Archive for the ‘Theology’ Category

Reading Ramblings – May 26, 2019

May 19, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 26, 2019

Texts: Acts 16:9-15; Psalm 67; Revelation 21:9-14, 21-27; John 5:1-9

Context: The resurrection is the vindication of Jesus as the Son of God, and of everything that He did and say prior to his execution. It is the power of the triune God, a power that has been at work since the dawn of creation and continues at work throughout creation today.

Acts 16:9-15 – Paul is on his second missionary journey. He goes to visit the churches he founded in Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe. He intends to head further north to preach the Gospel but the Holy Spirit prevents this. Instead, in response to a dream-vision, Paul and his associates Silas (Silvanus) and Timothy (as well, most likely based on Acts 16:11, as Luke himself) head from Asia Minor to Europe, starting their missionary work along the Via Egnatia, a Roman military and trade road that runs from east to west across the southern edge of the European continent, between modern Greece to the south and Albania, Macedonia and Bulgaria to the north. Their first stop is Philippi, the site of today’s reading. Settled by retired Roman military veterans and other colonists, it appears the city did not have a synagogue, but rather a small Jewish community that met outdoors near a river. Lydia is mentioned prominently here and throughout the chapter as an important ally for Paul and his associates. Upon receiving faith, she has her entire household baptized and is a host to Paul and his associates both prior to their arrest in Philippi and afterwards. She is the first European Christian mentioned by name in Scripture, followed rapidly by the unnamed jailer later in this same chapter.

Psalm 67 – A short, beautiful psalm that integrates echoes of the Aaronic blessing from Numbers 6:22-27. It would be familiar language to God’s people, hearing it regularly during worship and prayer services. But here the blessing is explained. It isn’t simply for the benefit or comfort of God’s people, but rather towards the end that God’s saving power would be experienced among all the nations. It recognizes that in choosing a special people to work through, they were to be examples so that all who knew or heard of them would recognize their God as sovereign. All should be brought in to praise God who is the creator of all things and the giver of all blessing. Moreover, contrary to human ideas that are subject to change and have no basis beyond opinion (popular or otherwise), all of God’s creation should be glad and relieved to know that God provides solid, reliable guidance for his creation, as well as the assurance of perfect , equitable judgment. While our judgment sometimes errs or is sometimes corrupted, God’s is not. As people recognize this, creation will flouris, and truly the blessings of God can and will flow throughout it!

Revelation 21:9-14, 21-27 – Where the story of creation begins with a garden, it ends with a city – the City of God, the new Jerusalem, the place where God will once again dwell with his perfected creation. Since the city is referred to as the bride, the wife of the Lamb (v.9), it is synonymous with the Church – with all those who have, do, and will put their faith in Jesus as the sacrificial lamb which removes our sin from us and reconciles us to God. This is the Lamb introduced in Revelation 5 and mentioned 30 times throughout the book of Revelation. While earthly Jerusalem as the capital of God’s people is just another earthly city, the city of God described here fairly glows and radiates with beauty and perfection. The prominence of the number 12 likely indicates a completeness, representing the totality of God’s Old Testament people through the Twelve Tribes of Israel, and the totality of God’s New Testament people through the 12 apostles. Everything about this place denotes the abundance of God’s grace and blessing. This is because God dwells here, with his people. While there is much scholarly debate about how to interpret this passage, at the very least we get a positive and beautiful picture of what the resurrection makes possible – the reconciliation of God with his faithful, and the final abolition of Satan, sin and death.

John 5:1-9 – The other possible reading was out of John 16 and a continuation of last week’s Gospel reading. But I like this passage, and the continuity of God’s restorative power both in the life of Jesus during his ministry as well as in the years that follow his resurrection and ascension. The psalm nicely reminds us that God’s power has been at work at all times throughout creation history to sustain us.

John provides a great deal of detail in this passage regarding the where of this healing. Archaeologists have discovered the remains of the pool that corroborate John’s description. It was a place associated with healing, and you might have noticed that verse 4 is missing in some translations. That verse reads something to the effect of:

waiting for the moving of the water; 4for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool, and stirred the water: whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was healed of whatever disease he had

In this context, Jesus asks the man if he wants healing, and the man responds with the reason he has not received healing already – he doesn’t have anyone to help him into the waters when they stirred. Perhaps the man wonders if Jesus will stay and help him, or if Jesus knows that the waters are about to be stirred. Likely the man doesn’t expect that Jesus will simply speak his healing to him. But when Jesus does, the man responds obediently, standing up and grabbing up his mat from off the ground. We aren’t sure how Jesus knows the man or his story. Is it revealed to him by the Holy Spirit? Does He remember the man from his many other trips to Jerusalem over his lifetime? Should we be comforted with the knowledge that our Lord knows each one of us by name? Perhaps all of the above, with an emphasis on the latter. How and why God does what He does is not our privilege (or duty) to know, but we are to trust that what God does is ultimately for us, ultimately that we might praise him eternally.

Reading Ramblings – May 19, 2019

May 12, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 19, 2019

Texts: Acts 11:1-18; Psalm 148; Revelation 21:1-7; John 16:12-22

Context: The Holy Spirit is loose in the world. While we look forward to the formal inauguration of his arrival on Pentecost in a few weeks, it is difficult to speak of the power of the resurrection apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. His work in the world is at times unexpected, but a glorious outpouring of God the Father’s love and care for us. We are never alone, and we should never think that our God is absent or mindless about any aspect of his creation.

Acts 11:1-18 – Peter’s vision and the subsequent outpouring of the Holy Spirit on non-Jews sets a new direction for the early church – outwards to whomever will receive the Good News. This was unexpected, but it doesn’t take long for the leaders of the church to recognize that this is of God and their responsibility is to acknowledge and praise God. This will, in short order, necessitate some clarification and further leading by the Holy Spirit in terms of what is required of those seeking to follow Jesus – do they need to become Jews first, or are Gentiles welcome? In the meantime, the scandal of preaching to and baptizing and even associating with Gentiles must have been very unnerving for Peter as well as the others who listened to his story! The Church must always be on the lookout for the Holy Spirit’s leading even in unexpected directions.

Psalm 148 – I’m frustrated that we had this psalm just a few weeks ago, and we’ll have it once more before the end of the liturgical calendar. Aren’t 150 psalms enough to avoid this kind of repetition!? In any event, this psalm calls on all aspects of creation to give God praise. He is praised first and foremost for his act of creation in the first place (v.6). But ultimately He is to be praised for the personal relationship He has with his people (v. 14).

Revelation 21:1-7 – The effects of the resurrection are eternal, reconciling the faithful to God . God once again will dwell with his people. Suffering will be banished and death will be removed from creation as perfection once again reigns as it did in the initial days of Adam and Eve. Here it is pictured as a divine city rather than a garden, but it is clear that as in the beginning, God is firmly in charge of all things according to his master plan. The new beginning He will inaugurate can be trusted because it is God the Father himself who will initiate it, and it is not dependent on our efforts, only our acceptance of the victory of God the Son.

John 16:12-22 – As Jesus prepares for his ordeal, He instructs his disciples at the last supper pertaining what will happen after his departure. While they will not have his presence, they will have the Holy Spirit of God who will guide them into truth as He reveals whatever the Father desires to have revealed. In the process, Jesus doesn’t become irrelevant but serves as the focal point for praise and honor. The revelation of the Holy Spirit is only possible because of the victory Jesus is about to win through his suffering and death. Jesus says to his disciples what He has said on several other occasions to his accusers – they will not see him much longer. Like his accusers, his disciples don’t know how to interpret his words, despite his clear explanation of things on multiple occasions. However the ultimate result is that they will see him again, and this will be a cause for celebration even though He will not stay with them indefinitely. Their joy will be such that they don’t remember the sorrow and anguish they will endure over the next three days as they watch their Lord suffer, die, and rest in the tomb.

Reading Ramblings – May 12, 2019

May 5, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: Fourth Sunday of Easter, May 12, 2019

Texts: Acts 20:17-35; Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30

Context: In the Latin (pre-1970) Roman Catholic liturgy, these readings are reserved for the third Sunday of Easter, but the date has shifted now to the fourth Sunday in the liturgical season of Easter. I haven’t been able to track down how or why this tradition began, but it is obviously related to the 23rd Psalm. It might also seem reasonable to have the Gospel from John encompass the first half of chapter 10 instead of the last half, since the first half is his Good Shepherd section. For whatever reason, the lectionary isn’t using that this year, which weakens the Good Shepherd theme considerably. The Epistle reading picks up on shepherd language at one point but it’s hardly enough to carry the theme, even if the scene from Revelation 7 honors and glorifies the Lamb who was slain, but through his death has made possible the salvation of the faithful.

Acts 20:17-35 – Paul’s goodbye address to the congregation he founded in Ephesus is a touching mix of reminding them of the past and preparing them for the future. After his departure from them he will return to Jerusalem, where he will once again face accusations from his opponents that will follow him and necessitate his appealing to the Emperor in Rome for a fair hearing. From Rome he is alleged to have traveled on to Spain before heading back towards Jerusalem, only to be caught up in the persecution of Nero in Rome and executed. His final words here are well chosen. Paul has learned the importance of this. He has to review the past – namely his conduct among them – because in other places (Corinth, Thessalonica, etc.) he has been accused by those who came after him or opponents of the Gospel of being no better than a wandering leech, pawning off fantasies as truth in exchange for personal gain. But this is not what Paul has done. He spent time with the Ephesians and worked to support himself and others rather than relying on their benevolence. He must also speak to them about the future, as he also knows what is likely to happen. Satan will bring others into their midst to confuse or distort the Gospel, or cause divisions among the Ephesians or prompt people among them with strange ideas, seeking to make themselves great. Paul has watched over them as a shepherd but now they must care for one another and should use his own conduct as a model to follow.

Psalm 23 – Perhaps one of the best known passages in Scripture is this short but powerful affirmation of God’s loving care for his creatures. This care spans the speaker’s lifetime, up to the point of death. But it doesn’t stop there. The Lord accompanies the speaker not to or into but through death. On the other side of that journey things are different. No longer is the speaker a metaphorical sheep, but rather a man who can sit at a banquet to be blessed with bounty and richness as those who once sought to destroy him can only watch. This shepherd knows all the needs of the sheep and how to best provide them. Nothing is overlooked, whether physical needs or the emotional and spiritual support to face even death itself. Although the shepherd is no longer an image that evokes strong associations among most Christians, it isn’t hard to identify the kindness and gentleness, the complete and total care of the shepherd for the sheep that should lead the sheep to praise and thank the shepherd, trusting in him completely.

Revelation 7:9-17 – I love to describe this as the great family reunion snapshot, the sight of all the faithful in Christ gathered around the throne to praise him and receive his goodness for all eternity. Nobody is forgotten or overlooked. I like to think that St. John sees even you and I there (and yes, probably himself as well if he looked closely enough!). This is what we look forward, the kick-off party, as it were, to an eternity without persecution and without sin, freed from all forms of oppression or tyranny internal and external. There at the center of it all is the Lamb, the Lamb who was slain but is standing and very much alive now. The Lamb who triumphed over our enemies and is the center of our praise and thanksgiving forever.

John 10:22-30 – Sheep know their shepherd’s voice. Jesus claims that his works bear witness as to his identity; Jesus’ miracles are a second kind of voice in addition to his preaching and teaching. But because his antagonists do not see these works in light of God’s works in the Old Testament, they cannot and will not correctly interpret who Jesus is or what He is doing. It isn’t a matter of whether they have enough evidence – they clearly do! But if they refuse to interpret the evidence properly, to hear the shepherd’s voice properly, then no amount of further miracles will sway them. Those who place their faith and trust in the Good Shepherd (Jesus) rest securely. The Shepherd’s grasp is strong and He will not let them go. Nothing that the Jewish leadership can say or do will change this reality, even if they strike the Good Shepherd and attempt to scatter the sheep. This is what continually confounds the Jewish leadership in the days after the resurrection and Pentecost – the sheep continue to proclaim the voice of their shepherd!

Likewise, there is no power today that can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ (Romans 8:38-39). We do not ever need to doubt the Shepherd’s grasp, even if we don’t understand where He is taking us at the moment, or would prefer another route, or would prefer to stay and graze. He is the Shepherd and we are not. And if we are confused, or unhappy with what we have to go through at the moment, we rest assured that the Shepherd who has brought us safely thus far will see us through to our final destination around his throne.

Reading Ramblings – May 5, 2019

April 28, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Dates: Third Sunday of Easter – May 5, 2019

Texts: Acts 9:1-22; Psalm 30; Revelation 5:1-14; John 21:1-19

Context: The work of God the Holy Spirit is the reconciliation of all creation to God the Father through the atoning work of God the Son. The Christian hope is mistakenly characterized as deliverance from our enemies, when in reality the prayer of all Christians should be for the conversion and transformation of our enemies into brothers and sisters in Christ for all eternity. This is in fact the very power of God at work in our world, and if we doubt that our enemies might be won through this power, we need first to remember that we ourselves have been won by this power.

Acts 9:1-22 – While we rightly revere St. Paul and his mighty evangelistic and apologetic efforts in the early Church, the real glory goes to God. Saul was feared but was he prayed for? To quote Billy Joel, could St. Paul have said of the Church before his conversion she never cared for me, but did she ever say a prayer for me? How many Christians and churches are guilty of this today? We see our enemies only as fit for defeat and ourselves fit for deliverance. Yet the same God the Father created all of us, and the same Son of God died for all of us, and the same Holy Spirit of God seeks after each one of us. Lost sheep are sometimes so because of ignorance or carelessness, but also sometimes so deliberately and defiantly, yet the Good Shepherd seeks each one of them. If God the Holy Spirit can bring Saul to faith in the resurrected Son of God, how much more should we be praying that those who fight against his power today be brought to faith as well?

Psalm 30 – The scope of this psalm is a personal song of thanks to God for delivering the speaker from a difficult situation, one reasonably brought about by enemies (v.1) and that could conceivably have resulted in death or complete destruction (vs. 3, 8-10). I think it is the mention of enemies in v.1 that might have prompted the inclusion of this psalm with the other readings today. Again, we tend to think of deliverance from our enemies in terms of their defeat and our victory, but deliverance could mean the conversion of our enemies, so that they end their persecutions and plottings against us. This should indeed be the greatest cause for celebration, for transforming mourning into dancing (v.11) – to know that those who once fought against the love of God in Jesus Christ are now robed in it! What better reason to give thanks to God forever (v.12)?!

Revelation 5 – I’ve gone with the optional full reading of this chapter for better context. I would have preferred to see this reading on Ascension Day, but since that’s not a Sunday I suppose it doesn’t matter. I’m inclined to side with those who speculate that this scene, particularly verses 6-14, is the heavenly counterpart to the earthly descriptions of Jesus ascension (Luke 24:50-53; Acts 1:6-11). Jesus departs earth for heaven, returning now in power and majesty to do what He has earned the right to do through his obedience and death – to open the book with the seven seals. Because He has earned this right through his obedience, He is rightly to be praised, and the liturgies of the Church have long utilized words form this chapter and other places in the book of Revelation for worship. We echo, or join in with all the saints and heavenly beings as they praise unceasingly the wonder and worthiness of the Lamb who was slain. I also don’t think this particular reading fits well within the larger theme of reconciliation and the turning of enemies into allies that we see in the other readings. But that happens sometimes! Others see parallels in these readings that I’m opting not to discuss here, and that’s the beauty of God’s Word.

John 21:1-19 – I’ve opted for the fuller text reading here as well rather than omitting verses 15-19. It’s in those verses that we once again see the desire of God for reconciliation and restoration. This scene takes place back in Galilee, after the events in Jerusalem of Easter Day and the days following. The disciples have returned home. They’ve seen the resurrected Lord but, barring more specific details, what are they to do now? They know He will be sending them (John 20:21; Matthew 28:16-20) but what does this mean? While it is possible that this scene takes place after Pentecost, it seems more likely that it happens in between Easter and Pentecost. Jesus’ admonition in Luke 24:49 may mean the disciples stayed in Jerusalem for over a month until Pentecost, but that would have been a complicated and costly stay.

What do you do with the knowledge of the resurrection of someone claiming to be the Son of God and who prophesied the details of his death and resurrection ahead of time? How does that knowledge affect what you do, how you fill your time? Some interpret Peter’s statement that he’s going fishing as resignation of sorts, as though he is simply going back to what he was and did before Jesus called him to be a disciple (in fact, I used to see these verses that way!). But it seems more realistic that, needing some way to pass the time, Peter reasonably does what he has grown up doing. It is not a repudiation of his role of disciple, but rather a passing of the time until what that role will now entail is fully revealed.

And of course, in the meantime, there is the guilt.

The guilt of denying his Lord three times in one night, just as Jesus had told him he would, even though he denied it heatedly. That’s a powerful level of guilt, for one who loved Jesus so deeply to pretend he didn’t even know him. Perhaps there is some part of Peter that suspects that, regardless of who he once was as a follower of Jesus, he will no longer have that honor because of his denials. But once again the grace of God is at work. Jesus comes not simply to say hi and have breakfast, but to restore Peter. Jesus does not simply gloss over Peter’s denials. He doesn’t simply say it’s no big deal and let bygones be bygones. Such words are helpful at one level but they do not remove guilt. They may restore relationship but they don’t absolve us from the guilt we carry inside of us. Instead, Jesus offers Peter three chances to express his love for his Lord. And once again Jesus privileges (or challenges) Peter with a foreshadowing of what this restoration will mean. Peter denied Jesus in fear, but in his restoration Peter should not assume he won’t be placed in equally difficult and frightening situations. He prophesies in general terms what Peter will suffer (on more than one occasion) but not how Peter will respond. Persecution is a known entity, but this time denial is not. We could easily infer that Jesus is letting Peter that unlike last time, he will stand firm in his love for his Lord in the future.

God’s desire is for reconciliation with a rebellious creation. He is not content merely to punish his enemies but rather is willing to suffer and die so that his enemies might become his loving subjects, freed not only from the sin of rebellion both active and passive, but also from the crushing guilt of knowing they have rebelled against the good and holy and righteous creator of all things. This is a love that truly confounds us with the depths and heights it is capable of and willing to go to for our sake!

Reading Ramblings – April 28, 2019

April 21, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: Second Sunday of Easter, April 28, 2019

Texts: Acts 5:12-42; Psalm 148; Revelation 1:4-18; John 20:19-31

Context: We may still have in our heads the picture of Jesus beaten, crucified, buried. Graphic depictions of the final hours of his life in movies such as The Passion of the Christ have done a good idea of giving us a better understanding of just how brutal death by crucifixion was. But if that is the only or most lasting mental picture we have of Jesus, we are mistaken! Our Lord was not defeated by death, but He defeated death! He took the greatest abuse possible, culminating in death and burial. But He rose from the dead. Notice that none of the accounts of the resurrected Christ say anything about wounds to his body other than his hands and feet and side. These are the wounds of victory, however, not defeat. They identify him clearly, they testify to what sort of victory He accomplished. When we see our Lord again it will be in glory, far closer to John’s vision of him in the reading from Revelation. This is the Lord who promises us life through faith in him – our victorious Lord!

Acts 5:12-42 – I’ve expanded this reading because I think it has so much in it that just reading half the story is unfair. And since the rest of the story isn’t returned to in the readings for the rest of the year, we’ll do it now! Because things have changed. Granted this reading is from after Pentecost, so the disciples have the Holy Spirit in a new and powerful way. But beyond this, the disciples have seen the resurrected Christ. They know who He is, and what He has accomplished, and it infuses them with a boldness they never had for long during their time with Jesus during his ministry. Even though they could cast out demons at times or heal the sick, their understanding of Jesus was limited, and their bravery was more words than deeds. Now they are arrested, imprisoned, beaten, warned, and yet the strength of the Holy Spirit within them, who has led them into all knowledge regarding Jesus is more powerful. They cannot be silenced. They will not succumb to fear! They cannot be intimidated! This boldness and eloquence is not lost on their persecutors. There was no effort to arrest or try the disciples of Jesus – the religious leaders considered them of no consequence, incapable of continuing on the ministry of Jesus. They expected – rightly so – that the disciples would slink back to their homes and humble jobs once Jesus was removed. But this determination was not expected, and Gamaliel is wise to point out that the situation is so unusual that it might just be the finger of God at work, in which case they would be foolish to oppose it!

Psalm 148 – Who is to praise God? It might be simpler to list out who shouldn’t praise him. The heavenly realms and those who dwell there are to praise him. The celestial heights and the lights that dwell there – so often mistaken for divine themselves by flawed mortals – they are to praise God. They are not divine but simply his creations (as per Genesis 1). The mysterious creatures of the ocean should praise God, as well as the very elements of nature themselves. Likewise the land and all the creatures that dwell on it should praise God. The great people of the earth – kings and all rulers – they should praise God as should the least of mankind. There is no other entity who deserves the worship and praise that God does as the creator of all things, and certainly should his people praise him, those who know him and the great things He has done!

Revelation 1:4-18 – St. John spent three years or so following Jesus. Yet in this vision provided by Jesus the Christ, the emphasis is not on a reunion, but on the power and glory of the resurrected and ascended Son of God. John is commanded to write what he sees and hears in this vision to seven churches in Asia. John identifies himself as their brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom. These are the two realities which John and his hearers find themselves. They are citizens of the kingdom of heaven and inheritors through Christ of eternal life. But for now, they endure tribulation and suffering. Their lives are marked with suffering because of their steadfast faith in the resurrected Jesus as the Christ. It is this reality that predicates the vision to John and its communication to the faithful. And it is this reality that should guide us in reading and interpreting what John describes. To those who suffer, this letter is a letter of encouragement, ultimately a summary of Biblical history and the ancient enmity between Satan and God, the efforts of Satan to destroy God’s creation, but the victory that has, is, and will be won over Satan through the Son of God. Our lives may not always evidence this victory. We may suffer, whether from illness or disease, from persecution or poverty, or even suffer persecution for holding fast to our faith in an age that has decided such a faith is an affront to more sensible ideals. The letter is not intended ultimately as a secret code to unlocking the hows and wheres and whens of the final defeat of evil, but rather to encourage we who must endure faithfully to the end whenever our lives unfold.

John 20:19-31 – The events of that first Easter Sunday continue to unfold in John’s gospel. The sightings of the resurrected Jesus are not limited to that morning at the empty tomb. They continue as Jesus visits his disciples as they huddle in fear. They are invited to witness the signs of his ordeal – the holes in his side, hands and feet. This they communicate to Thomas who finds their words too difficult to believe. So Jesus once again presents himself to his followers – including Thomas – a week later. Thomas’ skepticism is gone. He does not need to touch the wounds to know that this is his Lord.

Nestled in this familiar account, however, are important words from Jesus to his followers and to us, the Church in our time. Jesus conveys to his disciples the Holy Spirit and the command that they are to forgive sins, and they are capable of withholding that forgiveness. This is not intended as some coercive tool for them to wield, but rather is the continued outflowing of what Jesus accomplished through his suffering and death. Jesus requested the forgiveness of God the Father for those around him as He hung on the cross (Luke 23:34), forgiveness made possible only through the death of the innocent Son of God on our behalf. It is now the duty and privilege of the Church to continue to announce the forgiveness of God wherever there is repentance, and likewise to state the unforgiven state of the unrepentant sinner. The Church – with the presiding priest or pastor acting on behalf of the gathered people of God – is doing nothing more than repeat what Jesus himself promised, and only under the authority of Jesus as granted here to the earliest Church – his disciples.

Empty Empathy

April 17, 2019

A great article on the decline of empathy in our culture over recent decades.

While I’ve identified as an empath and described at empathic by many people throughout my life, I never really gave much thought as to the history of that term (which is relatively recent) or more technical usage of it.  To me it just meant the ability to understand and respond to something another person was feeling or going through.  It’s a handy enough definition, and it avoids some of the technical and clinical definitions or nuances that I might be more hesitant to agree with.

I immediately thought about empathy in light of the Christian faith.  The Bible doesn’t utilize εμπάθεια, the particular Greek word from which the English term derives.  And yet it seems as though empathy is very much an expected response to the Gospel.  At a basic level, we are to have empathy with others as creations of a loving God, but sinful creations in the midst of a broken creation.  Our shared circumstances, existentially speaking, drive us towards empathy from the Biblical perspective as opposed to away from it.  Others might argue the Biblical injunction to love your enemy or offer forgiveness freely make no sense apart from a certain amount of empathy.  While I’m not sure I’d say it’s required, empathy certainly might help the process of obedience.

It isn’t surprising in a clinical book and on the NPR website that there is no effort to mention a correlation between a decline in empathy and the decline of Christianity in our country.  But I can’t help but think that they are very much directly related.

Christianity calls the individual out of themselves,  placing them in a larger communal context in the past, present and future.  Everything in the  Christian faith is, Biblically speaking, a matter of community.  And this continuous outward direction of the life of faith will help develop empathy with others if it isn’t something that was present in the individual prior to conversion.

It seems to me declining rates of empathy are indeed unsurprising where this counterintuitive life of faith is not practiced.  It is far more natural to not be empathetic to people I disagree with, fear, or dislike.  It is precisely for this reason that the life of faith as described in Scripture must direct me towards and empathetic posture to those around me.  Despite Richard Dawkins’ attempts to argue that empathy and altruism could be attributed to natural selection, we seem to be witnessing a return to a more natural human state, the state unmitigated by faith and trust in a God who created all things, redeemed all things, and is bringing all things to a conclusion.  If there isn’t anything beyond myself, existentially speaking, why waste the time and effort to try and understsand others, especially if I don’t like them or disagree with them?  Life is short, eliminate the negative baggage, as social media continually reminds us.

The conclusions drawn by the author of the book on this subject seem very much on point.  A lack of empathy can only lead to deeper division and polarization, something fatal to democracy.  This is, historically, where we’ve come from, and it appears to be where we’re returning to.  Our experience of “civil society” as Fritz Breithaupt, the author, describes it, is one inextricably linked to being people of faith, and particularly I would argue people either explicitly and personally Christian, or who embrace Christian ideals for ease and simplicity.  This association has long been recognized and noted by people such as Alexis de Tocqueville.

But we’ve either forgotten it or choose to ignore it.  The results are devastating.

Breithaupt’s solution, the development of a selfish empathy, is equally doomed to failure.  As we discovered with the ruse of tolerance in the last 20 years, people don’t act in one manner very long if they believe in something very different.  If you believe that you’re right and someone else is wrong, eventually this is going to come out in the wash and tolerance gets swept aside.  Likewise, pretending to be empathetic may work for a short while but will get smashed apart as soon as someone gets hurt or is rejected or otherwise sees no personal gain to be gotten from it.

Unless we are obedient to a Creator that tells us we were designed to live together and for one another and Him  rather than just ourselves, we are left with the meaninglessness of materialism and evolutionary theory and atheism which says there is nothing greater, no purpose to any of this.  And as such, we might as well just enjoy ourselves as much as possible for the brief span of existence we enjoy.  While the rule of law will prevent some people from taking that mindset to an unhealthy extreme, it cannot foster the positive sense of empathy that requires a meaning and purpose beyond oneself.

 

ANF – Papias

April 16, 2019

I was disappointed in the very rudimentary and fragmentary material we have from Papias, which  consists primarily of other writers quoting from his writings, while his writings themselves have been lost to history (at least so far).

Papias is believed to have lived from the latter part of the first century to perhaps the middle of the second century, with alternate sources indicating his death in 155 AD or 163 AD, martyred either in Rome or Pergamus.  He is said to have known St. John the Apostle personally, and to have heard firsthand from others who were direct witnesses of the life of Jesus.  He served as Bishop of Hierapolis (in modern Turkey).  He is quoted by Eusebius and Irenaeus, who indicate that Papias composed a 5-volume work, Exposition of the Sayings of the Lord.

What little we know of Papias’ writings is due to Eusebius and Irenaeus quoting from them.  Some of the more interesting aspects of these brief mentions are as follows:

  • Papias claims (or claims Jesus said) there are various levels of divine reward depending on the faith and lives of Jesus’ followers.  Some will go to heaven and dweell in Jesus’ presence, others will go to Paradise, and others will go to the divine city (likely as per Revelation 21-22).  He ties this to Jesus’ teachings of different fruitfulness levels in Matthew 13 and Mark 4
  • Papias relates stories about Philip (Acts 8) as told by his daughters
  • Papias teaches a literal thousand year reign of Christ
  • Papias affirms Mark’s Gospel was the teaching of Peter, and that Matthew aimed his Gospel at the Jewish people

It is difficult to make sense of some of these claims  without actually being able to read Papias himself.  The church has long argued against millenial interpretations of Scripture, so it would be interesting to see the context which Papias places his understandings of these things.

 

 

Book Review: Death in the City

April 15, 2019

Death in the City by Francis Schaeffer

 

I was skeptical of this book just based on the title, but I’m very glad that I set skepticism aside to just read it.  Schaeffer ranks up with C.S. Lewis in my personal opinion for his ability to blend Biblical, theological and philosophical ideas in a compelling fashion for our time.  He considers this an integral aspect of four core books, three written by himself (Death in the City, The God Who Is There and Escape from Reason) and one written by his wife Edith (The L’Abri Story ).  I’ve read all of them except Escape from Reason, so you can trust I’m going to acquire that one before long.

Death in the City is a series of lectures Schaeffer delivered in 1968 at Wheaton College.  From some of the things he says, you can already see how much has likely changed not just in our culture at large but even at a Christian university in the past 50 years.  Yet Schaeffer sees already in 1968 what the  larger church in America is only just now admitting – our culture is post-Christian.  Christianity and the Bible are no longer defining aspects of our culture and,  what’s more, they are viewed more and more as contrary and undesirable by our culture.  These lectures diagnose the cause of this situation and offer preliminary thoughts on what to do about it, hopefully leading towards “reformation, revival, and a constructive revolution in the orthodox, evangelical church”.  Towards this end Schaeffer draws on the prophet Jeremiah and St. Paul’s letter to the Romans.

First he calls us to diagnose the root cause of the massive cultural shift he identifies in 1968 and we are dealing with more openly in the early 21st century.  That cause is a turning away from the truth and reality of God, as per Romans 1:21-22.  This leads to an isolation from God, and the necessity of hearing the Law of God on this issue.  People need to be told that they have abandoned God and his Word and are bearing his judgment.  This message needs to be given not only to the increasingly pagan culture around us but to the Church as well.  The Church has failed to teach and preach God’s Word fully and faithfully which has in part led to this turning away from God’s reality and Word.  He argues – contrary to what the Church has assumed for many years – that this word of judgment needs to come first in evangelism.  That the message of grace and forgiveness means nothing if there is no awareness of true moral guilt and therefore judgment by a righteous and holy God.

He then goes on to diagnose the malaise affecting our culture, as witnessed in skyrocketing rates of depression and other mental illnesses as well as attempted and successful suicides.  Evolutionary theory and natural selection have reduced man to insignificance, the mere accidental byproduct of millions of years of accidental genetic variation.  We have no significance, and we have no moral compass.  Everything is up for grabs and is ultimately meaningless and arbitrary.  If all we are is a random collection of atoms, and our fate is just the dissipation of those same atoms, then everything in between is a sham construction, the work of manipulative genes seeking to determine their continued existence with no other end or purpose than moving on to the next generation.  It is a bleak and dismal reality, one that many materialists try to rally against but ultimately fail.  Either man is significant and has meaning, as per the Biblical account of creation, or man is accidental and meaningless.

Schaeffer paints a picture of these two very different positions and their corresponding outlook on reality in Chapter 9, The Universe and Two Chairs.  He reduces reality to a single room with no doors or windows.  There is a man sitting in the Materialist  chair and a man sitting in the Christian chair.  The materialist begins an investigation of  the room.  It is his life’s work, and he includes everything and  utilizes the scientific method and every branch of science to compile multiple tomes on the nature of the room.  The Christian is duly impressed by this, but responds after reading through it all that the materialist’s compilation is incomplete as it does not take into account those aspects of reality that the scientific method is insufficient for.  He takes out a Bible and says that this book describes more  of reality because it includes the things that the Materialist’s observations and experiments can’t touch.  The Bible does not invalidate science, but it does specify limits to what it can (and should) tell us, and itself provides additional information that scientific compendiums can’t.

Schaeffer then points out that far too many Christians operate in what he terms unfaith.  They function primarily in their outlook on life and how they live their lives as though they sit in the Materialist chair, even though they claim to sit in the Christian chair.  They affirm doctrines but don’t see how those doctrines apply to their lives.

This is a good book.  It is a challenge to the Church not to hold back from saying the hard things that God says in his Word.  To say them in love, but to say them unflinchingly as well.  Schaeffer is convinced – as I am – that only Christianity can offer an adequate alternative to the materialist world-view adopted so readily by Western Christianity over the last 150 years.  While some of Schaeffer’s other writings are at times difficult to make sense of, this is a very clear and lucid diagnosis of Christianity and Western culture.  Well worth the time  for this relatively short (130-ish pages) read.

 

 

 

 

 

Reading Ramblings – April 21, 2019

April 14, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: Easter Sunday – April 21, 2019

Texts: Isaiah 65:17-25; Psalm 16; 1 Corinthians 15:19-26; Luke 24:1-12

Context: In the last century theologians, some attempting to protect the Bible and the Biblical account from intellectual discrediting, shifted the historical events of the Bible into the realm of subjective experience. They downplayed the reality of Jesus’ resurrection for a theology that made the resurrection symbolic more than anything. But if the resurrection is not a reality, it certainly can’t serve as a very inspiring symbol. It seems highly unlikely that people would have gone to their deaths proclaiming as objective reality something they knew to be metaphorical or symbolic. If Easter is true, then it is the single-most important event in all of human history, and for 2000 years those who believe it is true have celebrated it as such. It is my hope and confidence personally, and I pray it is yours as well!

Isaiah 65:17-25 – The empty tomb is the beginning of the new creation vision Isaiah conveys here. Jesus offering himself as the perfect, sinless sacrifice satisfies fully the Law’s demand for obedience, and Jesus conveys this perfect obedience to you and I. The power of death is broken over us. Jesus’ resurrection is evidence that the Law has been fulfilled and He is not subject to death, and therefore his resurrection and promises to us are that we inherit his righteousness as if it were our own. A new creation free from the controlling power of sin and evil, death and Satan dawns. It’s a sunrise slow in coming, though, as we still await the full light of God’s power to reveal this new creation. But when it does at last, all things and persons will be transformed, freed from the destructive twisting of sin and Satan. The Church is called to proclaim the dawning of this new reality, and to be the place where we are encouraged and strengthened to begin living it out. Imperfectly and incompletely as of yet, but day by day in greater consistency with who we will be when our Lord returns.

Psalm 16 – What begins as a prayer for deliverance from temporal concerns ends as a declaration that not even death itself will separate the speaker from God. Miktal is likely some sort of poetic or musical description or perhaps instruction, but we are unsure of the best way to translate it from Hebrew. David declares his trust in the Lord as the ultimate source of goodness. He will set his eyes on those who live their lives similarly rather than those who follow other gods. There are other ways to live, other goals than obedience and thanksgiving to God, but David’s mind is firm. God alone will be the one to instruct and guide him, as God alone has trustworthy precepts. As such, even though situations may be uncertain David will continue to rejoice in God and trust in him, even to the point that not even death dismays him, as he knows God’s power can and will ensure that death is no separation for his faithful servant. Rather, the wisdom and power of God in this life are a foretaste of eternal joys for those who trust in God.

1 Corinthians 15:19-26 – The resurrection is real. Paul has encountered the resurrected Christ. Such an encounter alone was sufficient to turn Paul’s entire life around. He recognizes that if the resurrection was not real – if it was a psychological or theological construct, an emotional projection, anything less than a tomb formerly occupied but now empty because the dead inhabitant has been raised to real, corporeal life again – then Christians are pathetic fools, wishful thinkers constructing a false reality and future for themselves, and as any person who lives their life in fantasy instead of reality, objects for pity (or ridicule) above all others. Only a real resurrection vindicates Jesus’ identity and work. Only a real resurrection can lend credence to his promises to us (John 14:1-14, etc.).

Luke 24:1-12 – We need to remember that each writer remembers certain aspects of the event. It’s obvious from the slight differences of perspective or details mentioned that there was no effort between the Gospel writers to settle on a single identical account. Each account picks up different aspects and neglects others.

Luke provides a variety of specific details. Dawn on the first day of the week (Sunday, since Saturday is the Jewish Sabbath, the seventh day of the week as per Genesis 1 & 2). He names two women specifically (23:55) which doesn’t exclude that there were others. They bring spices to properly anoint the body for burial (Jews did not embalm like the Egyptians). They didn’t expect the stone to be rolled away, but this curiosity is eclipsed by the fact that upon entering the tomb there is no body. Luke does not identify the two men they meet but describe their clothes as dazzling. The Greek word is likely associated with words for lightning or even a star. It is clearly not typical clothing, and the hearer is meant to interpret the sparse description as an angelic messengers, further indicated by the women throwing themselves on the ground in fear.

These messengers do not provide new information to the women, but rather help the women make sense of the information they have based on Jesus’ words alone. This is important. Jesus prophesied everything that would happen to him. His hearers will remember this and will lead them to understand him not simply as a prophet but as the great prophet prophesied by Moses himself (Deuteronomy 18), the very promised Messiah of God. Easter is not some unexpected matter, as though Jesus’ followers hadn’t heard him describe it in advance. But now, for the first time, they can both remember and understand his words, contextually. A physical, literal resurrection from the dead. An empty tomb. And by the grace of God, two messengers to ensure that the women remember, understand, and therefore can adequately communicate this reality to the disciples. The women are the first to share the message that He Is Risen!

But they are not taken seriously. As women, their testimony is treated as unreliable by the disciples. They are overcome with emotion or distraught or any number of other possible explanations. The disciples might be imagined to be very good amateur psychologists, diagnosing the women’s words. But Peter finally decides to go and see for himself. He discovers not the messengers, but just the empty tomb and, another detail, the linen cloths his body had been hastily wrapped in the previous day (Luke 23:53). Without any idea what else to do, Peter returns to the place where they were all staying, no doubt to affirm at least part of the women’s story. Full understanding has not yet come, as he returns marveling. Not until the end of that first day will Jesus’ followers begin to truly understand what has happened!

Interpreting Authority

April 9, 2019

We had our monthly gathering of pastors in our denomination today.  We come together spanning a stretch of territory just shy of 100 miles in length, and we were at the far southern terminus of our area today.  The study we started briefly on had to do with proper pastoral authority.  What authority does the pastor have (and not have), and where does he derive it?  It’s a theological discussion with a rich tradition, but not one that I’ve had to have many conversations with lay people about.

But it coincided with some other thoughts on authority and how we interpret it.

Two out of the last three weeks I have worshiped in places that sing the song “Our God”  by Chris Tomlin.  It’s got a catchy rhythm and, while being somewhat vague on details, is a fun song to sing.  But both times it was used, the bridge got me thinking:

And if our God is for us then who could ever stop us

And if our God is with us then what could stand against.

Now these words are true, but I wondered how the people singing and swaying along to them interpreted them.  In both settings there was no further explanation of this very strong claims.  And barring interpretations, people are prone to filling in their own explanations.

The words  could easily be interpreted to mean that as followers of Christ we can’t suffer any setbacks, any failures, any disappointments, let alone any meaningful persecution or violation of the rights and privileges which we – as American Christians in particular – have come to enjoy and expect.

God is indeed for us and with us, and as such we are indeed conquerors in Christ.  But we need to remember that Christ conquered through his death, and his command to his followers was not to go out and dominate culture and society and politics but rather to pick up their crosses and follow him.  To expect the kind of suffering, even, that Jesus experienced and, perhaps, to even be killed for our confidence and faith in him.

That is a very real, very powerful victory indeed!  Satan cannot stand against us in any eternal sense.   Those  who cling to Christ may lose everything else – health, wealth, prestige, honor in the eyes of the world, even our lives – but we inherit so much vastly more.  It is a promise that has held Christians faithful on their way to the gallows or the shallow graves, in the face of guns and knives and fists and fire.

But is that how people today hear it?  And what if they seem to be stopped in their lives?  What if their jobs disappear or that promotion never materializes?  What if their family life is a struggle or they deal with the very real threat of sickness and disease?  Does this song support and encourage them to trust completely in Jesus and endure all things and all losses?   Or does this song leave them without a means of explaining their struggles?  Does it set up a false hope or point them to  the only true hope and definition of victory in Christ?

Only time will tell, I suppose.  But the rates at which people seem to be leaving their faith behind for the none category in survey after survey, the rate at which participation in worship continues to decline, I have to wonder if these kinds of songs – which can and should be so powerful and comforting when provided the proper interpretation – are leading people to a shallow, straw-man sort of faith in a god-djinni who grants wishes and offers protection rather than dies and rises again for them?

Those are the conversations I’d rather be having with my colleagues.  How do we equip our people to face real suffering and loss rather than letting their shallow roots wither and die in the blistering sun of an enemy?  Defending and explicating the proper role and use of pastoral  authority requires, after all, a congregation of people to explain it to and live  it out with.  That might require some more diligent preaching and teaching rather than letting them define their pop hooks by the world’s standards rather than God’s.