loving one another deeply from the heart; so the OT exhortation comes home as the command finds its fulfillment in the lives of those who are learning to love as as Christ loves. And, in the text before us now (1 Peter 2: 9-10, which echoes Exodus 19:6), he invites us to think about our relationship to God as those who are his priests for one another, and, as the church, for the whole world. In all of these OT citations and echos, it is as if Peter is taking imagery from the OT and using it to design a set for a play. The visuals are now in place but the images can only be seen for what they are; and the play can only come to life when Christ performs in the midst, and when we participate in his performance.

We considered on Sunday what we ought to learn from this teaching - what are we to make of our calling to be a kingdom of priests. The first thing we noted: the vector of God's heart is pointed towards others so that he wants all of those who have tasted of his love to desire also to bring this good news to others. We are to be priests to others. We are to help others know the same love that we have experienced from God. How we are to do this, though, makes a big difference. Here are two points that we made regarding how we are to approach our priestly mode with those outside of the Christian faith.

* Every relationship should be dialogical. We should embrace Christ's rule, do unto others as you would have them do unto you, as our guide to inter-faith dialog. At God's heart is the desire to be in dialog and relationship with his divine image bearers, regardless of how much or how little his conversation partners desire. God's love is always ready to talk and to listen. This approach is in the heart of God.
* We are called to be witnesses of the truth - not to imagine ourselves to be those who own the truth or prosecute the truth. Here is the theologian Richard Bauckham: " It is the very nature of Christian truth that it cannot be enforced. Coerce belief and you destroy belief and turn the truth believed into a lie. Truth must be claimed in a way appropriate to the content of the truth.... The image the Bible itself often suggests is that of witness..... Witness is non-coercive. It has no power but the convincingness of the truth to which it witnesses. Witnesses are not expected, like lawyers, to persuade by the rhetorical power of their speeches, but simply to testify to the truth for which they are qualified to give evidence. But to be adequate witness to the truth of God and the world, witness must be a lived witness involving the whole of life and even death. And as such it can show itself to be not self-serving (Richard Bauckham, Bible and Mission)."

In summary: when thinking of how we are to proclaim God's love to those outside the Christian community we quickly think about questions of method. Perhaps this is the wrong place to start. Just maybe we should think first of our identity with Christ and then let our way with others flow out of that identity. Miroslav Volf talks in this way about Christian identity in relationship to those who do not share our faith: "To be a Christian means to live one’s own identity in the face of others in such a way that one joins inseparably the belief in the truth of one’s own convictions with a respect for the convictions of others. The softness which should characterize the very being of Christians — I am tempted to call it “ontic gentleness” — must not be given up even when we are (from our own perspective) persuaded that others are either wrong or evil. To give up the softness of our difference would be to sacrifice our identity as followers of Jesus Christ. (Earlier in the same essay, "Soft Difference", Volf says "gentleness is not a mere survival strategy..... .... a missionary method. Rather, the soft difference is the missionary side of following in the footsteps of the crucified Messiah".)

1. As you think about being a witness to the truth instead of a prosecutor of the truth what is your first visceral response to this notion? Relief, fear, anxiety, guilt, fill in the blank. What might you learn from identifying this initial visceral response?

2. Are you good at being in dialog with others who do not share your views about Christ? What can give rise to a good dialog about God, Christ and the gospel? What can keep it from happening or kill it as soon as it begins?

3. When you think of being a witness to the truth of the gospel do you think of this in terms of moral achievement, of humble service towards others? What are some things that come to mind when you think of what it might mean to be a faithful witness? Does Bauckham's discussion help you think of a good measure for what a faithful witness is?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Spiritual Formation and the Common Life we Share

As we have been moving through 1 Peter together we have been thinking a lot about what it means to be God's holy people and to live as God's holy people (1 Peter 1:10-25). We have been careful to note that the pre-requisite for being God's holy people is not moral achievement. Rather, our identity as God's holy people arises from his presence with us, coupled with his loving intentions for us. The theologian, Earnst Troeltsch, put it this way many years ago: "The divine holiness is no moralism. God did not give the world his law and then abandon it; instead, he searches for the creature with love and passion, creating the very holiness that he demands. Here we find no cold law, no crushing commandment that seeks fulfillment in human compliance; we find a holy love that embraces us and incorporates us into itself, thereby bringing us to faith."

At the beginning of any discussion on spiritual formation must be an appreciation and worshipful acknowledgment of God's loving intention towards us, his desire for us to live in a life-style that yields for us a harvest of human flourishing. This is the grace we respond to that launches us in the right direction. Growth in this life comes from learning to say yes more and more to God's loving intention towards us, and learning to say no to patterns of thinking and living that rob us of the joy God intends for us. The questions that are most important to us then are questions about how to be more and more under the control of God's love. Much can be said about this but any discussion is not complete that does not recognize the role of Christian community in the spiritual formation of its individuals.

This is how we talked through this theme in our preparation for the sacrament of communion this Sunday.

Here is roughly what we said: "As we come together to receive the sacrament of communion we are returning to something we talked about a couple of weeks ago. We were considering Peter's encouragement to his readers to love each other deeply from the heart. We noted that this is the kind of common life that makes human flourishing possible. If we are to ever understand how to be generous with our possessions and time, if we are ever to understand how to forgive those who hurt us, if we are ever to understand why envy corrodes our every attempt to have joyful friendships, if we are ever to understand why the nurturing of lust robs us of love, it will be because God's love has been brought to life for us through our immersion in a community which is known for loving one another deeply from the heart." (Remember: Peter's admonition to love one another deeply from the heart is his way of talking about what the community is known for in contrast to what they used to be known for. They used to be known for living according to the ways of paganism, but now they are known as those who love each other deeply from the heart. This is not a sentimental invitation to perform loving actions when they seem appropriate, it is an invitation to perform for one another all the time the same love with which we have been loved by God. Another way of saying it is that we are to be God's love to one another.

So, our prayer as a church must be that we are a community marked by God's reconciling love. New Testament scholar, Stephen Fowl, offers a helpful picture of how we ought to measure the quality of our common life in Christ: "compassion and mercy are necessary if Christians are to exercise forbearance and forgiveness. For Christians, this is crucial because the quality of common life in Christ is not simply judged by the holiness of believers' lives (though that is certainly to be encouraged). Rather, Christian community is more definitively judged by the forgiveness that enables and calls Christians to be reconciled and reconciling people. Indeed, it is the quality that is most attractive to a broken and alienated world."

Though Fowl does not say it quite this way I think he would be happy with this thought: our growth in holiness, our progress in spiritual formation, comes through a lively participation in a Christian church that is famous for performing God's reconciling love for one another. May God grant us this community at Grace Chicago and in all the churches.

Questions for discussion

1. If lively participation in Christian community plays such an important role in our spiritual formation what are some examples of how to participate lively in Christian community between Sundays, or between community groups, etc. How do we get this in the midst of our mundane day-to-day experiences?

2. Have you ever noticed that being reconciled with someone through the asking for and granting of forgiveness also yields fruit in other parts of your life? Can you offer any examples and speculate why this is the case?

3. What about when circumstance don't really allow for actual reconciliation between you and someone who has hurt you deeply? Is there a way to benefit from the spirit forgiveness in a situation like that?

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Playing host to God

This Sunday we came to the portion of 1 Peter where Peter invokes the imagery of the OT temple as a metaphor for the church and the community that is called to newness of life within the church. 1 Peter: 2:4Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and 5like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ". In this passage, Peter is continuing to develop themes that he has already introduced. For example, the theme of holiness comes into play again when we are taught that God's temple is now a spiritual building which you and I are being built into as God lives in and among each of us who follow Jesus in faith and repentance. We stagger when we hear that God lives in and among us in the new community that is called his church; but more than staggering we also stumble on the words. What could this possibly mean, that God lives in us and among us? What implications does it have on my mundane existence? Should this truth make me happy, or make me blush?

For many of us we think about God living in and among us and it makes us nervous. We know we are quite often doing things and thinking things that are disruptive of God's shalom. What is it like for him to live in and among us when we are consciously or unconsciously partaking in the very sort of sinful behavior that is opposed to God's gracious and peaceful rule. I suspect that many of us think that God would just as soon not be in and among us most of the time. I submit though that the gospel turns this notion on its head. We have already noted in our study of 1 Peter that one of the most important things we can know about what it means to be God's holy people is that it is the presence of God with us that sets us apart into the category of holiness; his holy presence in and among us is foundational. This is why we noted, along with many others, that before holiness is anything behaviorally, it is a gift. Rather than wanting to be somewhere else when we are revolting against God's ways for us, he simply wants even more passionately for us to be moved by his love away from those destructive acts and moved towards choices and patterns that will result in human flourishing.

We are hard pressed to find adequate metaphors to shed light on the mystery of God's presence in us, and how he means for his presence to change us. The one I offered for consideration in the homily is this: "I am always saddened when I realize that I have parented Palmer in a way that does not respect her dignity or demonstrate my love for her. I often think, wow, she should just leave and find a better parent. Of course this is silly talk in a way but those who are parents can relate to these feelings I am sure. Of course, she does not leave. In fact, she wants more of me in spite of my parenting foibles. All metaphors break down if you try to make them wooden representations of that which you are trying to illustrate and this one is no exception; but, what I want us to think about is that God does not want to leave us even when we "let him down". He is not going anywhere. He is not leaving. He is in and among us for the long haul. What he wants is for every ounce us to be fully engaged with his love in a positive way so that we might flourish instead of working against our human dignity and the dignity of others as we often still do. I submit that the way to get more of ourselves in communion with him in this redemptive way is not by being ashamed of the abode we provide him but rather to seek to respond to his love so that we become more hospitable hosts to him.

This is how my friend, Chuck DeGroat talks about this topic:

"I was introducing a candidate for ministry several years ago among a group of Calvinist pastors. When I introduced a young guy I had gotten to know, I said, “Josh is a good man.” Very quickly, a typically outspoken pastor leaped up from his seat and said, “Can we say that any man is good?” This pastor’s brand of Calvinism reminds me of the words of an old elder at my childhood church who’d often say to me, “Don’t forget Chuck, there are none righteous, no not one.”

But this kind of wormology misses the reality that God takes up residence in human beings. It points continually to our screw-ups and ignores the unfathomable reality that in Christ, we are a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). It’s actual. It’s present. It’s the re-Edening of your once-inhospitable soul. The tomb becomes a womb, bursting with life. And this mysterious growing reality within causes us to say, “It is longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me!” (Gal. 2:19).

What’s more, this means that you can relax. Attempts at cosmetic spirituality can be dropped. External rituals can be stopped. What defines you is within. Martin Smith writes, “Unless we come to acknowledge and believe in this true center, we will continue to imagine that our public personalities or our image of ourselves is the whole truth of who we are.” Our false selves can begin to wither and die. Our cheap imitations of spiritual heroes can give way to authentic and unique expressions of God’s image-bearing art in each extraordinary soul. Death to life metanoia takes place, and the Self among the competing selves breaks free

The re-Edening of our once-inhospitable souls is such a wonderful way of talking about our life with God because the focus is on seeing our lack of love, our lack of faith, our lack of obedience to the truth of God's ways as a tragedy rather than looking at ourselves as tragic figures.....(Chuck from his blog, http://drchuckdegroat.wordpress.com/2010/03/05/the-tomb-becomes-a-womb/)".

1. Have you ever thought long and hard about what God thinks of you when he is with you in a situation when you are clearly working against him? I don't mean do you think about what you are doing as wrong because you know it is against one of God's moral precepts; I mean, do you ever stop and think, what is God feeling right now towards me as I think this wicked thought or do this thing that hurts this other person? Is it useful to ask yourself this sort of question? Why or why not?

2. Do you think you "do wormology" towards yourself and/or others? How does this hurt you when you go down that "I am a worm" road?

3. Is the distinction that Chuck makes between seeing our lack of obedience as tragedy rather than ourselves as tragic figures a helpful one? How does this approach free us from "cosmetic spirituality"? Discuss.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Scripture as a script to be performed

We returned this week to 1 Peter for our homily (1:22-3:3). We are continuing to think about what it means to be God's holy people. We have been using the phrase, human flourishing, to describe the life God wants for us to enjoy. We have chosen this way to talk about holiness in order to avoid the tendency within some circles to imagine that holiness is mainly about saying no to certain behaviors. Holiness does mean that we must say no to certain things but our no is because we want to say yes to human flourishing.

Specifically, in this portion of 1 Peter, as we noted last week, Peter paints a picture of human flourishing as those who have come to love each other deeply from the heart. Or, as our friend, Aaron Kuecker puts it: "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).

And here is a great time to make the point that our Christian theology teaches us that ethical questions flow from a particular vision of what it looks like to flourish as a human being, and that the moral imperative that stem from ethical reflection are for the purpose of supporting this particular vision of what it means to be human. So, Peter reminds us that we are God's holy people, set apart to flourish through loving each other deeply from the heart. Hence, Peter calls us to: "Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation— if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good (1 Peter 2:1-3)." To paraphrase Stanely Hauerwas and Rowan Williams, the church recognizes certain behaviors as destructive of the life of the Spirit that formed the Christian community in the first place. To say no to envy, lust and adultery, the abusive use of power, insincerity, greed, unrepentant anger, or an unforgiving spirit is to confess that these activities lead to a life-style that is the very opposite of "loving each other deeply from the heart".

We also noted what Peter has to say to about the role of Scripture for our formation: At the end of chapter 1, Peter writes: "You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God. For, ‘All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord endures for ever.’ That word is the good news that was announced to you." God's word is the authoritative narrative in which the Christian community is to find its life. It is God's word that paints the picture for us of who God intends for us to become. The entirety of God's word is referred to here as the gospel, "the good news that was announced to you". This is a helpful reminder to each of us that God's word is given to us so that, by his grace and mercy, we might live a certain kind of life: what we have been calling a life of human flourishing. In this way scripture is more like a script to be performed than a textbook or manual to consult. And, in this particular portion of 1 Peter we are reminded that at the heart of our performance must be a enacting of love towards each other, deeply and from the heart.

Finally, we offered this illustration as a practical reflection on what it looks like to perform Scripture as a script. At this point in the life of our Grace community, we are coming to terms with how we might best preach and teach the gospel to the many young children who are coming into our midst. Teaching our children God's word through good curricula and family devotions are are great tools. However, supporting our efforts to pray with and teach our children must be a community of people who are loving each other deeply from the heart, including mom and dad towards each other and towards their child/children. This is true in the case of separated or divorced parents as well, when loving each other deeply from the heart means to wish and pray for the best for one's co-parent, sincerely and from the heart. And for those who do not have children, and/or are not married, one need only exercise one's imagination a little bit to think of relationships you have which could benefit from a deeper, more purposeful love.

1. The life of holiness, which we have been referring to as human flourishing, is sometimes off-putting to us. Feel free to offer your own reasons for why you think this is the case or example of when it is the case. For the sake of discussion, I find that many of us look at this vision of who God wants us to become and we feel it to be impossible to attain. Or, sometimes, the portrait of human flourishing unsettles us or makes us sad in a way that we can't really describe with words. Why do you think the portrait of holiness, or human flourishing is sometimes so off-putting or confusing?

2. Does the concept of Scripture being a script to be performed challenge your assumptions about the role of Scripture? If so, how? If no, why not?

3. Thinking of parents and their kids, per the illustration above, I want to ask this question: why is it so particularly harmful and confusing for children to be taught the "Truth" about the Christian faith by parents who are not actively loving each other deeply from the heart. Is there a parallel here with regard to how Christian relate to each other on the stage of thechurch with the rest of the world as our audience? Discuss.