Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Grace Saturated Community

Sunday we came again to the passage in 1 Peter which we continue to ponder together as a community in Christ:
"The end of all things is near; therefore be serious and discipline yourselves for the sake of your prayers. Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaining. Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received. Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ. To him belong the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen."

Obviously, in this passage, Peter desire for his Christian family to think and pray carefully about who to relate to each other within the Christian community. They are to see themselves as those who have been given God's grace (stewards of the manifold grace of God) for a purpose - to serve one another. I fear that too often we read a passage like this and take for granted what it means. We may even imagine that if we are regularly involved in a church that we will automatically live in the way Peter is commending without too much need on our part to be prayerful or imaginative in how we live as stewards of the manifold grace of God. That is why I chose the passages from Philippians 2 as the Call to Worship and Lesson One. I suggest that in these passages we find an outline of what it looks like to serve one another.

In Philippians 2: 19-21 Paul encourages the flock with this news: "I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, so that I may be cheered by news of you. I have no one like him who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare. All of them are seeking their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ." In this passage Paul echos his exhortation from earlier in the chapter where he introduces the poem of Jesus' self-giving love (2:6-11) with these words: "Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus." The negative, let each of you look not to your own interests, is joined by a positive exhortation about what sort of life we have been called to, a life of turning away from one's own interests for the purpose of living a cruciform life. Jesus did not pursue his own interests, for he did not regard equality with God as something to be used to his own advantage; instead, he lived as a slave for the benefit of others. And so we meet Timothy as one who is not like those who seek their interests. Timothy is one who lives the cruciform life outlines in vs. 6-11. Therefore, Timothy will be genuinely concerned for the welfare of the flock in Philippi.

To serve one another in Christ's body we must first be as certain as possible that we are genuinely concerned for the welfare of our brothers and sisters in Christ. For an example of what this looks like we considered what it means to speak the very words of God to each other. It is unlikely that Peter means by this exhortation that we may only quote Scripture to each other. More likely what he has in mind is that our words to each other must be chosen for their benefit to the other person. I gave a sad example of what this does not look like when I recounted an interaction I had been privy to over two decades ago between a father and his teenage son. The son had been arrested on drug charges. The father offered no love to his son but instead told his son that he reminded him of his cousin, a black sheep in the family. "You remind me of my cousin, (insert fictitious name). His mama always said he would never amount to anything and she was write. I'm beginning to think you won't amount to nothing either". That was about all the father had to offer the son: aconfirmation of how he already felt about himself. To be sure, a father who loves his son will have to work through feelings of anger, hurt, shame, and frustration when his son ends up in jail. But as Christians we must work through all of that with the Lord so that we may have words of grace and hope, words of gospel to speak to those who have failed and hurt themselves and us. In the case I mention, the son knew he had brought shame on the family and the family name. What he needed to hear was the gospel from a father who had learned to look not to his own interests but to the interests of Christ Jesus so that he might be genuinely concerned for the welfare of his son. I suggest that this is a bit of what Peter has in mind when he says we ought to speak with each other the very words of God. Looking not to our own interests but to the welfare of others we ought always be careful to ask God to give us words for others that open their future to them in hope, instead of confirming their deepest fears that their lives will be defined by their history of past mistakes. Think about Jesus' interactions with the three women we have been considering in our recent readings at Grace: the woman at the well; the woman caught in adultery; and the woman who washes Jesus' feet with tears. In each of these interactions Jesus speaks to them and treats them in ways that open their lives to a future of grace and hope. May our words with each other be the same.

Questions for discussion:

1. Can you think of a time when someone spoke to you in such a way so that your future was opened up to God's grace in a fresh way? Can you think of an occasion when someone spoke to you in a way that was quite opposite of that? In the case of the positive words, do you keep in touch with that person and find ways to tell them how meaningful their words were to you? In the case of the negative words, do you find yourself held hostage by them still to this day or has God enabled you to move past their hold on you?

2. Do you think prayerfully about how you may serve others so as to seek their welfare? What would help you be more disciplined in so doing?

3. Can you think of occasions when you have been stymied in being concerned for the welfare of another because of attitudes, thoughts or feelings that you have been unwilling to set aside (in other words, are their attitudes, thoughts and feelings that are "your own interests" which keep you from serving others as a steward of God's grace)?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Are we Hospitable enough?

"If there is any concept worth restoring to its original depth and evocative potential, it is the concept of hospitality." Henri Nouwen
"We will never believe that we have anything to share unless there is someone to receive. Indeed, we will discover our gifts in the eyes of the receiver." Henri Nouwen

If I were to suggest to you that you will never grow as deep in your knowledge and experience of God's love and grace unless you grow in giving and receiving hospitality you might very well respond in puzzlement or in disagreement. I submit, though, that our inability to grasp the importance of hospitality as a spiritual discipline shows us how we often reduce our faith-life to concepts (an affair of the mind) and behavior modification (the strenuous effort to do the right thing on our own strength), while ignoring the patterns and disciplines of living which place us in a posture where God's love is more likely to empower and guide us. Hospitality is one such pattern and discipline, and Peter reminds us of its importance as a formative discipline when he instructs his readers to be hospitable un-begrudgingly. In order to apply Peter's exhortation in our circumstances we need to work towards restoring its original depth and evocative potential, as Nouwen urged.

Hospitality in our experience today has become a kind of weak word. We often think of hospitality in terms of entertaining our friends or being entertained by our friends. The gospel saturated meaning of hospitality as used in the NT does not mean less than this but it does mean a great deal more. Hospitality was a vitally important practice in the ancient world; without hospitality given and received by strangers, travelers were at risk of grave danger. The early church practiced hospitality as they cared for traveling missionaries and sheltered those escaping persecution. Moreover, the discipline of extending hospitality to strangers, including those outside of the Christian faith, reflected Jesus' own practice of extending and receiving hospitality and table fellowship from all sorts of people. In fact the early church became so famous for practicing hospitality for all people that the Emperor Julian (the Apostate) rightly noted that it was one of the reasons for the growth of the Christian church. An enemy of Christianity, he commented in frustration that "it is disgraceful that when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galileans support not only their own poor but ours as well all men see that our people lack aid from us." He went on to instruct his officials to imitate Christian hospitality for utilitarian reasons, as he was attempting to "re-paganize" the post-Constantine empire he inherited.

So, what ought hospitality look like for us? Well, we should be known for entertaining our friends thoughtfully and well but we should also be known for opening our selves, our tables, and our homes to those with whom we would not ordinarily be friends. For those of us following Jesus, we will often find opportunities to open our selves and our resources to others simply because we wish to share the same love and mercy with them which we have received from the Lord; and, as Jesus taught in the parable of the good Samaritan, that person could be anyone and anywhere. If we can point to none or few occasions when we practice hospitality in this way then we are swimming in the shallow end of the pool of God's grace and love - we need to go deeper.

I have suggested that hospitality is a vital discipline; let me now try to flesh out why it is so vital. In Luke, 7 we meet Jesus as the guest in the home of Simon, a Pharisee. In this home Jesus is not given any hospitality. Instead, a woman of ill repute barges in to a place and setting where she should not have been and lavishes on Jesus a luxurious version of the hospitality he should have received from Simon, the supposed host. I have read, studied and preached this passage many times but I had never seen this passage in light of Nouwen's words: "We will never believe that we have anything to share unless there is someone to receive. Indeed, we will discover our gifts in the eyes of the receiver." What a gift this woman gave and received on this occasion! The exchange not only revealed her gifts to her in the eyes of her receiver but also revealed her self to her in a way that opened her her to her true vocation. As an object of God's love, she is to be an emissary of God's love. What we often miss when we read this story is that hospitality given and received creates a wonderful setting in which God's redeeming love grasps hold of us more firmly. Conversely, the absence of hospitality creates a place that is starved of God's redeeming love. God's love is not grasped as fully as it needs to be in the abstract world of theological contemplation or among friends who always agree with each other. God's love is always on the move to bring people into unlikely relationships together for the sake of re-presenting the hospitality of God which is the occasion of their relationship.

1. Can you think of some examples that illustrate why giving and receiving hospitality from "the stranger" can help you grow in your capacity to be more sympathetic with those with whom you are in closer friendship or family relationships? I am thinking that it chisels away at our self-absorption for one thing.....

2. Can you offer an example of an irresponsible way to offer the hospitality of your home (for example, in ways that trample other responsibilities either to your family or perhaps your responsibility to be a good steward of your home)? What does it look like to be generous and take risks in giving and receiving hospitality - what does this look like within wise and godly boundaries?

3. What are two or three reasons why you don't give or receive hospitality as much as you probably ought to? What can you do to address this problem - are sacrifices in order?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Urgency of Love

Love covers a multitude of sins. We met this grace saturated phrase this week in the portion from 1 Peter that we took up in our liturgy. Love is often given a place of priority in the lists of virtues that appear in the New Testament. In 1 Corinthians, love is personified as the virtue without which nothing else is meaningful; in Colossians 3, Paul instructs the Christians to "above all, clothe yourselves with love which binds everything together in perfect harmony". It is difficult to know exactly what Peter means when he says that above all maintain constant love for one another because love covers a multitude of sins but I think we can get a picture of it when we consider that love defines uniquely God's motivation in relationships. In order to get at least a little bit of what Peter has in mind when he says that love covers a multitude of sins we need to move past two common misunderstandings related to how we view God's love at work in the world through the gospel.

Misunderstanding One: God's love is defined by his justice. Not so. The gospel arises out of God's love - not because of the logic of a schema devised to satisfy his justice but because of a heart set upon reconciling women and men to himself (Romans 5:8). God's goal for new creation is not a world where the scales are balanced but a world where justice is transcended. Miroslav Volf's quote is helpful here: "Justice demands nothing less than the undoing of the world, past and present, and the creation of a new world.... A world of perfect justice is a world of love. It is a world with no rules in which everyone does what he or she pleases and all are pleased by what everyone else does; a world of no rights because there are no wrongs from which to be protected; a world of no legitimate entitlements because everything is given and nothing withheld... a world with no equality because all differences are loved in their own appropriate way; a world in which desert plays no role because all actions stem from superabundant grace. In short, a world of perfect justice would be a world of transcended justice because it would be a world of perfect freedom and love. The blindfold would be taken from the eyes of Lady Justice and she would delight in whatever she saw; she would lay aside the scales because she would not need to weigh or compare anything; she would drop her sword because there would be nothing to police.... If we see human beings as children of the one God, created by God to belong all together as a community of love, then there will be good reasons to let embrace - love - define what justice is."

Misunderstanding Two: Rules make-up the basis of our relationship with God. The story of the prodigal son corrects this understanding by showing us, quite dramatically, that love - not rules - forms the basis of our relationship with God (his tireless love for us). The father in this story never lets go of his relationship with the son who leaves and brings shame upon himself and his family. The son broke the rules and imagined that the relationship was lost as he indicated by devising a way to come back to his father's homes as a hired hand. But the father's "eyes that searched for and finally caught sight of the son in the 'distance' tell of a heart that was with the son in the 'distant country'... the father kept the son in his heart as an absence shaped by the memory of the former presence (Volf)".

We are left, however, with the question of what it looks like for love to cover a multitude of sins. Jesus gives us quite a few portraits of what this looks like. Let's take one, for example - one that we looked at recently in a slightly different context (see homily recap entitled, Good News for a Sex Saturated Culture). In John 4, Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at the well. It is clear from his interaction with her that he is driven by self-giving love and a desire to be in a life-giving relationship with her. Her life had been messy for sure. Like most of us, it is not unreasonable to imagine that her life was in the condition it was in because of her sins and the sins of others. Her confession: "I have no husband" is met with Jesus' acknowledgment of her brokenness and an invitation to see, in him, a future of worshipping God in spirit and in truth. There is not a hint of moralism in Jesus' words. Instead there an inviation for her to grow in the gospel. The implication is clear; the way to human flourishing for her, and for us, is found in a deeper relationship with God and his healing love. The goal of God's love is to bring us to see ourselves in light of God's purposes for us in this life. To be sure, love wounds us as it opens us to the future that God wants for us - it is always hard to come to terms with the truth, at least initially. But it is in the confidence of God's love for us and his desire for us to flourish that we find the courage to face that truth and seek the healing that comes through a deeper experience of that same love.

1. When you are angry or cross with someone over something they have done or left undone that has hurt you - how do you set out to let them know about it? In your confrontation do you make it clear that you love them and care for them, or do you set them up for failure by escalating the tension with words that are not grounded in love?

2. Can you think of an occasion where someone has loved you in a way that has covered a multitude of your sins? What does this look like?

3. We all know that trying harder to love isn't really helpful. What does it look like, though, to put oneself in the path of God's love more deliberately, to be more open to God's love, to clothe oneself with God's love? Can you put into your own words what this sort of active passivity looks like on a daily basis? Does this baptism imagery help? => In Colossians 3, Paul instructs us to clothe ourselves with love. This is baptism imagery. When adults were baptized in the early church they would take off there old clothes and put on a new garment after baptism. The imagery was clear,. The old garment represented a life before God's love. The new garment represented a new life open to God's love and direction. What does is look like to be open to God's love?

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Mystery is your Friend

This past week we came to a very difficult passage in 1 Peter (3:17-4:6). In this passage, Peter is talking about Christ's victory over the evil powers that are at work in the world - the powers that take perverse pleasure in the ruination of God's good creation. He talks about Christ's victory in terms of putting things back into their right order (all angels, powers and authorities have been made subject to the risen Christ (3:22); he also characterized Christ's victory as proclamation to those in prison and to the dead (3:19, 4:6). Rather than shying away from the passage and deferring it to a lecture format as we sometimes do with difficult passages, we preached on it during worship and we said what we thought was the main idea of the passage (see previous homily recap). I have been thinking about this passage a lot since preaching on it and it has occurred to me that one of the most important things to be learned from the passage is that a mysterious text that has never enjoyed a "consensus" interpretation from the church through the ages can teach us a lot about the limits of our understanding and, in turn, the role that mystery and a lack of perfect knowledge plays in bringing us into a deeper relationship with Jesus and the gospel.

This week in the devotional time leading up to the sacrament of communion we chose this passage from the gospel of Luke 24:13-27. In this passage two of Jesus' disciples are walking along the road with the risen Jesus. They do not recognize him and begin talking to them about the sadness they shared around his death and the confusing accounts of his resurrection. Jesus takes this as an opportunity to teach them how to read the Bible from a post-resurrection perspective. He taught them that the meaning of the entire OT, the Jewish scriptures, should be found in the meaning of his life, death and resurrection. "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." In this walking lecture Jesus taught these two disciples not how to study the Bible harder so that they and we might understand every jot and tittle comprehensively. Rather, he is saying at least two things:

1. The meaning of the Bible cannot be known apart from Jesus' life, death and resurrection
2. Much data and many teachings in the Bible are not as important as the overall knowledge of God's intentions to love and redeem as revealed in Jesus' life, death and resurrection.

After Jesus' teaching time with these two disciples came to a close, he broke bread and drank wine with them. Upon the sharing of the communion meal, they saw him for who he was: mystery revealed in sacramental relationship! Then we find the disciples saying this to each other: "They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us* while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’

And so, as I have been meditating on the difficult passage from 1 Peter that we took up last week I have been reminded that to encounter a mysterious passage from scripture is always an invitation to encounter Jesus himself, allowing mystery and human limits to draw me deeper into a worshipful encounter with him. In turn, I have been reminded that that it is in the gospel where we find the mysteries of God revealed to us, for our salvation.

Questions for discussion:

1. Are you comfortable with mystery and/or things in the Bible that you don't understand? If so, have you always been? If not, do you think you should get more comfortable with mystery?

2. If someone were to say to you, what is the meaning of the Bible, how would you sum it up in your own words?

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

When a Rainbow Pointed to Baptism in Christ

This week we came to a passage in 1 Peter (3:17-4:6) that is one of the most difficult passages in the New Testament to interpret. With regard to the passage, the only thing more difficult than understanding Peter's original meaning is working out the application for us, in our setting. In this passage we find Peter citing the flood in the days of Noah as an ante-type of Christian baptism; teaching that Jesus announced his victory to the spirits in prison, who were associated with the evildoing which brought on the flood; proclaiming that Jesus' victory has put in their proper place all angels, authorities, and powers; and noting that the gospel has now been preached to the dead, so that they might be made alive in the spirit.

One of the reasons this passage seems so strange to us is that we are not familiar with certain Jewish writings of the period with which Peter seems to be interacting. In the book of 1 Enoch, for instance, the sons of God (angels) who intermingled sinfully with human beings in Genesis 6:1-6, are "imprisoned" in hell as their judgment for the debauchery which brought upon the world the flood. Why this reading was important to Peter, and how his Gentile readers in Western Asia Minor would have heard these words are questions for which we have no ultimately satisfying answers; moreover, what Peter meant by referring to this we do not know either.

Rather than spend a lot of time talking about different interpretations of this passage in minute detail, what I want to focus on in this passage is what I will put forth for your consideration as the big idea of this passage. I submit that the big idea of this section of 1 Peter is that Jesus' life, death and resurrection has gained him a victory on behalf of humankind that has defeated the work of the evil one. Though this victory has yet to come to full fruition in this fallen world, (we are mindful that we live in between Jesus' resurrection and the consummation of all things where Christ will be all and in all), all rebel forces which are at enmity with God and human flourishing have been made subordinate to King Jesus. God is at work to bring salvation to this world, in spite of the fact that evil still taints his creation. And, though the Christians to whom he is writing are few in number, like Noah and his few, God will work through them to bring salvation to many. The flood waters of Noah's day made vast destruction but at the end of that story we are told that after the flood God left us a sign of his promise to never move against creation again. We call that sign a rainbow but the author of Genesis simply used the word for a warrior's bow, which points away from the world. And now, in Christ, we have a sign: baptism. The waters of baptism mark the outpouring of God's grace and love, powerful enough to save all of humankind and defeat every enemy of human flourishing.

Peter's portrayal of Christ's cosmic victory over evil also instructs us regarding how we ought to think about God's love for us, all people, and our world. Though we are complicit through our sin in the breaking of God's shalom, God is positively inclined towards human beings and desires us to escape the evil that is at play in the world. God is itching to give each of us our share in the victory of Jesus over evil. The knowledge that this is God's disposition towards us is itself a stimulant to receive him more fully. But what about those who do not know of this victory? How are we to think of those who are captured by evil? Well, we are all too familiar with the tendency for Christians to demonize those outside of the church but the gospel leaves no place for this with its emphasis on enemy-love, an emphasis prevalent in 1 Peter. "1 Peter does not warn in totalizing discourse against an evil world, but calls his community to resist the devil that prowls around, looking for someone to devour (5:8). The image of a prowling devil suggests that evil is not some impenetrable darkness outside the walls of the church, equally thick in all places; rather, evil is a mobile force, something one always has to deal with but is never quite sure where and how one will encounter it. The statements that celebrate Christian calling “out of darkness into his marvelous light” notwithstanding (2:9), 1 Peter does not operate with the stark black-and-white opposition between “divine community” and “satanic world.” Correspondingly, the author seems less interested in hurling threats against
the unbelieving and aggressive non-Christian neighbors, [23] than in celebrating Christians’ special status before God (see 2:9f.). Christian hope, not the damnation of non-Christians, figures centrally in the letter (see 1:3; 3:15). [24] - Volf from his essay, Soft Difference."

Questions for discussion:

1. How do the interpretive difficulties that swirl around this passage of 1 Peter make you feel about the Bible? Does it shake your faith or make you roll your eyes a little when you realize that for some reason Peter finds it important to interact with 1 Enoch in order to discuss Jesus' victory on our behalf? (1 Enoch is not regarded as canonical by orthodox Christians or Jews.) Do you have to believe that the flood in Noah's day actually happened according to the biblical record in order to follow Jesus in faith and repentance?

2. Do you think of God as itching to give you a share in Jesus' victory and his love? Do you tend to see God more as an extravagant lover or as a miserly lover? Do you see him more in one of those two metaphors with regard to certain struggles you have? If so, why do you think that is?

3. Do you sometimes find yourself engaged in a "totalizing discourse against an evil world"? Is it harmful to our spiritual formation to view life framed as a "stark black-and-white opposition between 'divine community' and 'satanic world'? Why or why not?