Monday, August 16, 2010

"Hospital for Sinners"

As you may know, if you have been attending Grace lately, we have been moving through 1 Peter during our homilies, reflecting on the text together and asking God’s spirit to enable us to apply the teaching of the gospel for this 1st century church to our situation. As we have lingered in this epistle, it has occurred to me in a fresh way that the questions we bring to the biblical text, and/or the assumptions we make about why Peter says what he does are extremely important. The questions and assumptions that we bring with us to a text shapes profoundly what we are able to hear in a given text.

Here is one example of what I mean. We read in 1 Peter 5 that leaders in the church are to be examples to the flock. But if we imagine that being an example to the flock is primarily about displaying one’s strength and goodness - and inviting others to imitate these - then we have not let the overall meaning of the gospel guide us in our assumptions we bring to the words, “be an example”. Dr. J. Warren Smith, of Duke Divinity School, has a helpful explanation of what leading by example should like in a gospel saturated community. The following is excerpted from a sermon transcript entitled, “The Weakness in Virtue, the Virtue in Weakness”:

“Yes, your virtue matters, and it will make a difference in your ministry. Without such virtues, how can anyone hope to lead God’s people and build up Christ’s body? ..... whatever you contribute in your ministry.... its source is not your strength or your virtue or your excellence, but its source is your weakness. For as Paul tells the Corinthians, “When I am weak, then I am strong..... For what work is the apostle sent into the world but to bear witness to the power of God, who raised Christ Jesus from the dead. The apostle does this by being the earthen vessel in whom God manifests his resurrecting power. The same is true for us who walk in the footsteps of the apostles. Our ministry is not about displaying our wisdom or eloquence or compassion or righteousness. Were that the case, people would see nothing greater than cultivated natural talents. The aim of our ministry is always to point beyond ourselves to God, who is at work in us. One of Karl Barth’s mantras was John the Baptist’s declaration, “I must decrease that he may increase.” Jesus commanded us, “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” Yet when we read Jesus’ words alongside Paul’s, we realize that the light of God’s power is revealed in the weakness that always accompanies even our best good works, and God is glorified through us . (J. Warren Smith)” (here is the link to the sermon transcript for those interested:

In a similar vein, our expectations of what a church community should be for its people will either make it more likely or less likely that its members will grow in their confidence in the gospel. If our expectation of church is that it is a place where we put on a front, wear a mask over our pain and problems, and display only our good behavior then we will be stymied in our growth in the grace of the gospel; moreover, we will make it hard for others in the community to grow in grace as well. The talented writer, Heather Moffitt reflects on her experience of learning what a church should be for its people through the humbling experience of parenting a son with special needs in the context of her church community: “We do not attend a church where ushers ask noisy children to leave the sanctuary. We were never shunned because of our challenging child. Instead, people prayed over him with love. Our pastor would get down on his knees to meet him at eye level every week and talk to him. One lovely couple even offered to keep our son some Sunday afternoons so we could have a break. I slowly realized that this church was a manifestation of God’s grace to us, for it is not a church where everyone arrives with a Sunday-morning mask of perfection over the heartbreaks of life. And I realized that, as much as I wanted my son’s spiritual formation to happen in the church, I had wanted even more to be acknowledged as a good mother based on his model behavior. A challenging child in church forces everyone -- parents and other parishioners -- to confront whether we value compliance over compassion.... Even though I’ve long known how to behave in church, I’ve had to accept how to be broken in church. I wanted to be praised for my parenting instead of healed from my hurt. I thought I was seeking spiritual formation for my son, and discovered I needed it for my own soul.” Here is a link to this essay in its entirety

Finally, we came back to the passage we have been looking at for a few Sundays now: 1 Peter 5:1-5. In keeping with our theme for the day, our observation that the questions, concerns, and assumptions we bring to a text can either help us get to the heart of the passage or detour us from the heart of the passage, we noted this: many Christians come to the portion of this passage that speaks of submission to elders and become immediately preoccupied with the rationale and mechanics of why and how human beings submit those human beings who have authority over within the context of the local church. I suggest that this line of questioning will take us away from the heart of this passage. It is kind of like meeting someone for the first time and thinking about her primarily with regard to how much money she makes. How much money she makes is part of her story but if it is the first thing you think of it makes you lose sight of what is most important about them as a person. Similarly, if you look at 1 Peter 1:1-5, especially v.5, and think first and foremost about vertical relationships, hierarchy, and the importance of being submissive to those who have authority, you will miss the description of how the gospel is at work within that church community. Why do I say this? Because the whole of this passage is a movement away from the extremely vertical expression of human authority, a product of the culture of the day, and a movement towards mutual submission. In the new community being formed in Christ, everyone is to be desirous of submitting to one another because everyone wears the same garment, humility..

To offer an example of what this might look like in a gospel saturated community I raised one of the harder issues that a church community can face, the tragedy of adultery, an issue which always makes thoughtful Christians concerned about the need for admonition and exhortation to be expressed and hopefully received in the spirit of Christian love. When a member of the community sins deeply against another member - and this could be any sin for the sake of conversation - what norms how the community deals with situations like this (and specifically how leadership acts on behalf of the community) is the desire to love one another deeply from the heart (1 Peter 1:22). In other words, the required admonition and exhortation should not grow out of a commitment to throw down human authority along a vertical axis. It is rather the case that each person is on the same plane, called to love one another deeply from the heart. So, the exhortation, admonition, and mercy required are born from a desire to love deeply the offending party and protect fiercely the injured one. In situations like this sometimes reconciliation is not possible and most of the energy expended will be in support of the injured. But to reiterate - what norms how the community deals with all of this is not a macho demonstration of muscle flexing against the sinner - as if those doing the muscle flexing are without sin and 100 percent pure - but a steadfast commitment to loving deeply from the heart coupled with a steadfast commitment to calling the person, if he is unrepentant, away from sin and back to fullness of life in Christ.

In summary of this Sunday let me offer this: it matters what assumptions, concerns, and questions you bring to a text or to church. If church is primarily a place where human power or virtuous achievement is on display the power of the gospel is harder to see; if church is primarily a place of intellectual challenge and stimulation then..... well one thinks of St. Paul’s remarks about knowledge puffing up. But if the church, to borrow a metaphor from St Augustine, is primarily understood as a hospital for sinners, a place, to use Peter’s language, where people are learning to love one another deeply from the heart..... well that is a place where the gospel can get to work in us in a deep way.... and may our church be this sort of community.... AMEN.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Don't be a Hero

The past two Sundays we have been taking a look at 1 Peter 5:1-5. In this passage Peter encourages the leaders in the church to “not lord it over” the flock but rather to lead in humility and by example.

Peter’s admonition to not lead by “lording it over” is almost certainly a deliberate allusion to Jesus’ own words from Matthew 20. When the mother of James and John asks him the favor of choosing her two sons to rule as his vice-regents in his kingdom Jesus takes the opportunity to contrast sharply the way authority is to work in the kingdom he is inaugurating with the way in which power and authority were wielded in the culture of the day. His followers are not to use power over people, as was common in their culture vis a vis the patron client relationship; instead they are to serve others even as they have been served by Jesus: “But Jesus called them to him and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

So far so good. Leaders within the Christian community are to serve as Jesus has served them. But what are we to make of the encouragement to lead by example? “Leading by example!” We have said and heard that phrase so many times that we may run the risk of thinking we know what it means in general, and within the context of this passage. Usually, however, when we think of someone leading by example we think of someone who is more or less heroic. “I want to be just like John”, we say, and then set out to take stabs at being just like them. Or, we may say, “if I could be more like Cathy my life would be so much better!”, and then bemoan our perceived failure of a life in contrast. Sometimes, we throw the phrase, “lead by example”, like a dagger - usually at someone who has disappointed us profoundly. The problem with trying to be just like John, however, is that whatever is good in John was produced through a unique journey of faith and repentance. John may have had to go to jail for DUI in order to deal with the pain he was trying to drown in alcohol abuse - pain that came from a loveless marriage. His marriage now, which you admire, was restored through his meeting Christ in repentance through suffering. The problem with imagining that your life would be so much better if you could be more like Cathy ignores Cathy’s unique journey too, but further complicates things by introducing an element of fantasy to the picture, encouraging you to ignore your own journey by escaping into a fantasy about one day being more like Cathy. Finally, the problem with throwing the phrase, “lead by example!” as a dagger at someone who has let you down does nothing to move towards forgiveness and reconciliation and keeps things at the superficial level of behavior modification.

What we need is a pattern of what it looks like to lead by example for people following Jesus in faith and repentance. The New Testament offers just that. The Christ poem in Philippians 2 points the way: “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, 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.” The pattern that each Christian is to follow is the pattern of Jesus’ humility and self-giving love. Jesus, in his unique vocation as the new Adam, in all that he does, points away from himself by living his life completely in the service of others and the saving purposes of the triune God. The question for us: what does imitating this pattern look like for each of us?

We are at our human best when we are pointing away from ourselves, our accomplishments, and our perceived strengths and pointing towards God and his grace towards us. For Jesus this took the form of doing for us and all of humanity what we could not do for ourselves. For us, this imitation of Jesus’ self-emptying entails finding our strength and our hope through dependence upon God’s power at work in our weakness. The patterns to imitate for one another are patterns of perpetual repentance and ongoing faithful petition for God to enable us to live in a way where we love others as we have been loved by him.

Lets come back now to our discussion of John, Cathy, and throwing daggers. So often we think of being a good example in terms of being as close to perfect as we can possibly be. I have suggested that this focus on perceived accomplishment and achievements is unhelpful. I have suggested that we ought to desire to cultivate and copy the pattern of Christ’s humility in each other instead. When we think of imitating the “self-emptying pattern” in each other in the way we have just suggested, the focus is where it belongs, on the means of grace that makes John and Cathy more fully human - not the perceived accomplishments of unique persons. And when we desire for our lives to be shaped in the imitation of Jesus’ self-emptying love, we become more and more cruciform, finding ourselves less likely to throw the dagger of accusation - “you are not a good example!” - and more likely to initiate reconciliation.


During the meditation before communion on Sunday we talked about the passage in Ephesians where Paul calls us to imitate God in our desire to forgive one another. Not surprisingly we meet in this call to imitate the same kind of humility and powerlessness that we have discussed above. Here is the quote I read from as an illustration of this concept:

“It is a gross distortion of forgiveness that sees it as a sort of claim to power over the other – being a patron or a benefactor towards someone less secure. We should rather think of those extraordinary words in the prophecy of Hosea (11.8-90) about the mercy of God: 'How can I give you up, O Ephraim? For I am God and not a mortal'. To forgive is to share in the helplessness of God, who cannot turn from God's own nature: not to forgive would be for God a wound in the divine life itself. Not power but the powerlessness of the God whose nature is love is what is shown in the act of forgiving. The believer rooted in Christ shares that powerlessness, and the deeper the roots go the less possible it is not to forgive. And to be forgiven is another kind of powerlessness – recognising that I cannot live without the word of mercy, that I cannot complete the task of being myself without the healing of what I have wounded. Neither the forgiver nor the forgiven acquires the power that simply cuts off the past and leaves us alone to face the future: both have discovered that their past, with all its shadows and injuries, is now what makes it imperative to be reconciled so that they may live more fully from and with each other (Rowan Williams, from his keynote address at the Lutheran World Federation Assembly, Jully 22, 2010).”

Questions for Discussion:

1. Do you think of yourself as having power over other people because you may or may not want to forgive them? If so, where do you think you learned to think and feel that way? What will help you move away from that attitude?

2. When someone disappoints you what is something you might likely say that would be damaging and point away from reconciliation? What might you say instead that would be at once honest and humble, pointing towards reconciliation?

3. Why is it so tempting to long to be just like John or fantasize about what your life would be like if you were more like Cathy? What process in our own lives is short-circuited when we operate in that mode? What sorts of things do we need to repent of to keep us from operating in the mode of imagining we can or should imitate the perceived grand successes of other people?