Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Advent One: Seeing the Present in Light of the Future

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness and to put on the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility; that on the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

This morning we embark upon the season of advent. It is sometimes asked, why the church calendar begins a season as cozy as Christmas with disturbing apocalyptic imagery (Luke 21:25-36). Well, the answer is that the church has always recognized that we live in between Christ’s two advents - his first advent and his promised return from the future where he will join the world to come to this world, and bring all things and all people under his rule of peace, justice, and love.

But to live in between two advents is to need reminding of how to read the present in light of the future. The bible often invokes the apocalyptic genre in order to jolt us into recognizing that the present must be read in light of the future for us to be faithful to Christ’s mission in this world, to flourish as human beings. This is true for all of us regardless of what time in history we live or what pressures we are under. However, Biblical scholars remind us that apocalyptic language is most often generated by people who are being oppressed and persecuted by tyrants, feeling and living as if the end of the world was really upon them.

Reverend Scott Johnston of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in Manhattan makes these insightful remarks:
“Those who have endured (or still endure) oppressive situations understand apocalyptic literature better than most of us. Allan Boesak, renowned South African preacher, once remarked that it made sense for him to preach on apocalyptic themes during the years of apartheid, for apocalyptic images spoke to and adequately described the lives of his listeners. Boesak's parishioners knew what it was like to live each day as if it were the end of the world. Their community had experienced appalling calamity and had witnessed evil dragons prowling in the land. When the trucks would come to surround their townships with razor wire, Boesak described them as great beasts which vomited an obscene, barbed cargo calculated to cut people off from each other and from hope. The preacher's imagery wasn't over-the-top grim for these folks, it was perhaps the only way for them to make sense of their plight in the world.”

So, for Israel living under the oppressive rule of Babylon, the prophet Daniel crafted an apocalypse to remind God’s people that the future belongs to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and not the Babylonian tyrants that ruled Israel during the exile. For Christians living under the persecution of Rome, John writes the book of Revelation to remind the churches that the alliance between the beasts of this world, the whore of Babylon, and Satan will be destroyed by God; and that the new heavens and new earth will be for those who have suffered trials and tribulations in this life a place where God himself will wipe away every tear; evil will be arrested, eradicated and justice will reign with love.

One implication for us is that we must allow the apocalyptic language of Scripture to call us to solidarity with those who have been pushed to the side while the powerful and successful of the world look upon them simply as the casualties of history....

…... As Richard Bauckham reminds us, “if the future belongs to Jesus Christ, then we can see the future, Jesus Christ's future, in those whom this world treats worst: those whose lives are mostly pain or grinding poverty, those whose lives are destroyed by disease or violence or abuse, the millions who die young before scarcely living at all. These are the people the myths of human progress have never had anything to offer; human progress can only leave such people behind, the casualties of history. Jesus Christ does not leave them behind. He will raise them into his future. It is their future, in which God himself (as the book of Revelation tells us) will wipe away every tear from every eye. And should we tempted not to believe in the future of Jesus Christ, it is those people we should remember. People who feel that this life is good enough and we need not hope for another are always affluent people leading comfortable, fulfilling lives. They may feel this life is enough for them, but they have no right to think it is good enough for the millions whose lives have been misery. It is those people for
whom Jesus Christ will be revealed in the end - and for the rest of us if we care about

Now, let’s come back to the Luke text in front of us:

For Jesus’ audience who first heard these words, their generation would not pass away before they would see the destruction of the temple, truly an apocalyptic event. They would also experience oppression for living out Jesus’ mission in a world that remained hostile to his message and mission.

But what about us? What does this language have to say to you and to me? Well, we have already noted that it challenges us to declare our solidarity with the poor, the oppressed and marginalized. But the passage before us speaks to all of us whether we are physically poor, oppressed or whatever, because all of us human beings live under the weight of a world that can be beastly to us.

For all of us this passage reminds us that the evil we suffer will not have the last word because the future belongs to God. Whether you suffer the horrors of physical or emotional abuse, the suffering of illness, the despair that accompanies mental illness, the terrible nightmares that accompany your fears of the future, you must know that your future is held in God’s hand. Jesus has come to be near you in your suffering, to hold you tightly to himself, and to keep you close to his heart. And one day he will bring you into the new heavens and the new earth where you will know and walk in the fullness of human joy. We need that message of comfort don’t we? We need that when we are suffering from the throes of living in a fallen world; we need it else we will give into despair and turn from God’s love to the life-destroying forces of apathy or some sort of self-destructive behavior. The temptation is always there for us to try to escape the pain of suffering in this fallen world though numbing ourselves; it is no coincidence that Jesus warns in this very passage against a life-style of drunkenness, dissipation and narcissistic worry. The gospel reminds us that if or when we fall into these patterns of behavior, or similar ones, that we are running away from our dignity as God’s people; for, to give ourselves without repentance to sinful escapes puts us in a place where we it becomes either difficult or impossible to be Christ’s presence of love and help for our loved ones and our neighbors. So, the gospel calls us in the midst of even terrifying circumstances to pray for God’s help to be kept near to the love of Christ so that we might represent his love, especially in the midst of great tribulation.

Signs of the apocalypse abound in the New Testament but the Son of Man breaking into this world to reclaim it and us in the strong grip of his love is the one sign that stands above all others.... when I think of this sign (the Son of Man riding on the clouds) I think of the words of Bono in his great song, Window in the Skies....

“Oh can't you see what love has done
To every broken heart
Oh can't you see what love has done
For every heart that cries

Love left a window in the skies”

Questions for discussion:

1. What aspect of your life do you struggle with the most when it comes to seeing your present circumstances in light of God’s promised and revealed future?

2. Can you point to times in your life where life-crushing worry or the overwhelming desire to numb yourself has kept you from your responsibility to be the love of Christ to those around you? Can you think of life-giving ways to address the worry and suffering in your life? What helps you move towards these and away from life-killing patterns of dealing with worry and suffering?

3. Do you agree with Bauckham here in what follows? “And should we tempted not to believe in the future of Jesus Christ, it is those people we should remember. People who feel that this life is good enough and we need not hope for another are always affluent people leading comfortable, fulfilling lives. They may feel this life is enough for them, but they have no right to think it is good enough for the millions whose lives have been misery. It is those people for
whom Jesus Christ will be revealed in the end - and for the rest of us if we care about
them.” Do you think this thought of his has value as an apologetic? Do you think Richard Bauckham gets invited more than once to cocktail parties where frivolous conversation abounds?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Church is Catholic Part 3

This Sunday we talked about catholicity one more time. We reviewed the first two homilies for a bit before moving into new territory. By way of review, we noted that catholicity has some overlap with oneness (the church is one). However, we also noted that being committed to catholicity means that you are welcoming the very people with whom unity will not be automatic, but challenging. The challenge comes because of our sinfulness and brokenness that leads us to be fearful and insensitive to the other. We saw that last week when we considered the case of the Greek speaking widows in Acts 6 who were being overlooked by the Jews in leadership in the synagogue at Jerusalem. This week we encountered another rift between Jews and Gentiles in Paul’s letter to the Romans; however, this time the Gentiles have the power over the Jews.

In 49 AD, Jews were expelled from Rome by Claudius. Five years later, when Claudius died, they are allowed to return. At the point of their return, however, Gentiles were in charge of the home churches and they apparently did not have the best attitude towards Jewish Christians or the Jewish people as a whole. In fact, some number of Gentiles Christians were, apparently, unloving and smugly self-righteous towards the Jews in Rome (11:18,25).

What does this have to do with catholicity? Everything! For the church to grow in catholicity, we must be a place where ethnic barriers (and similar barriers) that keep people apart normally are torn down by the gospel; in their place must grow mutual love. If we can’t make catholicity work in the church, “the laboratory for communal life before God, the model that the world can see.... as the basis for its own rebirth (Luke Timothy Johnson)”, then we have a puny message to offer the world.


Paul’s challenge to Gentiles regarding their attitudes and actions towards Christian Jews and non-Christian Jews is that they are to be humble (Romans 11:20) regarding their place in God’s redemptive plan and to be hopeful about the final outcome of God’s redemptive promises for Israel and the world (Romans 11: 30-32). But what about us? We are not in house churches in 1st century Rome. How does this challenge of humility and hopefulness translate into our situation?

With regard to humility, I suggested that we consider again the words of Richard Bauckham regarding the posture we are to have to what we regard as the the truth of God in Christ: “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.”

With regard to hopefulness, I suggested that we need to flavor our gospel message with a deep hope for God’s salvation to extend to all people. I say this because this seems to be where Paul ends up in his lament over the promises of God to Israel. Like the laments of the Old Testament prophetic figures, Paul is frustrated with the unbelief of the people but also wonders why God would allow his promises to remain unfulfilled. Also like Old Testament lament, Paul ends on a note of remarkable hope regarding not only Israel but also the whole world (Romans 11:11-12; 25-32) - the Gentiles have been grafted in to make Israel jealous; God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he might show mercy to all. In turn, this note of hope, leads Paul to doxology: “O, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God.... who has given a gift to him to receive a gift in return?!” God is the one who knows the first from the last, God is one who gives gifts to us - his actions are not controlled by our “gifts” to him, God is in control of the world and desires for all people to be redeemed.

So, when it comes to accompanying our gospel message with a sense of urgency, we must leave people with the impression that the reason there is a sense of urgency to follow Jesus is based on his desire to move them into a place of redemption where they may flourish as human beings - not based on our presumed knowledge of what God will do with them if they don’t.

Questions for discussion:

1. Do you agree that we should flavor our gospel appeal with a deep hope for God’s salvation to extend to all people? If, saturating our gospel message with this kind of hope is a solid approach, how ought we to go about conveying a sense of urgency around following Jesus? What words and grammar are we to use?

2. Rev. Dr. John Stott used to say something to this effect when he pondered the destiny of the world and the human race: salvation in Christ must be bigger than death in Adam in order to be consistent with the contours of God’s promises of a big redemption. Do you agree with this logic? Why, or why not?

3. If someone were to say to you: “I know you are a Christian and I know Christians believe everyone else is going to hell, do you think I am going to hell?”... how would you answer?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Church is Catholic Part 2

We come back this morning to theme of the catholicity of the church. We noted last week that the Greek word that is translated, catholic, means the whole, or throughout the whole. When the leaders of the early church used that word in the creeds what they were confessing was that the love of God expressed most fully and comprehensively in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection was never meant to be for a few people, one group of people, or one sort of people, but for the entire human race (to take the language from the New Testament, God’s love is for every tribe and the gospel is recognized as accomplishing the healing of the nations - this is how the book of Revelation talks about it). Moreover, we find the catholicity of the church promised in the covenant made with Abraham: in you all of the families of the earth will be blessed (Genesis 12).

Another way of saying all of this in an earthier way - there is no sort or kind of person anywhere in the world that God does not claim as his divine image bearer (albeit, in need of restoration). As such, God desires for all to experience Christ’s redeeming and life-giving love. Now, It is one thing to confess these words and to say, “hear, hear.... that is the sort of God I want to worship - one whose love is limitless.” However, it is another thing to want catholicity to come to pass in our midst - and to celebrate it when it does - when the kinds and sorts of people that are God’s own make us uncomfortable, uneasy, or afraid. For each of us there are some people who follow Jesus who make us suspicious, simply because of their ethnicity, their political views, their social/class status, or because they have come to conclusions about how to apply the gospel to their lives that differ sharply from the sorts of applications we might make. This suspicion, at best, and hatred at worse, that is brought about by the fear of the other is itself, of course, a consequence of living in a fallen world. For the kind of healing to come that God desires for the world, the church must grow in its passion for catholicity. Christians all over the world must long for catholicity to be a robust reality in our own lives and our churches. Another way of saying this is that for the universal to come we must all care very much about the particulars of our own church communities; for it is upon the upon the fabric of our relationships with people in our local churches, Grace Chicago in this instance - it is upon the fabric of our relationships in our church that God desires to sew a message of hope for a world where fear of the others results in daily violence and misery.

I put it this way because I think it is too easy to keep things in the abstract when we simply say, “God loves everybody”. Part of our spiritual formation must include a longing for God to enable us to love, serve, and pray for people who we would find it difficult to be involved with apart from the gospel at work in our midst, through us, and in our church community.

In the time we have remaining I want to look at some clues about what this looks like in the texts before us this morning. In Acts 6 we have ethnically Hebrew Christians in charge of the temple of Jerusalem. Because of a language and cultural barrier the Greek speaking Jewish widows in the temple were being overlooked in the distribution of food for the poor. The apostles’ response is to share their authority by quickly pulling together some more leaders, all Greek speaking, in order to successfully administer that aspect of the ministry of the church. The applications to take from this: when the Holy Spirit comes to work in opening up local churches to catholicity, the dominant and the powerful in the church will become sensitive to the needs of the weaker and less powerful in their midst; everyone in the church will turn away from their self-interests and look for ways to help others; and people in the church, without renouncing their identity and histories, will see their unifying identity in Christ as more important.

Note well! The result of all of this is that many priests in the temple began to follow Jesus. Talk about a tough crowd. When catholicity is at work in a church community even the most skeptical onlookers can’t help but take notice and begin to question who and what is at work to produce such a strong and loving community. So, it is of the utmost importance that we come to understand that our repentance over our lack of catholicity is a crucial component to living out the gospel for the sake of the world who looks on. For example: the leaders who allowed the Greek speaking widows to be overlooked had to repent and change course in order to meet their needs, reminding us that the world is not looking for perfection from the church but for authenticity, and a model for how reconciliation and wholeness can come to pass. Stephen Fowl puts it this way: "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)."

Questions for discussion:

1. Can you offer an example from your life or from a situation you know of that demonstrates growth in catholicity?

2. What fears might the apostles have felt at the prospect of sharing leadership with the Hellenists? Do these fears remind you of any of your own fears that might be holding you back in your growth towards being more catholic? Examples?

3. Do you feel that you represent the life of the church to your friends outside of the church as a dynamic life-giving community that desires to be more catholic and repents of its lack of catholicity? How would you say that sort of thing in your own words?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Church is Catholic Part 1

When we confess in the creed that the church is catholic what we are confessing is that the gospel is for all people and for the whole person. The word translated catholic means literally, throughout the whole, and when the early church leaders used that Greek word that is translated “throughout the whole” what they were confessing was that the love of God expressed most fully and comprehensively in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection was never meant to be for a few people or one group of people but for the entire human race (to take the language from the New Testament, God’s love is for every tribe and the gospel is recognized as accomplishing the healing of the nations - from the book of Revelation). Moreover, we find the catholicity of the church promised in the covenant made with Abraham, in you all of the families of the earth will be blessed (Genesis 12).

Side note: so, obviously, the confession that the church is catholic, at the time the creed was written, was not meant to refer to a belief in an institutional church but was meant to refer to the scope of the mission of the church - universal in scope and for the whole person, bringing God’s healing to the whole person: addressing all brokenness - physical, emotional, and spiritual.

So, as with the unity of the church (the church is one) and the holiness of the church (the church is holy) when we confess that the church is catholic we are talking about an aspect of what Jesus has done and is doing in us and the world. And as we did with the first two marks of the church, oneness and holiness, we will look to the teaching of the NT in order to flesh out what we mean by saying that the church is catholic.

Another side note: Perhaps it might be helpful to pause for a moment here and draw a distinction between what we are saying when we say that the church is one and what we mean when we say that the church is catholic. Oneness stresses our need to work towards unity as Christ’s followers; catholicity reminds us that we are never to be at rest with whatever version of unity we enjoy inside the church - not even for a few minutes - because the scope of God’s desire to reconcile human beings to himself and to each other is universal. The gospel is for the whole of humanity and for the whole person; that is what we mean when we talk about catholicity.

The most powerful example in the New Testament of catholicity (the love of God moving forward in the world for the salvation of all) is witnessed in the initial mission of Jesus’ followers, who, remember, were Jewish. And it is obvious from the very start that, as Jews, they were meant to bring the good news of God’s love in Christ to another people group, the Gentiles. So very early on we have the New Testament church bearing witness to the love of God spilling over from the original group in order to bring people who had never known anything of the promises of Abraham into that stream of God’s promises that point forward to the healing of the nations, the salvation of the world, when Christ will be all in all.

When Jews and Gentiles came together through the ministry of the apostles we witness a union that would have not naturally occurred in common life. And it is clear that the leaders in the early church saw this union of Jew and Gentile as a powerful witness and anticipation of what God desires to do throughout the whole of humanity - ethnic groups whose histories taught them to hate each other are brought together through a common love for Jesus; men who had used their power to subjugate women are called to be servants to their newly constituted relationships with their sisters in Christ, etc.

So far so good. But we have to ask ourselves what does this confession that we believe in the catholicity of the church mean to us in our formation as a church today, and as individual Christians today. Well, maybe an analogy might help - an analogy from just last week as we considered our confession that the church is holy. When we confess that the church is holy we are certainly not confessing that we have arrived at holiness as God is holy; we are confessing a hoped for future grounded in the resurrection of Jesus and secured by his death on the cross. This future we live into hopefully, in such a way as it provides a certain reference point for us in the the midst of our troubled and imperfect lives. When we confess holiness we confess that we belong to this holiness in faith and repentance and we are reminded to repent and to return to our journeys, to get out of ourselves and get closer to Jesus, as we name each of our unholy patterns of behavior and thought - naming them in confession, even as we receive the boldness to renew our journeys through forgiveness. And so, confessing holiness is a reminder of how things will be according to God’s promise and a call to action in the present in light of what God has promised. Similarly, with catholicity - we look around and see the degree to which God’s love in Christ is yet to reach the breadth of humanity. As soon as we celebrate what has happened already, we mourn what is still not yet. What is needed in that moment, I suggest, is a pattern for how to respond to the “not yet”. For this pattern I turn to the same people groups, Jews and Gentiles, and the same time frame we mentioned before, the time of the New Testament church.

The already of catholicity (the gospel is for all people) that was coming to pass in the New Testament had another side to it, a sorrowful side. Here it is: for all of the wonderful reconciliation that was going on between Jews and Gentiles in the early church there remained a great deal of misunderstanding and animosity between Jews and Gentiles on the one hand, and, on the other, between the majority of the Jewish people and their kindred who were Jesus’ followers.

How St. Paul responded to this tragedy I suggest offers us a pattern for how we are to address our own longing for the love of God in Christ to touch all the families of the earth whether in Chicago Lakeview, Logan Square, Lawndale, or far away.

In the 11th chapter of Romans Paul takes up the sorrow that he feels for his kindred who have not yet heard and responded favorably to the gospel of Jesus as the good news of God’s making good on his covenant with Abraham to bless all of the families of the earth in Israel’s blessing. Interestingly, some of his thoughts about his sorrow are directed towards Gentile converts as he explains that one purpose of his ministry with them is to make his Jewish kindred jealous! “Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I glorify my ministry in order to make my own people jealous, and thus save some of them (Romans 11:13vv.).” So confident is Paul of the gospel to make life beautiful for Jew and Gentile alike that he can say that his ministry, as Apostle to the Gentiles, will give birth to communities of people that will be so lovely that even the most skeptical will want to join in.

(homily cut short on account of time... to be continued next week)

Questions for discussion:

1. How is Paul using the word jealousy? Can you put in your own words what he means by it?

2.. Can you think of an example when you observed the gospel at work in such a way that you thought it made life look so attractive that even the most skeptical might take notice and want her life to have a part in the Christian community?

3. When you ponder the degree to which the love of God in Christ has not reached as far as it ought how do you feel about that? Does the universal scope of God’s love in Christ mean that in the gospel is the only place true insights into God's character may be found?