Thursday, January 27, 2011

One Focused Center

Our firm decision is to work from this focused center: One man died for everyone. That puts everyone in the same boat. He included everyone in his death so that everyone could also be included in his life, a resurrection life, a far better life than people ever lived on their own.  2 Cor 5:14 The Message
The tools of our trade aren't for marketing or manipulation, but they are for demolishing that entire massively corrupt culture.  We use our powerful God-tools for smashing warped philosophies, tearing down barriers erected against the truth of God, fitting every loose thought and emotion and impulse into the structure of life shaped by Christ. Our tools are ready at hand for clearing the ground of every obstruction and building lives of obedience into maturity. 2 Cor 10:4-6 The Message 
Thought, emotion, impulse. It's what's left when you strip away the exterior "tent" which is decaying.  Your body may be weakened by age, failing, unable to take care of itself. Yet your inner life remains- the thoughts, emotions, and impulses, often seen only by God, will be the expression of a spirit dedicated to...whatever it's dedicated to.  Jesus Christ, in places where he has taken root

It's this kind of mind that is able to write things like "He included everyone in his death so that everyone could also be included in his life, a resurrection life, a far better life than people ever lived on their own."  It's the firm decision to work from this center.  It's not simply a decision to work, because everyone is doing that(It's worth noting that no one is not working hard and emphasizing obedience to something).  It's the conviction that conformity is to a particular something, something profoundly Important in the mind of the one conforming.  Their thoughts return to it frequently.  Their emotions are set ablaze by it.  It produces an impulse to act in one way, and not in another.  For Paul, this is the death and Resurrection of Christ.

A practical note, in the way of deconstruction.  In a comment on a blog I observed this of my experience with Bible study and general "spiritual talk":
I can’t tell you how hard it is to find people in a Bible study, or even a simple conversation, who will not simply stay on the subject of Jesus himself and not shift it as quickly as possible to a “therefore, we should…” type observation about our personal lives. Aside from the practical tips that most want to reduce him to, there seems to be a constant temptation to shift the focus of the dialogue onto ourselves. Even if it’s in a positive, uplifting sort of way. In this kind of environment, it’s nearly impossible to be wounded by the Lion of Judah, much less revere, follow, befriend, or worship him. If I can’t be bothered to maintain any kind of rapt attention to Jesus, how do I expect to follow him where he’s going? 
Are you beginning to get a picture of what the "work" of shaping one's "thoughts, emotions, and impulses" according to the Cross and the Resurrection means?  It's a bit of a paradox, but the primary "work" we need to engage in, it seems like, is the work of de-emphasizing our work in favor of an emphasis on Christ's work.  Because an emphasis on our own work inevitably conforms our work to...our image, not his.

Example: in chapter 8, in the midst of a long exhortation to give generously to a particular need in another church, he quotes this standard for how the community of Jesus looks:  
Nothing left over to the one with the most, nothing lacking to the one with the least. 
Now, before all the warnings about communism start flooding in, let's ask "how does this expectation proceed from a mind determined to work from the 'focused center,' a mind that is 'fitting every loose thought...into the structure of life shaped by Christ?'  One passage that comes to mind is the prophetic announcement of John the Baptist, who gives us a word-picture that acts as one way of summing up the ministry of Jesus:
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall become straight,
and the rough places shall become level ways,
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God."  
 Luke 3:5-6 ESV
In an earlier post I said that "Daily life lived as if a resurrection were coming tends to look very different from the surrounding culture."  One of the mountains that is made low by Jesus Christ is the inevitability of death.  Since death is an obstacle that has been overcome, a minor blip in the radar, a mere change in scenery, those whose thoughts are taken captive by the Resurrection do not fear that they will lack anything. They also don't crave the status that comes with having much.  What follows the leveling of these mountains is a different kind of life- one in which no one goes without, at least not while another has plenty.  Now if the death and resurrection of Christ are so important that he overcomes these kinds of mountains, what other "focused center" would you prefer to work from? 

Compare this with what is often assumed to be "obedience into maturity": creating and maintaining a life in which all your material needs are met, in which comfort is the goal, and in which it is clearly on display that you are a strong, capable person.  Sound like something you've experienced?  In contrast, the standard Paul offers for the community of Jesus is one that witnesses that no one is really any stronger or more capable than anyone else("...that puts everyone in the same boat.")- that in all and through all the Spirit moves, that riches equal the knowledge of Christ, and that it "smashes the warped philosophy" of  self-sufficiency, not provides for it. That obedience into maturity means giving what you have away because you've already got everything, not gaining what you've always wanted for yourself.  The mountain being made low here is the self-preservation and self-sufficiency instinct in every one of us, a problem brought on by man's rejection of the provision of God in favor of an order in which "by the sweat of your face you shall eat bread."  Possibly on grandest display in the "haves" of the community.  The have-nots, on the other hand, show us the valley that is "filled in" by the economic justice taking place in Gospel-aware people. 

Far from being some kind of easy way out, making the Gospel the "focused center" from which you work imposes a constant vigilance of seeing, tasting, hearing, and feeling it, and will quickly crucify anyone daring to do so.  One thing it is not, however, is a laundry list of issues or practices, each addressed severally as we try to hold together an ever-increasing number of threads, or an emphasis on "what comes after the Gospel."   Seem too simplistic? Try knowing it(John 17:3).  One focused center.  Not pep talks disguised as exhortation, or ticking off bullet pointed "ought-to's" that all suspiciously start with the same letter.  But that one man died for everyone. 

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Alan Hirsch- "Missional, Incarnational"

This is profound.  Listening to this guy is like a breath of fresh air.  For more, try his book ReJesus.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

In The Presence Of The Son of Man

Been blogging on 2 Corinthians lately. I'm going to take a break and jump over to Luke and then I'll be back to 2 Corinthians. 
On a certain Sabbath Jesus was walking through a field of ripe grain. His disciples were pulling off heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands to get rid of the chaff, and eating them.  Some Pharisees said, "Why are you doing that, breaking a Sabbath rule?" 
But Jesus stood up for them.  "Have you never read what David and those with him did when they were hungry? How he entered the sanctuary and ate fresh bread off the altar, bread that no one but priests were allowed to eat? He also handed it out to his companions."
 Then he said "The Son of Man is no slave to the Sabbath, he's in charge." Luke 6:1-5, The Message
Just a brief word or two on this.  Here we have food imagery, something common in the Gospels.  Besides the self-involved hyper-detail of the application of Sabbath law going on here, these Pharisees are as usual missing what's in front of them- Jesus, the fulfillment of the Sabbath. The Son of Man, as he refers to himself, is perfectly balanced in his work-sabbath ratio, thank you very much, and if he wanted he could go plow a field all by himself and it would not violate the Sabbath.  However, I think it's providential that they are eating grain here, because once again we get the food message and a glimpse into what God is doing in the sending of Jesus.  

Challenged with law-breaking, he seizes the opportunity to refer to the Old Testament.  David, this time, is his subject, and it seems that he trotted directly into the Temple, up to the table which stood in the  Holy Place, and ate the Bread of the Presence which was reserved as an offering for God.  

Jesus, like David, enters the temple and "takes and eats" the bread and then "hands it out" to his disciples.  The bread that is reserved as an offering, to be consumed only by consecrated priests.  Allow your imagination to dwell here for a minute- what is the bread that he's handing out?  Could it be his Presence?  I think so. The Son of Man who is Lord of the Sabbath comes to those under the Sabbath Law and gives them- Himself- the bread of the Presence, reserved only for those who are holy.  He brings dirty, stinking, unrefined men who slept on the ground last night into the Holy Place, and feeds them holy food, the kind that God eats.  

The real sabbath here is Jesus himself- the one who rested after creating the world and all that is in it.  His aim now is to bring the Holy to the unholy(or the unholy into the Holy perhaps), to break the Sabbath, strictly speaking, in order to fulfill it.  To show God to those who can't see. To give food to those who are not on the guest list. To extend love to those for whom love was believed impossible.  His Presence. They welcomed it, and by doing so vindicated themselves from the scrutiny of Sabbath-rule. Because everything done "in the Presence" of the Son of Man is holy.  

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Bread I Will Give For the Life of the World

Nice rant over at Internet Monk on the subject of "practical tips" type ministries.  I post this because it has much to do with my last couple of blogposts, and a subject that greatly interests me.  This is a good opportunity to repeat that if the Gospel is just information that we hear once when we're born again, and then is occasionally trotted out as a "reminder" or a "back to basics" message so we can maintain a Christian veneer for our ministry, then it certainly doesn't matter that you don't preach it that often, or that you treat it as one of many subjects to be expounded on in church, among them weight loss, financial practices, and improved marriages.  It turns out however that it is the "bread that I will give for the life of the world."  I don't recall a time where I felt "I already ate last week, so I don't need to this week."  This is the basic principle behind Jesus' "abide in me" statement- not simply a hearing of information, but a consistent drinking from a well.  It seems like if the book of John were the lens through which we regarded things of a practical nature, we wouldn't have the problem one commenter has when he says:
You seem to think the gospel is magic. It is not. Presenting the gospel to an alcoholic who can not get sober does little good. 
The numbness evident in this statement is what needs to be constantly warred against in onesself.  The fact is, presenting an alcoholic with the Gospel, consistently, engagingly, creatively, and humanly (that is to say, in Word and Sacrament) is the only way an alcoholic will get sober in any way that is not simply "wood, hay, and stubble."  For the sake of charity, we can assume statements like these are coming from a mis-characterization of the Gospel as a packet of information that people sit in a pew to hear from a preacher and then squint, clench their jaw, and just buh-lieeeeeve!! with all their might.  Of course that scenario doesn't really produce the fruit or disciples that are expected in John 15, but then again that's not what the Gospel is.  Herein may lie the difficulty some are having.  Thinking they have already heard and affirmed it, it is now time to get a lesson on baking a cake, or being a better me, or whatever.  The need of the hour is for people who don't assume Christ, and don't present him as a means to a practical end, but present him clearly and thoroughly, with the only goal of knowing him more in mind.  Given the human heart's propensity to seize whatever foothold it can to embrace sinful motives and goals, forgetting or assuming this is not just a slip-up or a minor error, it's an active subversion of Christ's call.

Notice I am not against using a recipe to bake a cake.  When it's time for practical instruction, I'll be ready to eat it up.  Practical instruction is not, however, the "bread from heaven" and shouldn't be treated as such.  Here's a Matt Chandler clip that illustrates my opinion pretty well. The good part starts at 3:11:

Monday, January 10, 2011

Some More Good News About Tents

We know that when these bodies of ours are taken down like "tents" and folded away, they will be replaced by resurrection bodies in heaven-- God-made, not handmade-- and we'll never have to relocate our tents again.  Sometimes we can hardly wait to move-- and so we cry out in frustration.  Compared to what's coming, living conditions around here seem like a stopover in an unfurnished shack, and we're tired of it!  The Spirit of God whets our appetite by giving us a taste of what's ahead. He puts a little of heaven in our hearts so that we'll never settle for less. 2 Cor 5:1-5, The Message
So we have more tent-imagery, this time as a reference to our mortal bodies.  You'll recall in my last post, I likened the "makeshift arrangement" to the Tabernacle, which was taken down eventually and replaced by the Temple.  Symbolically, of course this represents a shift from Old Covenant to New, or pre-Jesus history to Jesus-history.  In other words, the temporary "vessel" for God's meetings with people was a system, centered around a building known as the Temple.  Now, we've got one more application of the metaphor thrown into the mix.  Our current bodies are a "makeshift arrangement" as well (as if anyone who's feeling their age needed to be told that).  They will be "taken down like tents and folded away" no longer used.  We will, like the generation that entered the Promised Land, fold up the Tabernacle and never revisit it again, except maybe in memories. It's purpose fulfilled, the time for its usage passed.

I wonder what happened to that thing, anyway?

Were there fond recollections of the old Tent? Did the priests ever go into the warehouse and trace a finger along its disassembled parts or brush the dust off the furniture? Or was it simply all destroyed, in a ceremonially respectful way?  I ask because this is what our tendency seems to be with our covenant- to step away from the New (oh, just for a minute!) because the Old is more familiar, and is capable of sustaining an illusion of self-confidence.  We lived in that tent for so long.  Likewise, what will our days before the throne be spent doing- wistfully remembering what a glorious old tent we once lived in?

In the last case, I doubt it.  While the culture of youth-worship that offers some temporary satisfaction for the young(and an unfortunately, self-hatred for the old), would like to convince us that our current physical state is endless, it remains an "unfurnished shack" no matter how healthy and strong we appear(ask a Haitian in light of this year's earthquake).  Yet the "Spirit of God whets our appetite by giving us a taste of what's ahead."  What's that taste, I wonder?  Physical healing? In Jesus' ministry, it appears that was one of the "tastes."  While some of us might enjoy the blessing of being physically healed, what about those of us whose physical existence doesn't seem to include much physical regeneration?

Of course the primary taste we have is the Resurrection- Jesus' permanent "putting away" of death and sickness in his own body.  To be "firstborn from the dead" is quite an office.  And to his disciples, I would suggest that this is the thing that tore down and replaced the "temple" in their minds of how God was working, what a "Messiah" was, and what kind of future God had planned for a human community that, by all the evidence, looked like such a dreadful mess.  A little further down the page in 2 Corinthians it says "He included everyone in his death so that everyone could also be included in his life, a resurrection life, a far better life than people ever lived on their own." This is the amazing generosity of God- to maintain and promote his own glory and perfection while simultaneously welcoming the worship and relationship of rather inglorious and imperfect people.

One more "taste."  It's clear that the Resurrection of Christ has redrawn the plans in the disciples' minds.  God's image is becoming clearer and clearer.  But of course, their image of God isn't the only thing that changes.  The way they work, play, create, eat, converse, and cultivate are all now "made in the image" of the Resurrected Savior also.  The new community is differentiated from the old community in this- there is a pervasive sense of relief, a lifted burden, that decay and death are not here to condition them to despair, but, like Solomon in Ecclesiastes couldn't do, to draw their attention off of themselves and onto a future that looks not unlike the Jesus who they saw in the days after the crucifixion.

There follows, to put it lightly, an enormous re-thinking of priorities.  A new way of "investing."  They look at one another and know that, one day, they too will look like he did.  Daily life lived as if a resurrection were coming tends to look very different from the surrounding culture.  They are now part of an eternal community surrounded by non-eternal tools.  Everything they have to work with now- their hands, they're plows, their harps, their pens -- all are merely tools for expressing how important-- how vastly important!-- they are to one another.  This must be what the Master meant by the Kingdom of God- life lived under the sway of the Resurrection.  The Temple is rendered unnecessary because all is worship; anything done in the glorious Light of the Risen One is now the sacrifice that was once known only in the slaughter of bulls and goats.  To the chagrin of the religious and those infatuated with their current state of wealth and power, microcosms of the future resurrection begin springing forth in the new community like weeds- people forgiving and reconciling with one another, people de-prioritizing wealth and progress, and even dying for this Name they refuse to stop speaking.  It's a taste of what's to come, and a threat to what's already established.  Religion dies, crucified, and a Kingdom commences where even the least and lowliest are enabled to do God's will- to love one another.

Friday, January 7, 2011

On the Government of Living Spirit

Most churches make the mistake of selecting as leaders the confident, the competent, and the successful. But what you most need in a leader is someone who has been broken by the knowledge of his or her sin, and even greater knowledge of Jesus' costly grace.  -Tim Keller (via Jared Wilson)

The Government of Death, its constitution chiseled on stone tablets, had a dazzling inaugural.  Moses' face as he delivered the tablets was so bright that day (even though it would fade soon enough) that the people of Israel could no more look right at him than stare into the sun.  How much more dazzling, then, the Government of Living Spirit? 
If the Government of Condemnation was impressive, how about this Government of Affirmation?  Bright as that old government was, it would look downright dull alongside this new one.  If that makeshift arrangement impressed us, how much more this brightly shining government installed for eternity?  2 Cor 3:7-11, The Message

 The "makeshift arrangement" in this passage is Law of Moses, the older covenant.  But the phrase makes me think of the quite practical aspect of worship that involved a tent, back in the wilderness days of Exodus.  This was a "makeshift arrangement" for worshiping Yahweh.  It was packed up from time to time, moved around, and eventually abandoned altogether as the people of God moved into the promised land.  This arrangement was impressive (I mean, have you read all those specifications for the Tabernacle?)  but not permanent. Nor was it as impressive as what was to come- the Temple.  If we run with the metaphor, the Temple was much less makeshift than the Tabernacle, but then the Temple as well turns out to be makeshift in comparison to what comes next.  Solomon's Temple, in all its splendor, was too a "chasing after the wind."

The permanent dwelling place (for that's what 'tabernacle' means) is of course, Jesus.  His is the "Government of Living Spirit" which far surpasses all other governments, whether that of the Law of Moses or any new law man has installed since.  Its splendor exceeds the brilliant craftsmanship and beauty that went into the Temple, or the just governing power and authority that was exercised by the Law.  I don't think it's  a huge leap to say that by instructing his disciples to "dwell in me" in John 15, he is referencing their national history, a time when their wilderness wandering involved transporting a great big pile of hides and fabric and poles and whatnot around in a desert.  So that they could meet with God.  "Makeshift."  A Jew knows what is  meant by a "dwelling place."

Thankfully, the transfer of power has taken place.  We no longer look to buildings or tents for anything except to meet the simple needs of keeping our bodies warm and dry.  This is because the glory is fading from everything, except the face of Jesus, who, on the Cross proves his worthiness to Govern all of creation and history.  The words "forgive them" are cannon shots fired at an elaborate Parliament of ruling-class policymakers, meeting in an elegant palace which, for all its splendor, keeps people poor, afraid, starving, sick, and perhaps worst of all, uninspired.  It's the beginning of a Revolution which can't be lost.  He has usurped the Government of Death, and all governments but his are looking rather dull, even as their halls of power crumble.  While some will stubbornly stand inside as the stone and mortar crash down around them, mumbling that it's not really happening, a few will run out to join the thankful, rejoicing peasants, newly liberated, now dwelling in a new Government, one that leaves them unimpressed with anything else.