Tuesday, April 27, 2010

the Power of the Meek

This week we returned to the portion of 1 Peter where Peter exhorts his brothers and sisters in how they are to conduct their lives in relationship to those outside the Christian community. There is no hint in 1 Peter that Christians are to shrink away from the roles they play in the cultures in which they live and work. They are not to regard themselves as a sect, separated from the rest of the world; they are not to head for the hills and live in seclusion. They are now a people set on a mission. They are to mediate God's presence in their communities - through words and in good works performed for the common good. And, they are meant to mediate God's presence by living in the pattern of Jesus' cruciform life, particularly in relationship to submitting to authority within the Roman social-political order.

Peter's words on submission are difficult to hear. For one thing, they are difficult to hear because Jesus' call to discipleship, to take up his cross and follow him, is difficult to hear. But they are also hard for us to hear because of how these verses have been misused by Christians. For instance, many a Southern pastor used these verses on submission to argue for slavery in the 19th century. And, many a pastor has misused these verses to wrongly advise women to remain in abusive relationships. This is a spot on the church's record which must be acknowledged and mourned. There must be repentance of using these passages in this way. Regrettably, one of the sad results of the misuse of these verses in the history of the church is that not many Christians today really have a good understanding of Peter's original intention in calling his flock to imitate Jesus' suffering in their submission to authority. Consequently, we don't have a good understanding of how to apply his exhortation to our lives and situations.

The first thing to understand along the way to a fuller understanding of Peter's pastoral intention in all of this is that Christianity contains at its core a revolutionary message about social relationships. The gospel truly does turn things upside down in the world, and the community that arose around the resurrection of Jesus was a community that quickly applied the gospel to social relationships. Early on we hear this reflected in Paul: Galatians 3: 27: "As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring,* heirs according to the promise." A community which is nourished on words like these and the stories of Jesus' partnerships with women, social outcasts, etc. - this is a community that understands that the world's way of using power, in this case the Roman social order, is warped by sin. There is a political component to the gospel that must not be ignored. As usual, Miroslav Volf is a big help when thinking about the gospel in this light. Here are his remarks regarding our passage at hand:

"To be “subject” means to act in the freedom of the slaves of God (2:16) and, instead of provoking additional acts of violence, to curb violence by doing good (knowing all along that suffering will be one’s lot, because one cannot count on the victory of good over evil in this world). To be “subject” in a situation of conflict means to follow in the footsteps of the crucified Messiah and to refuse to take part in the automatism of revenge [34] — “evil for evil or abuse for abuse” (3:9) — and to
break the vicious circle of violence by suffering violence. If the injunction to be subject appears at first to function as a religious legitimation of oppression, it turns out, in fact, to be a call to struggle against the politics of violence in the name of the politics of the crucified Messiah. How blinded must one be by the prejudices of one’s own liberal culture to see in this demanding way of suffering only accommodation to the dominant norms of the Hellenistic world!

We should keep in mind, however, that the call to follow the crucified Messiah was, in the long run, much more effective in changing the unjust political, economic, and familial structures than direct exhortations to revolutionize them would
ever have been. For an allegiance to the crucified Messiah — indeed, worship of a crucified God — is an eminently political act that subverts a politics of dominion at its very core."
- Volf from his essay, Soft Difference

Basically, what Peter is saying to the sisters and brothers is this: you are now free from the Roman social order. The political ramifications of the cross have established you in a community gathered around the crucified one, who is now risen from the dead. The very existence of this community, a community where there is neither slave nor free, etc., is a confrontational challenge to the socio-political oppression of Rome. So, live revolutionary lives but don't forget for a second that your revolution is always in the "the name of the politics of the crucified Messiah".

In many ways Peter's exhortations in 1 Peter 2:11- 25 are expansions upon and applications of Jesus' teaching on the Sermon on the Mount. We saw this last week when we noted that verses, 11 and 12 echo the Lord's challenge to "let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven." This week, in this passage on submission, we hear clear echoes of Jesus' admonition to resist not an evil person and to forgive those who persecute you.

From a pastoral perspective, I think this is how we should think of applying this in our context. Our lives must be cruciform in shape so that, with regard to those who exercise authority over us and those who set themselves up to be our adversaries, we might leave for them a trail of question marks in the shapes of the cross.

Of course who knows if something like this actually happened but imagine if it did. Imagine the question mark left in the mind of a Roman centurion who conscripted a Christian to carry his bags for one mile, only to be told by the Christian that he would be happy to carry them another mile. Imagine the Christian going on and on about how he feels compelled to do this because this was the way Jesus lived, serving others, even to the point of dying for his enemies on the cross. Powerful question mark to leave in one's wake.

Questions for discussion:

1. Have you ever heard these passages used in favor of keeping the powerless powerless. Have you ever heard these passages used to encourage people to remain in abusive relationships? What would you say to someone who was using these verses in that way?

2. Are there examples that are current, or from your past, wherein you are or have suffered abuse, while sharing in the sufferings of Christ. What role should your Christian community play in helping you discern how you should respond to abuse of authority? What role should prayer play in your response to the abuse of authority?

3. In our socio-political context we have lots of opportunities to fight the abuse of power on behalf of those being abused. How do we fight for justice and remain cruciform in our pattern of activism?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Living Well, Working Well, Playing Well for the Sake of Others

We came this week to the passage in 1 Peter (1 Peter 2:11-12) where we find a bracing exhortation followed by a staggering promise. The exhortation to the Christian community is to live honorably and perform honorable deeds among those outside of the Christian community. The staggering promise is that some will come to know and receive God's love for them because of what they have seen of our lives.

It is difficult for us to know exactly what Peter had in mind with this exhortation. Most probably, the people to whom he wrote had very little power, wealth and influence. Yet, what they make of their lives and what they make and do in their communities is of the utmost importance. At the very least, it is fair to say they would take from Peter's challenge that they were to live compassionately, care for social outcasts, practice "enemy-love", sacrifice for the poor, and be honest and honorable in their dealings. Because these Christians were poor and powerless much of their life "among the Gentiles" would consist in suffering with and like Christ - not surprisingly, a discourse on sharing in Christ's suffering follows quickly after these verses. But what about us? We have, relatively, a good deal more power, money, and status within our society. What does it look like for us to live honorably and perform honorable deeds?

Like our first century counterparts, it at least means that we work to relieve the suffering of others by finding ways to perform acts of compassion and mercy for all without discrimination. We should also note that in Peter's words their is a presumption that our acts of benevolence will sometimes be attractive to those who do not yet know God or subscribe specifically to Christian ethics. Because of this presumption I suggest that we make sure that a healthy percentage of our acts of mercy be truly "among the Gentiles" and for their sake.

Peter's exhortation also speaks to our work (vocation and/or what we do for money), to our play (how we recreate, our hobbies), and to how we live as citizens and neighbors. Because we are Christians we ought to desire to serve others well in all of these arenas. For the athletes: we should pray that we might be known for being diligent, competitive and fair in sports; but, moreover, we should be famous for being warm and gracious losers. For the business professionals: we should pray that we might be known for being honest in our dealings, good at what we do, and as those who create within their work communities a place of honor for those "low on the corporate ladder". And, if we are those who perceive ourselves to be under-employed or working in jobs we don't like: we should pray that God move us into a new job that better suits us; but, as importantly, we ought to pray that God enable us to resist the temptation to see ourselves as better than what God has given us to do for now. Instead we should pray that we startle our customers and colleagues with our diligence and our desire that our work, whatever it is, will make life better for others.

Peter's exhortation also speaks to how we relate to the cultures in which we live, work, make/create, and play. For some time now there has been a huge emphasis in Christian circles to analyze and critique "the culture". There has also been a lot of Christians "copying the culture". And lately there are myriad examples of Christians who critique what they don't like while simply gorging themselves on what they do (e.g. I know Christians who think Disney World is evil but who, themselves, for most intents and purposes, are amazingly thoughtless materialists. Andy Crouch, in his book, Culture Making, says this: "What is most needed in our time are Christians who are deeply serious about cultivating and creating but who wear that seriousness lightly—who are not desperately trying to change the world but who also wake up every morning eager to create." He goes on to argue that Christians all too often tend to allow gestures of critique and consumption (though appropriate gestures in many ways and at many times) to become the postures that some of us settle into. Andy proposes, however, that God's narrative of what he is doing in the world suggests the appropriate postures for his children. Going back to our primordial ancestors, he suggests we take a cue from them and understand our postures to be creators and cultivators within God's world and its many cultures. From these postures we will be free to make any appropriate gesture (e.g. critique, confrontation, consume, etc.). But wouldn't it be great if Christians were thought of first as cultivators and creators. Wouldn't it be great if we were known in our neighborhoods as those who can be relied on to work to preserve what is best in our culture. Wouldn't it be great if we Christians were known and thought of as those who work hard at making things (e.g. music, visual art, a great neighborhood street festival, neighborhood garden, etc.)?

A general principle: when we discover a place where the "current horizons deprive people of their fully humanity", we ought prayerfully to get to work and move the horizons of the possible for the sake of those who are being deprived.

Questions for discussion:

1. What role does repentance play in our life "among the Gentiles"? Are there times when we should carefully and prayerfully tell our neighbors, co-workers, bosses, etc. that we know we have not lived as we should and ask for forgiveness? What would this look like? Are there ways to amend our life "among the Gentiles" that do not include confessing but might be more meaningful than confession? What would that look like?

2. Can you think of situations in you life at work where you can help move the horizons of the possible for the sake of those who are being deprived of their full humanity? How about you life at play or in your hobbies? How about in your neighborhood? (For example, Andy has many examples of actions which further social justice but he also offers this small but meaningful example: he says kudos to whoever redesigned the Charlotte Douglas International Airport to include dozens of comfortable rocking chairs, noting that frequent business travel can be stress-producing and depressing).

3. Can you think of an example of a partnership you have formed with a person or entity outside of the Christian community for the common good of society? Why are such partnerships important? What do these partnership say about your understanding of God and his relationship to the world?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

For The Sake of Others

On the first Sunday after Easter we came back to our reflections on 1 Peter. We have now come to the place in the letter where Peter begins to talk a great deal about relationships between Christians and those outside of the Christian faith. It is hard for us to imagine the situation these young Christians found themselves in. In their socio-cultural setting following Jesus meant certain persecution. Though it is unlikely that the persecution in this region of Asia Minor had taken a physical form at this point, following Jesus guaranteed that you would be discriminated against, ostracised, and forced to operate at the margins of society. You may recall from the introduction to 1 Peter this quote from Luke Johnson, but it might be good to have it set in our minds again: ".... martyrdom, after all, ha 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)." Remarkably, stunningly, it is into this setting that Peter exhorts his fellow Jesus-followers to love those who misunderstand and hate them. And the verses that we came to this week, 2:11-12, are an exhortation to Peter's people to live well for the sake of their non-Christian neighbors. However, we did not get into the meat of those verses because we did a little review.

What I wanted for us to be reminded of in the review was that the theme of loving others is at the heart of 1 Peter. By the time he comes to the sobering call to enemy-love, he has already laid out a deep theology of the pathos and proper end of God's love. God's love comes into the world for the purpose of establishing his divine image-bearers in a life-style of human flourishing, through placing us in a new community gathered around the risen Lord Jesus Christ. Conversion is turning away from a life of selfishness, shalom-breaking behavior, from all sin; and, a turning to Jesus in faith an repentance. Growing in Jesus' self-giving love animates growth in holiness so that holy living looks like people loving each other deeply from the heart (1:22 Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth* so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply* from the heart.* 23You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.) Though this reference is descriptive of the love that animates Christians in their relationships with each other, we are quickly reminded that the proper end of God's love is to be gifted to others in words and deeds. (2:9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people,* in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.) We who have tasted that the Lord is good must now tell others! As priests we are to mediate God's presence to others. This is a sobering responsibility to be sure but not an impossible task, even for imperfect people (like all of us). What we are to be and do as priests is to use our stories to bear witness to God's healing work within us, our experience of his love. Richard Bauckham and Stephen Fowl are helpful here.... here are two quotes from these guys which bear on this discussion.

" 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)."

"we are reminded that.... 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 (Fowl)."

"In order that"... we may love others by telling our stories is how Peter puts it when he talks about our role in the world as God's people. However, in the next passage we encounter it is clear that mediating God to the world is not just about telling but also about living well and doing good for others. Unpacking verses 11 and 12 are for next week.

1. It was suggested in the homily that contemplation upon the pathos and purpose of God's love can be an enormous help to us when we think about our responsibility to others. I suggested that a good way of thinking about the proper end, or telos, of God's love is to understand that it desires to be received, it desires to renew, it desires to transform and then it wants to be given away. Caroline Simon from Hope College puts it this way: "knowing and loving our neighbors and friends is caught up in a sacred tangle of knowing and loving God." How might this thought inform the way you approach your prayers of petition and confession?

2. The idea of being a witness for Jesus can be a bit off-putting to many of us. Name some of the familiar and maybe not-so-familiar reasons for that. Keeping the quotes from Bauckham and Fowl in mind (from above), can you think of a more natural way you might approach being a witness to the gospel for the sake of others?

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Two Fires, Three Denials, Three Affirmations, A Man Made New

This Easter we considered what Jesus' resurrection reveals to us about God's relationship to us in the midst of the failure and chaos of our brokenness and failures. Resurrection is surely a victory. Jesus' resurrection is a victory of God's light over darkness, whether we are talking about the cosmic scope of the resurrection, or it's meaning to each of us as individual disciples of Jesus. Cosmically, Jesus' resurrection from the dead is the first-fruit of the harvest of what will be God's redemption of this entire world; individually, the resurrection is a promise that our whole selves, including our bodies, matter to God. Our share in Jesus' resurrection means that sin and death will not have the last word in our personal lives; we are bound for glory. The resurrection is surely about victory but we need to think carefully about what sort of victory.

Mike Lloyd, one of the theologians in residence of Saint Paul's Theological Centre in London, has made some valuable suggestions as to how we ought to think about what sort of victory is the resurrection. The following is my paraphrase of Lloyd: the resurrection is not an attempt to cover up the crass mistake of the cross. God owns the cross of Christ and it is where he deals most powerfully with the evil and sin in world, defeating them in Christ's sacrifice. On the cross God entered the world of chaos, evil, failure, and defeat and claims the entire arena to be a place where he is at work. It is in Jesus' moment of being forsaken by the father that God's love is most powerfully at work. And finally, it was when the hopes of the disciples were dashed that their salvation was being accomplished. Lloyd goes on to point out that when we experience failure and chaos in our lives that we often imagine that we have come to a place where hope is irretrievable. Quite the opposite though. In the cross, God has entered into the chaos so that it is not an alien place for him. So, whatever the case may be for us (e.g. whatever terrible thing befalls us because of evil at work in the world, whatever calamity we have brought on ourselves through the selfishness of sin), God is not alien to us in these circumstances. His presence with us is for the purpose of reconciling us to himself and doing something new in our lives. A poignant example of God at work in this way is found in Jesus' visit with Peter as told to us in John's Gospel, 21:1-19.

John sets the scene for us in such a way that it makes it as if, in the words of Rowan Williams, Jesus had never been. The disciples are back to fishing, their vocation before they were called by Jesus and taught to fish for people. And then there is the matter of the charcoal fire, a detail it seems that John does not want us to miss. Just a little bit before in John's Gospel, Peter is warming his hands by a charcoal fire when he denies Jesus three times; here the risen Jesus cooks breakfast for Peter over a charcoal fire. Equally important, if not more important, than the words exchanged at this breakfast setting is the scene itself. In the scene of Peter's betrayal there is an angst-ridden shell of a man nervously warming his hands by a charcoal fire, denying Jesus three times. In the scene we considered this Easter we have the one who was betrayed returning himself to Peter to be loved by him. This is the Easter Gospel, Jesus gives us back our lives, complete with the memories of our mistakes and failures; but! in his presence we can be made new! Peter, and the others, who had gone back to fishing are forgiven and remade into the fishers of people they were intended to be. And in the presence of the risen Lord, Simon, son of John, who first met Jesus as a fisherman is once again, Petros, the rock, among those who God will use to shepherd the sheep and lead the new community, the church of Jesus Christ, that arises through the power of Jesus' resurrection.

Questions for discussion:

1. The cross looked like quite a miserable failure but God was at work to bring victory out of it. Do you think your posture in moments of failure makes you more or less likely to find and see God at work? What can make it especially hard for you to see God in the midst of your failure. What can make it especially hard for you to help others see God at work in the midst of their failures?

2. God is present and working in dark situations (e.g. situations where we do not immediately perceive him to be at work - like on the cross). Does this insight challenge the way you think about how you evaluate the lives of others, especially those who are walking through dark times? Does it make you think carefully about what you say or don't say to someone who is in a dark time? I'll give you an example: I grew up in a religious context where people who were divorced were considered to be people who were in darkness. No spiritual leader in that world would ever expect to find God at work in the midst of those difficult situations. Of course, now I know that God is not absent in those situations. He is present, wanting reconciliation when possible but always desirous of doing something new for each person effected by the divorce.

3. Jesus chooses to coax Peter's confession of love for him in a way that makes him feel uncomfortable - John tells us that his feelings are hurt. What do you think Jesus is doing here? I bring this up because I have heard some Christians talk about this as if Jesus is almost shaming Peter by making him confess his love three times in a row. I don't think this is about shaming Peter, do you? What is Jesus up to?