24 July 2016

Lectionary Reflection—24 July 2016

So live in Christ Jesus the Lord in the same way as you received him. Be rooted and built up in him, be established in faith, and overflow with thanksgiving just as you were taught. See to it that nobody enslaves you with philosophy and foolish deception, which conform to human traditions and the way the world thinks and acts rather than Christ. All the fullness of deity lives in Christ’s body. And you have been filled by him, who is the head of every ruler and authority. You were also circumcised by him. This wasn’t performed by human hands—the whole body was removed through this circumcision by Christ. You were buried with him through baptism and raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. When you were dead because of the things you’d done wrong and because your body wasn’t circumcised, God made you alive with Christ and forgave all the things you’d done wrong. He destroyed the record of the debt we owed, with its requirements that worked against us. He canceled it by nailing it to the cross. When he disarmed the rulers and authorities, he exposed them to public disgrace by leading them in a triumphal parade.

So don’t let anyone judge you about eating or drinking or about a festival, a new moon observance, or sabbaths. These religious practices are only a shadow of what was coming—the body that cast the shadow is Christ. Don’t let anyone who wants to practice harsh self-denial and worship angels rob you of the prize. They go into detail about what they’ve seen in visions and have become unjustifiably arrogant by their selfish way of thinking. They don’t stay connected to the head. The head nourishes and supports the whole body through the joints and ligaments, so the body grows with a growth that’s from God.

Have you ever had a thought or idea that you felt was, perhaps, a little “out there”? That is, do you ever feel like you’re probably the only one to think of something or see things in a certain way and, if others discovered it, they’d probably laugh at you or try to “bring you back” to where everyone else is? That happens to me sometimes and this passage is one of those times.

In the late ‘90’s, I was invited to speak at a conference on the subject of eschatology (the study of end times). I gave a two part presentation on the time statements of the New Testament and understanding 2 Peter 3. My presentation turned into a paper titled “Time Keeps on Tickin’…”. In it, I discussed the passage above and focused on the word στοιχεῖον (stoicheion), translated in the CEB as “human traditions”. A better translation of stoicheion is “element(s)” (Mounce). My position was (and still is) Paul wasn’t referring to the nature elements of air, earth, fire, and water. No; he was referring to the “elements” of the Old Covenantal system.

Fast forward to just a few years ago. As many of you’re aware, I’m a big fan of N.T. (Tom) Wright and his work. Tom wrote a series of New Testament commentaries titled, “…for Everyone”. The ellipsis indicates the book(s) of the New Testament Tom focused on in each commentary (Matthew for Everyone, Mark for Everyone, etc.). I highly recommend this series. They’re some of the best and, more importantly, the most accessible commentaries of the New Testament. They’re not just for the scholar, but are intended for, well, everyone!

In his book, Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters, Wright covers Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. In the chapter on the passage above, Wright focuses on the word συλαγωγέω (sylagōgeō) from verse 8 (translated as “enslaves” in the CEB). After telling a story about the philosophies of John Locke (1632-1704) and the word play used by his detractors (“Take care that nobody Locks you up with their philosophy or empty deceit!”), Wright states—

“Paul has done something like this in verse 8. Take care, he says, that nobody ‘takes you captive.’ But the word he uses for ‘takes captive’ (sylagogon) is very close to the word ‘synagogue’…Why would he do that? Well, think of what had happened in Galatia. There, Jewish zealots had told the new converts that in becoming Christians they had only got half of what they needed. What they now ought to do, to complete the experience, was to be circumcised and to keep the law of Moses. Paul spent the whole of the letter to the Galatians arguing that this was a complete misunderstanding [of Christianity]…[The Galatians] would be buying into a system which wouldn’t do them any more good than the paganism they had left behind. And now he’s anxious—Colossae wasn’t, after all, that far from Galatia—that similar people would come…with the same dangerous message” (pp. 165-166).

In other words, the passage from Colossians is about first century Judaism. All of that to say, Tom Wright agreed with me! And I hadn’t even heard of him when I was studying eschatology! That’s just a good feeling.

So, back to Colossians.

As I stated above, this passage is about the first century Jewish system. Paul’s contrasting God’s plan for the world coming to fruition with the then current Jewish system (or “Old Creation”). That old system, Paul stated, was only the “shadow”—not the reality. Now that’s an amazing critique coming from one who claimed he was “blameless” under the Law (Philippians 3.1-7). In other words, the Old Creation was temporary. The reality, Paul states, was Christ. But not just the physical person of Jesus of Nazareth. No, the age to which Jesus was the link—the New Creation, the Realm of God.

Paul states that the Colossians were part of this reality, too, for they’d been baptized into Christ. They’d died to their old way of living and they didn’t need to get trapped again in some temporary religious practice that was only a shadow.

I think this speaks volumes to us today. Too many of us get caught up in our religions—going to church or temple or synagogue or whatever. Doing all of our religious “stuff” that makes us feel like we’re somehow better than some other religious group because “we” have the truth.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying those things aren’t important. Of course they are. What I’m saying is that all of our faith traditions are pointers—shadows—that should be pointing us to God. All of those things and more (studying sacred texts, choir practice, giving to the building fund, teaching Sunday School, etc.) are only tools to help us in our journeys with God. They’re vehicles, instruments. And just like vehicles that help us get somewhere and instruments that help us play a piece of music, our religions should only be seen as tools that point away from themselves to God. That’s what Paul’s talking about. If we’re getting too hung up on how many times someone talked about Jesus or read their Bible or prayed in a week, we’re becoming enslaved with human tradition. Going to church isn’t what it’s about. It’s about our being Christ in the world and seeing Christ in other people.



~~~
In the Love of the Three in One,

Br. Jack+, LC

17 July 2016

Lectionary Reflection—17 July 2016

Christ is the visible likeness of the invisible God. He’s the first-born Son, superior to all created things. For through him, God created everything in heaven and on earth, the seen and the unseen things—including spiritual powers, lords, rulers, and authorities. God created the whole universe through him and for him. Christ existed before all things, and in union with him all things have their proper place. He’s the head of his body, the church; he’s the source of the body’s life. He’s the first-born Son, who was raised from death, in order that he alone might have the first place in all things. For it was by God’s own decision that the Son has in himself the full nature of God. Through the Son, then, God decided to bring the whole universe back to himself. God made peace through his Son’s blood on the cross and so brought back to himself all things, both on earth and in heaven.

At one time you were far away from God and were his enemies because of the evil things you did and thought. But now, by means of the physical death of his Son, God has made you his friends, in order to bring you—holy, pure, and faultless—into his presence. You must, of course, continue faithful on a firm and sure foundation, and mustn’t allow yourselves to be shaken from the hope you gained when you heard the gospel. It’s of this gospel that I, Paul, became a servant—this gospel which has been preached to everybody in the world.

And now I’m happy about my sufferings for you, for by means of my physical sufferings I’m helping to complete what still remains of Christ’s sufferings on behalf of his body, the church. And I’ve been made a servant of the church by God, who gave me this task to perform for your good. It’s the task of fully proclaiming his message, which is the secret God hid through all past ages from all human beings but has now revealed to his people. God’s plan is to make known the secret to God’s people, this rich and glorious secret which God has for all peoples. And the secret is that Christ is in you, which means that you’ll share in the glory of God. So we preach Christ to everyone. With all possible wisdom we warn and teach them in order to bring each one into God’s presence as a mature individual in union with Christ.

This is one of my favorite passages in all of Scripture! It’s so powerful and world-shattering that some of us just can’t get our minds around it. It exposes our prejudices and forces us to deal with them in one way or another.

Let’s start with Paul’s first statement—“Christ is the visible likeness of the invisible God.” In other words, if you want to know what God looks like—what God is like—Paul says we’re to look at Jesus. Not only does this image shatter a lot of what Paul’s contemporaries understood about Yahweh, but it speaks volumes about our views of God, too.

When someone tells me that they’re having a tough time “seeing God” or “experiencing God” or even believing in God, I’ll often ask “What does God look like to you?” or  “Can you describe what you think God is like?” More times than not, the image they describe is nothing like the picture we have of Jesus in the Gospels. And I usually reply with something like, “I don’t believe in that God either.”

For me, one of the greatest turning points in my view of God (aside from the Gospels) actually comes from another letter of Paul’s—1 Corinthians. Pretty much all of us are familiar with the so-called “Love Chapter” (chapter 13). It’s “so-called” because in it, Paul describes love. But a number of years ago, “God is Love” (1 John 4.8) became the cornerstone of what I believe God is. And, so, I re-read 1 Corinthians 13 and replaced “love” with “God.” This is what that looks like:

God is patient and kind; God isn’t jealous or conceited or proud. God isn’t ill-mannered or selfish or irritable. God doesn’t keep a record of wrongs. God isn’t happy with evil, but is happy with the truth. God never gives up; and God’s faith, hope, and patience never fails. God is eternal.

Wow. That’s a very big difference in the picture a lot of people have of God. But it lines up really well with what we read about Jesus in the Gospels. I think this is a great place to start when one’s wanting a biblical picture of God.

Another aspect of this passage is the last sentences of the first paragraph. I’m talking about the obvious Christian Universalism that most of us choose to ignore. While I like the way the Good News Translation says these sentences, a more literal translation might have something like this:

For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile all [things] to himself, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through his blood shed on the cross (Mounce;** adapted).

I put the word “things” in brackets because it’s not in the Greek text. It’s been added to help understand the “all” to which Paul is referring. Although some might find this addition helpful, I don’t. In fact, I think it actually distracts us from the impact of what Paul said.

The Greek word for “all” here is πᾶς (pas) and it means, “all, every (thing, one), whole; always.” It’s the same word Paul used to refer to how much of God’s fullness indwelt Jesus—every bit of it. So when Paul says that God reconciled or brought back “all” to Godself, he meant every bit of it. Or, as the GNT put it, “the whole universe.” There was nothing—not one thing or person or animal or element or molecule—that was not brought back to God through Jesus’ death. God reconciled all.

This, my friends, this is the Gospel.



~~~
In the Love of the Three in One,

Br. Jack+, LC



* Scripture quotations marked (GNT) are from The Good News Translation in Today’s English Version—Second Edition. Copyright © 1992 by American Bible Society. Used by Permission.


** Scripture quotations marked (Mounce) taken from The Mounce Reverse-Interlinear New Testament. Copyright © 2011 by Robert H. Mounce and William D. Mounce. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

10 July 2016

Lectionary Reflection—10 July 2016

A legal expert stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to gain eternal life?”

Jesus replied, “What’s written in the Law? How do you interpret it?”

He responded, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus said to him, “You’ve answered correctly. Do this and you’ll live.”

But the legal expert wanted to prove that he was right, so he said to Jesus, “And who’s my neighbor?”

Jesus replied, “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He encountered thieves, who stripped him naked, beat him up, and left him near death. Now it just so happened that a priest was also going down the same road. When he saw the injured man, he crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. Likewise, a Levite came by that spot, saw the injured man, and crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. A Samaritan, who was on a journey, came to where the man was. But when he saw the man, he was moved with compassion. The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, tending them with oil and wine. Then he placed the wounded man on his own donkey, took him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day, he took two full days’ worth of wages and gave them to the innkeeper. He said, ‘Take care of him, and when I return, I’ll pay you back for any additional costs.’ What do you think? Which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who encountered thieves?”

Then the legal expert said, “The one who demonstrated mercy toward him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

This is a very familiar story. In fact, it’s so familiar that it’s hard to come up with “something new” for those of us who teach about it. And for those of us who hear about it, well, we’ve pretty much heard it all! There is one thing, however, I see in this passage that I don’t think I’ve ever heard a sermon on and it’s this—works.

Unlike last week’s passage where many people force it to be about “winning souls,” this passage is specifically about what one needs to “do to gain (or “inherit”) eternal life” (verse 25). To me, Jesus’ answer is quite telling.  

But first let’s notice what Jesus didn’t say. He didn’t say, “If you openly declare that I am Lord and believe in your heart that God will raise me from the dead, you’ll be saved.” (Romans 10.9, NLT; adapted). In other words, there’s no confession! No statement of faith! Jesus simply asked the legal expert how he interpreted the Law of Moses. And when the legal expert replied with loving God and loving neighbor, Jesus said, “You’ve answered correctly. Do this and you’ll live.” Wait… What?! How can this be? Doesn’t this run contrary to the rest of the New Testament? Doesn’t this contradict what a lot of our churches believe and teach? It certainly does! Which is why we generally don’t hear any sermons on this passage! We just don’t know how to deal with Jesus’ statements.

And to make sure we don’t misunderstand Jesus’ response, he gives us that great story about the Samaritan. That story’s all about one’s actions. It’s all about extending mercy to others. That, Jesus said, is how one “inherits eternal life.”

So why, then, do we think it’s something else? Where did we go wrong? There are a couple of things that need our attention: faith along with works and understanding “salvation” in the New Testament. We’ll address these in reverse order.

Salvation

When people talk about “salvation” or “being saved” in the New Testament, I don’t think it’s really about “eternal life.” As we’ve talked about again and again on this blog, the New Testament was written during the transitional period between the resurrection and ascension of Jesus on one hand, and the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE on the other. During this period, there were two type of “salvation” being discussed—spiritual and physical. While we focus primarily on the spiritual aspect of salvation, it seems to me that the physical aspect was the focus of the New Testament to a greater degree (although there was a definite mingling of the two). And what I mean by “physical” is being rescued from God’s then coming judgement.

For example, Jesus said if anyone wanted to save their life, they’d lose it (Matthew 16.25; cf. Matthew 10.39). We see this quite literally fulfilled in the siege of Jerusalem where many of Jesus’ contemporaries believed that Yahweh would rescue them from the Romans. But Yahweh didn’t rescued them. About a third to half of the population were slaughtered and the others were either enslaved or driven from their homeland. The salvation in Matthew 16 refers to the temporary saving of their physical lives under the Old Covenantal system. People would rather side with tradition than be counted among Jesus’ followers (John 7.13; cf. John 9.22; 12.42; 19:38; 20:19). Because of this, they were walled up in Jerusalem and destroyed along with the city and Temple.

Again, Jesus warned his contemporaries about the then coming judgment of God by the Romans in Matthew 23-25. He told his followers they’d be arrested, abused, and killed because they follow him. Even their own families would turn against them (seemingly to save their own lives; Matthew 10.34-38; Luke 12.51-53). But he promised if they’d remained faithful even to death, they’d be rescued—not necessarily in this life, but in the next.

The outcry, then, throughout the New Testament is a continuation of Jesus’ claims in the Gospels. The writers are still talking about the siding with Christ and being rescued, even after death, from God’s then soon coming wrath. One either sides with Jesus and faces possible death or one sides with Israel and faces certain death. That’s the choice. That’s what “salvation” looks like in the New Testament.

Now, certainly, there are “rewards” for following Jesus in this life, but the focus seems to be on life after life after death.1 Jesus said, “I assure you that anyone who has left house, husband, wife, brothers, sisters, parents, or children because of God’s kingdom will receive many times more in this age and eternal life in the coming age” (Luke 18.29-30).

Faith and Works

A lot of people get hung up on “works,” especially in Protestant churches. They’re afraid that talking about “works” makes it seem like people “do something” to “earn salvation.” But, did you know that every passage in the New Testament that talks about judgement talks about people’s actions and never their faith? See Matthew 25 for an example.

Again, notice the passage above. The legal expert asked specifically what one must do to inherit eternal life and Jesus said one should do good works—loving God and others by taking care of them and showing them kindness. Again, Jesus didn’t say anything about one’s faith. But that doesn’t mean that faith isn’t present. Let me explain.

The “legal expert” would have been someone who was an expert in the Mosaic Law, a religious lawyer, if you will. Now those people, by and large, were the covenant people of Yahweh. They were Jews. In other words, they were people of faith in covenant with Yahweh (Romans 9.1-5). Therefore, we wouldn’t really be out of bounds to say that the legal expert already had faith in Yahweh.

What he and Jesus were discussing is exactly what James wrote about in his letter:

My sisters and brothers, what good is it if people say they have faith but do nothing to show it? Claiming to have faith can’t save anyone, can it? Imagine a brother or sister who’s naked and never has enough food to eat. What if one of you said, “Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal!”? What good is it if you don’t actually give them what their body needs? In the same way, faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity.
Someone might claim, “You have faith and I have action.” But how can I see your faith apart from your actions? Instead, I’ll show you my faith by putting it into practice in faithful action. It’s good that you believe that God is one. Ha! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble with fear. Are you so slow? Do you need to be shown that faith without actions has no value at all?…As the lifeless body is dead, so faith without actions is dead (James 2.14-20, 26; adapted).

In other words, just because one claims to “have faith” doesn’t mean one has “eternal life” or “the Life of God’s Realm.” That faith must result in “faithful activity.” What does that look like? Turn back to the story above—it’s loving God, loving neighbor, loving enemy (Matthew 5-7), taking care of those who need it, being kind to everyone and all living things. And this isn’t a once every Christmas type of thing, either. No. James is clear: we must put our faith “into practice [with] faithful action.” And this goes back to what I’ve said before on this blog—following Jesus is about a daily practice, not a religion. It’s about a Way of Living; a Way of Being.

Is our faith in Christ compelling us to a daily practice of faithful action? Are we actively helping others? Being kind? Loving our enemies? What would practicing faithful action look like for you?



~~~
In the Love of the Three in One,

Br. Jack+, LC


1. This is a whole other topic that we may get into some day!