Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Growing Pains (Part 1)

O God, you declare your almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity: Grant us the fullness of your grace, that we, running to obtain your promises, may become partakers of your heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Meditation Leading Into Communion:

I was talking recently to three friends on three separate occasions about how difficult and messy it is to navigate complicated family relationships. It got me to thinking about how sometimes situations arise in families where there is hurt and conflict and so many people have contributed to the hurt and conflict that no one can imagine how there can really be a way forward - too many sins of omission, too many sins of commission, too many people involved with culpability, too complicated to unravel. There are no neat and tidy one size fits all pieces of advice to give regarding big messes like these, but what has impressed me over the years is how God can come into situations like these and bring a measure of reconciliation and redemption. It usually begins to happen when at least one person - but often just one person - begins to regard his or her identity in Christ as more important than things like his or her reputation, or claim to be right or to know what’s best for everyone else. What I mean by the person regarding his or her identity in Christ as more important that everything else is not a concept of union with Christ but a dynamic sharing in Christ’s suffering in the family. To embody the sufferings of Christ in and with the family also brings the hope of resurrection and newness of life (we die with Christ and we live with him). Let’s offer an example that I have pieced together which has elements of at least half a dozen situations I have had the privilege of being involved with over the years; the example is historical fiction you might say. Let’s say that Anastasia is one of several siblings and that she has given some great offence to the family and that everyone is mad at her. Dad is as distant as ever, Mom has written her off and has nothing to say to her that is not criticism. Then let’s say that one of her siblings - the one who always seems like she has everything together and is the star of the family - comes to her and shares her own secret weaknesses with Anastasia in a way that makes it clear that she does not see herself on another plane but sees herself as one who struggles deeply with her own brokenness, though privately and and invisibly. Then suppose that same sister makes it clear that she has bound herself to Anastasia in unconditional love while at the same time continuing to love and respect the rest of the family. She makes this obvious by steadily respecting Anastasia in the presence of those who do not and by actively seeking her out to run errands, do projects and the like. Anastasia’s sister has drawn near to Anastasia by sharing in Christ’s suffering with the family. When one embodies Christ’s redemptive suffering in this way the possibility of future redemption and peace is greater than it was before.

Galatians 6:2 “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil* the law of Christ.”


We are beginning today a series of homilies that we are calling growing pains. We will be considering together examples of difficult and challenging situations that the early church faced as depicted in the New Testament. As we do this we will see how God’s spirit worked in the midst of the difficult situations to (a) enable the community to acknowledge the difficulty for what it was instead of papering over it, (b) enable the leaders to address the situation in a way that brought the community to a place of greater flourishing and (c) bring about a result that helped the church move forward in growth.

This morning we come to the situation that is recounted in Acts 6. The situation is this: the church at Jerusalem was made up mainly of converts from Judaism. In this early Christian community in Jerusalem the majority ethnic group that was in charge of the church was ethnically Hebrew. They spoke Aramaic. The minority group within the church community was made up of Greek speaking Jews. Here is the growing pain that they experienced. The Greek speaking widows within the community were being excluded from the daily provision of food. The Greek speaking Jews complained to the leadership and the result was that the ethnic majority group acknowledged the problem for what it was and appointed seven Greek speaking Jewish converts to come and share in the leadership in order to ensure that the Greek speaking widows were not overlooked.

The first thing I want to note about this crisis is simply the obvious - that it happened. Church is a place where imperfect people are in leadership and sometimes under their watch they make mistakes. In this instance the leadership did not care properly for a very vulnerable group of people, widows of an ethnic minority in their midst. The solution was to acknowledge the problem for what it was and seek God’s guidance to fix it.

The second thing I want to note about this story is that there were people in the church who were upset with other people in the church and in this case rightly so! However, according to the account that Luke gives us of this situation, we are stunned to see that instead of a schism there is a time of refreshing that is brought by the Holy Spirit. Students of Luke-Acts have noted that the movement of Jesus’ mission forward, the advancement of the kingdom, the growth of the early church is the work of the Holy Spirit. In times of crisis it is the Holy Spirit who intervenes and brings growth. One of the marks of the Holy Spirit’s intervention is that he turns people away from their own interests and turns them towards the needs of others. Previously in Acts this is seen in the dramatic redistribution of wealth within the church; here it is seen in the giving over/sharing of power and leadership to the ethnic minority of Greek-speaking Jews. Those marked by the Spirit are those who are can bring reconciliation between two groups who, because of the brokenness of this fallen world, would have reason to be suspicious and resentful of each other. Again and again the Spirit shows his work in the community by enabling certain people to regard the good of the other as more important than his or her own.

What is there for Grace Chicago in all of this? Well, we don’t know - that I am aware of anyway - of a situation in our church community where there is the sort of grave neglect going that was happening to the widows in Acts 6. But if you think I am wrong about that and you know of something I would like you tell me. What does come to my mind and heart regarding what the Spirit may have for us in this story is something like this: at this stage of the growth of Grace Chicago Church each of us ought to take stock of our relationship to the church community and ask ourselves questions like these:

1. Do we regard the work of Christ in the local church community as important enough to vest ourselves meaningfully in the community? In the story before us in Acts 6 everyone involved was fully vested and the whole community was pleased with how the crisis was addressed. Are we vested like that at Grace?
2. Do we recognize hurtful situations in the church where we perceive ourselves to be wronged by another member as an opportunity for healing and reconciliation, or do we turn back into ourselves and our natural friendships and refuse to let Christ's love work on our wounds? Note that many priests turned to Jesus after this crisis - the very group that had the most to lose by subordinating their ethnic identity to Christ.
3. Do we have a high enough view of what God is doing in the world through the gospel at work in the local church to commit ourselves to the unity and flourishing of Grace Chicago Church and to put ourselves in situations where we can bear each other’s burdens? Do we see the church community as the new humanity that Christ is forming where there is neither Jew nor Greek, male and female but where all are one in Christ Jesus?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

rescue us from evil

In the prayer that Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, he tells us to pray that we will not be brought to the time of trial and that we be rescued from the evil one. With regard to being delivered from trials: it is clear that Jesus regarded his entire mission as full of trials and identifies his followers as those who share in his trials (e.g. Luke 22:24-34), those who stand by him in his trials. Also, Saint Paul pictures the church’s ongoing ministry as sharing in the sufferings of Christ, saying mysteriously that his ministry in the church (a type of all those who co-labor) makes up that which is lacking in Christ’s afflictions ( Colossians 1). It would be impossible then for Jesus to have in mind that we should pray in such a way that we imagine our life can be free of trials. Indeed, I submit that the case is quite the opposite. To follow Jesus is to be in one trial after another. Most likely what is meant here is that we are to pray about our lives and our sharing in Christ’s mission with the real world full of trials and tribulations in full view - not to shy away from them. For, the one whose life is hidden in God with Christ has the courage and clear vision to see just how bad things really are. In this sense we are in a unique position to give the world a gift that, though it might not want, it needs: a diagnosis of what is wrong in the world. Christians, because of our great confidence in God’s judgment of evil and our sin on the cross, have the courage and vision to name evil for what it is when it is at work in ourselves or in the world. However, because we are Christ’s ambassadors of reconciliation, we must be careful to not only name evil but to simultaneously proclaim the good news of the gospel. Moreover, it is not permitted for the Christian to demonize those who do evil things for we are all in the same boat on that one.

So, I am suggesting that the following exhortation flows from our understanding of what is at the heart of this petition regarding trials and deliverance from evil: we are to ask God to help us remain in the power of his victory over evil in the midst of trials and temptations. This must be some of what Jesus had in his mind and heart when he honored his disciples by naming them as those who have stood with him in the midst of his trials while knowing well that they would also be unfaithful to him in his great trial!! Peter, of course, becomes the example of the one who stands with Jesus and also denies Jesus. In this way he is a type of every Christian person; and when we think of the words of the Lord’s prayer in light of Peter as typical of you and me - one who both shares in Jesus’ mission and his trials and one who fails Jesus - it helps us get the right perspective on what we are to ask in faith and hope when we ask to be delivered from the evil one and from the time of trial. We pray these words on the other side of Christ’s victory over evil on the cross; we pray these words on the other side of Jesus’ praying for Peter to turn back and strengthen his fellow disciples; we live on the other side of Jesus’ being faithful in the midst of his great trial in the garden when he prays that God’s will be done even as he struggles with the trial of the prospect of death on the cross; we live on the other side of the resurrection, the victory of God over evil as shown in Jesus’ human resurrection, the first fruits of the new creation.

In the words of N.T. Wright, “To pray deliver us from the evil one is to inhale the victory of the cross and thereby to hold the line for another moment, another hour, another day, against the forces of destruction within ourselves and the world....”

This thought of praying these words as inhaling the victory of the cross will have as many different sorts of applications as there are people in this room but one way I think of it is a call to turn from despair to hope. Think of Peter again. He renounces and denies Jesus in his greatest trial and yet is personally restored to a hopeful future of sharing in Jesus’ mission. We are reminded in all of this that inhaling the victory of the cross is to deal seriously with our sins and failures but only as we invoke the power of the cross and God’s forgiveness. We get it wrong a great deal and imagine that our failures in and of themselves are what God is looking at and what is defining us. But there is no room in following Jesus in this world to say I am defined by sins and failures; there is only room for the joy of repentance and a confident hope that God’s kingdom will come and his will will be done on earth as it is in heaven. When we live this way with one another we keep each other focused on the gospel and continue to bear hopeful witness to a world so broken and fractured that it is often afraid to assess evil for what it is.

1. Do you think of the victory of the cross as always with you, ready to be "inhaled"? What sorts of mundane practices could you deepen or add to your routines that would help you to live closer to the victory of God in the cross of Christ?

2. Do you agree that the message of hope is always on offer in the gospel, even (especially) when we have done our worst? How can you help others who are a part of your life appreciate this more deeply?

3. The evangelical world is fond of point out evil in the culture at large but often in a way that demonizes those outside of its folds. What sorts of things should the church say and do in its prophetic voice but in a way that communicates hope?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Question Will Be: Have you shown mercy!?

Almighty God, who through your only-begotten Son Jesus
Christ overcame death and opened to us the gate of
everlasting life: Grant that we, who celebrate with joy the
day of the Lord's resurrection, may be raised from the death
of sin by your life-giving Spirit; through Jesus Christ our
Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one
God, now and for ever. Amen.

Last week we talked a good bit about forgiveness being God’s work through and through. Additionally, we noted the mysterious way in which Scripture points to God’s passion to redeem and to reconcile - not as an afterthought put into play after creation goes wrong and sin enters in - but as an aspect of God’s love for the world that preceded creation. One of the reasons why I am urging us to get as clear as we can get regarding forgiveness being all God’s work, a matter settled before the foundation of the world, is to safeguard us from running amok in our thinking about what goes on when we repent Our repentance does not put God in a new posture of wanting to forgive us. Moreover, our repentance does not earn us forgiveness. Our faithful repentance brings us into union with Christ’s death and deepens our participation in God’s redemptive work in our lives and in the world. Through repentance we die to our efforts at self-justification and autonomy; we die to our arms crossed posture that separates us from God and his nurturing love; we die to our identities as people who are either too proud of or too disgusted with our selves to accept God’s forgiveness. When we repent we take God’s judgment on our sins as being the true picture of what we have done while simultaneously taking God’s word that Christ has taken that judgment into himself - divine wrath is absorbed by divine mercy It is there, where God’s justice and mercy meet in the passion of Jesus’ sacrificial death that we have the promise of our forgiveness even as our sins come under God’s judgment.

This picture of sharing in Christ’s death is sometimes referred to by theologians as inclusive substitution. Here is a helpful and very brief summary of that doctrine taken from Miroslav Volf’s Free of Charge, Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace: “Writing to the church in Corinth, the apostle Paul made a puzzling statement about Christ’s death: “One has died for all”, he wrote, “therefore all have died” (2 Corinthians 5:14). Since Christ is our substitute, after reading, “one has died for all”, we’d expect him to continue, “therefore none of them needs to die”. Had he written that, he would have expressed the idea that theologians call exclusive substitution. According to this view, Christ’s death makes ours unnecessary. As a third party, he is our substitute, and his death is his alone and no one else’s. But that is not the way the Apostle thought. Christ’s death does not replace our death. It enacts it, he suggested. That’s what theologians call inclusive substitution. Because one has died, all have died. As a substitute he was not a third party. His death is inclusive of all.... what happened to him happened to us. When he was condemned we were condemned. When he died, we died. We were included in his death. John Donne put it this way in his ‘Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness’: “We think that Paradise and Calvary, / Christ’s cross and Adam’s tree stood in one place’. To be in Christ means that the tree from which Adam took forbidden fruit and the cross on which Christ died stood in one place, that the old self - the old Adam - died when Christ died (Volf, Free of Charge, pp. 147-148).”

Finally on Sunday we brought all of this talk of forgiveness around to Jesus’ challenging words in the Lord’s prayer: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” We also had the reading from Matthew 18, a parable that Jesus told about the importance of showing mercy to others as God has shown mercy to us. What Jesus is talking about here, for lack of a better word, is the “social” aspect of God’s redemptive work in the world, and his command that we be involved in this aspect of God’s reconciliation of the world to himself. This “social” aspect of God’s reconciliation of the world to himself is terribly neglected in certain quarters of the Christian world. Here are some remarks by Volf on this aspect of God’s forgiveness:

“We cannot be fully saved unless we are reconciled—not only with God but with each other. From this it follows that the undiluted experience of salvation in the world to come must include social reconciliation. Isn't it enough, though, for God simply to give us eternal life and a completely fresh start after freeing us from the desire to sin?When I was a teenager, a popular preacher used to illustrate what happens at conversion by using the image of a new page. When he was a boy (in a time before delete buttons and ballpoint pens), the preacher said, he could never write out a whole page without making a mistake or spilling ink. He was troubled by the mess he kept making and would always be relieved when he could turn to a new page and start afresh. This is, he said, what Christ offers to us—a fresh start. And this is what heaven will be like—our mistakes will be gone and we will be given a fresh start in such a way that from then on we will always write flawlessly.But that is not quite right. Heaven is more than just a fresh start. It is more than just the creation of a new future. It is also redemption of yesterday, today, and tomorrow—redemption of our whole lived life. Heaven is having had your messy pages made clean and right again. Apply this now to the wrongdoings we commit against each other—a majority of our sins. If the past, which is suffused with enmity, is to be redeemed, it is not enough for us to be given a fresh start. Our relationships will have to be restored. Hence the final social reconciliation of those who died unreconciled must be part of the transition from the present world to the world to come.” Here is the link to the article from which this quote was taken: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2000/october23/7.94.html

Questions for discussion:

1. Does Volf’s discussion of inclusive substitution stimulate your thinking about your repentance? Do you think of repentance as something you do to earn God’s forgiveness? What other erroneous versions of God’s repentance do you sometimes drift into? Why do you think it is so hard to think clearly about this subject?

2. Are you offended by Jesus’ requirement that you forgive those who sin against you? Can you think of someone you have not forgiven that you need to forgive for something? How should you proceed to address the issue of forgiving those who have sinned against you? Are there ways to proceed that would be dangerous and wrong for you to undertake? If so, how can you address the issue of forgiving the person within boundaries of safety for yourself?

3. How does the notion of redemption being about our entire lived lives strike you? Does that sound good or would you prefer the blank slate that Volf critiques above? What difference could it make in your life if you thought of your redemption as a redemption of your entire life, including relationships with others?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Forgiven Before The Foundation of the World

We returned this week to our meditation on the Lord’s prayer. We mentioned earlier in this series that this prayer reminds us that we are vulnerable creatures who have all sorts of needs whether we will admit those needs are not. Not admitting that we have certain needs gets us into all sorts of trouble but we stubbornly cling to all kinds of defense strategies in order to make it seem as if we don’t have as many needs as we have. For the sake of discussion, let’s just call this a kind of self-sufficiency. I am fully aware that most of us would proclaim adamantly that we do not try to present ourselves as being self-sufficient but I think we behave that way in spite of ourselves, and proclaim loudly that we are not because we know that it is wrong for Christians to present themselves as self-sufficient. It is one thing to take care of your needs and not be overly burdensome upon others but if we pretend we don’t have needs when we do we end up in a precarious position.

One of the bold assertions of the gospel and it is seen clearly in this prayer is that each of us is a person who has a basic human need to be forgiven. That may sound pretty old fashioned to some of you but I would suggest that if you just look around at the world you will see a pretty dramatic need for forgiveness as people continue to wrong each other, demonize each other, hurt each other and often kill each other. I would say that the human need for forgiveness is just as alive today as ever before. Moreover, the gospel, and this prayer, make it clear that you can’t have talk about forgiveness among human beings on that plane unless you talk about the human need to be forgiven by God (the prayer also makes it clear that you can’t have talk about forgiveness from God without acknowledging that his forgiveness is always intended to bear the fruit of forgiveness in the person who is forgiven - we’ll talk about that next week).

There is a lot of confusion about God’s forgiveness and I am sure I am confused about it too. There is a lot of mystery in the air when anyone starts talking about God’s forgiveness in Christ because relevant questions about, among other things, divine foreknowledge and human responsibility come up quickly. Even though all of our theological reflection is provisional because of our limitations I do think it is helpful to try our best to flesh out some theological thoughts about God’s forgiveness. Among some other questions we asked on Sunday was this one: does God forgive before the foundation of the world (1 Peter 1:20). If so, what difference does it make?

Miroslav Volf, along with many other theologians suggests that God does forgive before the foundation of the world. “God decided to redeem the world of sin before the Creator could lay its foundations. Each of us exists because the gift of life rests on the gift of forgiveness (Volf).” Put another way, the same love with which God created the world is the same love that drives him to redeem that which he created. Forgiveness for God is not so much a response once creation has gone wrong as it is an expression of the creator’s love from the beginning, mysteriously woven into the fabric of the universe. Or, to put it another way still, where God’s love is there is always forgiveness.

Questions for discussion:

1. Do you know of aspects of your life wherein you give the impression to others and maybe to yourself that you don’t have needs when you do? What drives this in you? Where does it come from? What can you do to change and acknowledge your vulnerability.

2. Do you often think of asking forgiveness as a response to a gracious command? Does thinking of it this way encourage you or not? Explain.

3. When you think about the possibility that God was thinking in a forgiving way before he ever created make you think about God’s character in a way that is different than you, perhaps, have in the past? Put in your own words what you think about the suggestion that God forgives before the foundation of the world.