Moses and Deborah Compared

May 29, 2018

Deborah is a judge, and the judicial activity is the same word used to describe Moses (Exodus 18:33) and Samuel (1 Samuel 17:6) as well as rulers/judges appointed throughout the tribes of Israel (Deuteronomy 16:18-20) as representing God’s own authority (Deuteronomy 17:12

Deborah exercise authority analogous to Moses. She is pictured as a second Moses.

Action Moses Deborah
Judge Exodus 18:13 Judges 4:4
People Came to Them Exodus 18:13 Judges 4:5
Proclaimed Word of Lord Exodus 7:16 Judges 4:6
Prophets Deuteronomy 18:5 Judges 4:4
Pronounced Blessings Exodus 39:43 Judges 5:24
Pronounced Curses Deuteronomy 27:15 Judges 5:23
Both had military generals Joshua Barak
Instructed Israel about how to defeat enemies Exodus 14:14 Judges 4:6
Lord caused enemies in chariots to panic and flee Exodus 14:24 Judges 4:15
God’s victory told in prose Exodus 14 Judges 4
Then told in poetry Exodus 15 Judges 5
Led people in worship Exodus 15:1 (& Miriam) Judges 5:1 (& Barak)

Reading Strategies:

  1. Deborah usurped authority illegitimately? But there is no indication in the text this was illegitimate; in fact, there are positive indications that she is an honored prophet.  She speaks and her words come true; they are confirmed. Her song, celebrating the victory (like the song of Moses), takes up the whole of chapter 5, which is unique in the story of Judges. This affirms her role and authority.
  2. Deborah’s ruling was private rather than public? But “tree of Deborah” is a public place where she “judged” (using the same word as Samuel) Israel (the nation).
  3. Deborah was a substitute for weak men who would not lead? But see Judges 5:2, 9 where leaders are commended for following Deborah’s lead, and men were not faulted for the reality of Deborah’s leadership but affirmed for following it. The parallels between Moses and Deborah confirm this.
  4. Deborah only exercised political authority? But Israel is a theocracy under the rule of God, and Deborah commands in the name of the Lord (Judges 4:6) and Israel’s rulers led on the basis of the Mosaic covenant (Deut. 17:18).
  5. “Since God himself raised up Deborah as a judge, and that which God chooses to do can not [sic] be intrinsically wrong, it cannot be intrinsically wrong for a woman to exercise authority over a man” within a covenant community. But that may live in tension with 1 Timothy 2:12, or does it?

Based on John Jefferson Davis’s article here: https://www.cbeinternational.org/sites/default/files/First_Davis.pdf


The Weak, the Strong, and #MeToo: A Homily on 1 Corinthians 8

January 29, 2018

This is a guest post by Kaitlin Hardy Shetler who delivered this homily on 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 at the All Saints Church of Christ on January 28, 2018.

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When I read Corinthians, I am struck by how many times Paul connects weakness to holiness. It’s as if the whole letter, peppered with missives to keep the weak in mind—to even change our behavior in favor of the weak—values those who struggle. It shouldn’t be surprising, given that Jesus’s ministry was to the sick, wounded, and burdened, and that Paul, a former Pharisee and Persecutor, was literally weakened by God in order to fully know Christ. The weak is where God resides. The weak is where God shows up. So to God, shaming and shunning the weak isn’t to be taken lightly.

I wonder if this is how we typically read this passage in Corinthians? Do we see the “weaker brother” as an opportunity to be compassionate and empathetic, or do we see him as a chance to be self righteous and arrogant? Paul says that wounding another’s conscience while it’s weak is tantamount to sinning against Christ. These are harsh words, and the fact that we typically brush by them aside in a rush to proof-text and condemn, should give us anxiety. We see the “weak” as “sinners” who just can’t control their urges or ignorant children who don’t understand God like we do. But we totally miss the fact that these individuals aren’t any less faithful or spiritual—they are just…burdened. Wounded.

In youth group, I remember ministers using these words to describe people who drink or swear. That was the extent of the exegesis of these verses, and even as a teenager, I felt it was missing the spirit of what Paul’s saying. And I believe that’s because it’s easy to use this passage address sins, but it is harder to see it as addressing woundedness.

Because that requires more work than just “not drinking”—it requires a deep sense of empathy and the ability to take another’s perspective. It requires putting aside one’s arrogance, and adopting the difficult stance of embracing another’s pain, woundedness, and weakness—walking alongside it and recognizing that any actions that would further wound that person are condemned by Christ.

When we talk about this, we’ve got to define our terms. Who are the wounded? Who are the weak and powerless? And why do they deserve our consideration over those who see themselves as enlightened and unburdened?

We can reframe this as understanding power dynamics. When we examine any situation, we have to ask ourselves, “Who has the power?” Weak people don’t have power. Wounded people aren’t historically centered in these conversations. Keeping in mind the weak means that we recognize this social fact. Socially, in Paul’s day, the weak were the disadvantaged, the oppressed, women, minorities, and the underclass. In our day…it’s the same.

I am compelled to address the #metoo movement and the plethora of women finding their voices and speaking out about their experiences with sexual assault and harassment. The church has been deeply lacking in prophets and protests addressing these issues, and while the secular world is experiencing a much-needed reckoning, our sanctuaries are silencing these stories. Women are being pushed out of the church for speaking out. Silence is being disguised as forgiveness, and victims are being shamed into welcoming back their abusers with open arms. Toxic theological teachings are being spouted as truth and used as tools of shame to protect the leadership structure. And the prevailing narrative is, “I know better than you. God wants you to forgive. Just get over it.”

And that narrative is a death sentence for someone’s faith.

We are bombarded by powers and principalities that constantly wound and weaken humanity. Racism and sexism exist deep within the fabric of our society, and abuse runs rampant in our world. We cannot sit in a congregation without coming into contact with at least one person deeply touched by this evil.

So we can’t walk away from people, puffed up in a false knowledge that says, “Just get over it. It’s not a big deal. We all know this world is not our home.” That is not empathetic, compassionate, or accurate. It does nothing except exert arrogant power over the wounded individual. And, according to Paul, it is sinful.

Paul is calling for empathy. And this empathy must flow in the direction of the weak and wounded. Not the abuser. Not the privileged or advantaged or rich or powerful. It must surround like a gushing river the souls and consciences of those hurting. In these instances, we must think to ourselves: “Does my treatment of this issue lead someone closer to or further away from Christ?” “Does it further wound them, or does it grant them healing?” And our priority is always to the least of these.

With that in mind, allow me to present an alternative reading of this passage.

1 Corinthians 8:1-13

Now concerning racism, sexism, sexual assault, and all those other worldly evils: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know it all actually doesn’t; but anyone who loves God is intimately known by God.

Hence, as to these evils, we know that “Christians are transformed by the renewing of their mind,” and that we “forgive as God forgave us.” Indeed, even though there may be evil in this world—as in fact there is hate and prejudice and abuse— for us there is none, for all are equal in the eyes of the Lord.

It is not everyone, however, who has this experience. Since some have been abused and persecuted and harmed (and in fact, are still suffering the effects of this), they still see these evils as realities and hear the dismissal of them as approval of their suffering. Their souls and bodies, being wounded, are weakened. We are no worse off if we do not “forgive and forget”, and no better off if we do. But take care that this liberty and privilege of yours to ignore these evils and focus on “things of above” does not somehow become a stumbling block to those who have been wounded by the here and now. For if others see you, who live a life free of these experiences, making light of them and acting as if they don’t have any impact on people, might they not, since they are wounded, be encouraged to the point of harming themselves and their faith? So by your arrogance those wounded and hurting believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their faith when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if denying their experience, if inviting those who caused them pain to break bread with them, if asking them to forgive and forget is a cause of their falling, I will never do these things, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.

God is a God of the weak and wounded, and he will not forsake them. He will not tolerate an arrogance that dismisses their experiences or devalues their existence. This passage is not about eating or drinking—as Paul says, that is beside the point. This passage is about compassion and empathy and the ability to take the hurting into our community and show them that they are more important than a theological debate or a self-righteous posturing. This exists as a warning to us: God’s heart is wounded. Christ was made weak. Worldly power has no place in the church. We are called to bear with one another. Not doing so is not bearing with Christ.

May we be spurred to the good work of embracing the wounded and weakened, and by our actions and support, bring them closer to God and the hope of a world free from oppression and abuse.

 

 

 

 


On Reading 1 John

January 10, 2017

Though 1 John is anonymous, tradition associates it with the Apostle John or perhaps Elder John who are both connected to churches in Asia Minor in the late first century. Whatever the case (and I will call the author “John”), it is rather immaterial to the themes and meaning of the text.

1 John begins and ends like a “tract,” or even homily (sermon). It does not have the form of a letter (unlike 2 John and 3 John). It is more like a community handbook intended for a region of congregations. We might imagine the author seeks to provide perspective given the recent turmoil congregations in Asia Minor (or a larger region) have experienced. Consequently, the “letter” (I use term accommodatively) functions as a handbook for communities as a way of orienting them toward the central truths that should shape their communal life.

These congregations have recently suffered a division where some left and established alternative communities. They seceded from the original congregations in order to maintain their own theological agenda. At the core of this secession was the belief that Jesus did not come in the flesh, or what is called “Docetism” in the early church (1 John 2:19-22; 4:1-2, 7). Interestingly, when Ignatius of Antioch pens letters to several congregations in Asia Minor around 112 CE, he recognizes there were competing congregations in the area, and some of those congregations were “Docetists,” that is, they denied the Son of God had come in the flesh. The author of 1 John considers this a denial of a central truth of the Christian community, and bids the secessionists farewell as long as they persist in this belief.

John addresses this situation by reminding these churches of two important truths, which fundamentally ground Christian communities. These two truths organize the “letter,” which is an exposition and application of these truths to the post-secessionist situation in which these churches find themselves.

The first truth is: “God is light” (1 John 1:5). This is, as John writes, “the message we have heard from him and declare to you.” It is, literally, “the announcement” we “announced.” It is a fundamental message of the Christian community.

This is intimately connected to the claim that Jesus has come in the flesh. God, in whom there is no darkness, has entered the world through the incarnation (taking on flesh) as light in the midst of darkness. Through this light, God reveals eternal life, shares eternal life, and cleanses humanity from sin so that humanity might participate in that life and light. John believes the claim that “Jesus has come in the flesh” is essential to the revelation of this truth, that is, “God is light.”

1 John 1:5-3:10 develops this theme. The light of God is revealed in the incarnate Jesus, who calls us into a life of purity, truth, and righteousness as we walk in the light as Jesus lives and reveals that light. Consequently, we recognize the Christianity community is fundamentally different in its values and mission than the rest of the “world” (as John uses the term) precisely because this community is founded on the light that Jesus revealed through coming in the flesh.

The second truth is: “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16). The second “announcement,” that “we should love one another,” is grounded in this truth (1 John 3:11). Indeed, this is the “new commandment” that shapes the Christianity community (1 John 2:7-8).

We love one another because we participate in the life of God who is love. We know the love of God because God sent the Son into the world by which God loved us so that we might learn to love others. When the love of God fills our hearts, we love each other; when we know God, or experience God, or participate in the life of God, then we also love each other as God has loved us. The second “announcement,” then, is actually an exposition of this truth: “God is love.”

1 John 3:11-5:12 develops this theme. The love of God is revealed in the life and death of Jesus, who calls us to love each other just as he has loved us. In fact, this is fundamentally what it means to walk in the light because just as God is light so also God is love. When we walk in the light, we love one another. Again, this is how the community of Jesus is fundamentally different from the “world.”

These two truths—“God is light” and “God is love”—are revealed in the incarnation, ministry, and death of Jesus the Messiah. The church confesses Jesus as the Messiah who came in the flesh, and this coming revealed the light and love of God. This is the heart of the Christian faith, and it is this message (“announcement”) that makes a community an authentic, living embodiment of God in the world.

Indeed, as the prologue (1 John 1:1-4) and epilogue (1 John 5:13-21) make clear, Jesus is the “eternal life” through whom God is revealed and through whom we participate in the life of God. We enjoy “eternal life” as we participate in the light and love of God experienced and known through Jesus. Consequently, we “know” that light and love when we entrust ourselves to God through Jesus and become children of God (1 John 5:13). As children, we walk in the light of God, and we love each other.


“Say Among the Nations” (Psalm 96:10)

May 16, 2016

It is rather distressing to see Christians wringing their hands over the state of the nation. Facebook is populated by “Christian rants,” which reflect a state of anxiety, anger, and angst. Many live in fear.

Believers, however, worship God.

Perhaps the contrast is not apparent. Perhaps Christians are so filled with fear, it is difficult to see how faith-filled worship subverts fear and projects confidence.

It is not, however, a confidence in whether a particular political party will win an election, nor is it a confidence that a particular law will be enacted or reversed. It is not confidence in the political system.

It is confidence in God, which is reflected in Psalm 96.

The people of God gather to worship–to sing “a new song” (because God is always doing new things), and they invite “all the earth” (both nations and creation itself) to join in the chorus. In this worship, we declare the God’s glory and saving works, and we confess God is the “maker of heaven and earth.”

This worship bears witness and addresses to the nations (Psalm 96:10):

  • Yahweh, the Covenant Lord of Israel, is king.
  • What God has created remains secure.
  • God will establish justice among the peoples.

In other words, God is sovereign, God upholds the creation by God’s power, and God will set things right.

The future of creation and justice among the nations are not, ultimately, in human hands. This rests in God’s hands.

Worship, when we are gathered with others to honor and praise God, reorients our anxieties. In community, among fellow-believers, the lenses through which we see the world are corrected. Instead of wallowing in the turmoil that envelops the nations, we approach the face of God to see the enthroned Lord who assures us that the earth is secure and justice will prevail.

Amidst the anxiety and angst of the political season as well as the distress that fills the world with terror, violence, and economic pain, we affirm the sovereignty of God, the stability of the earth, and the certainty that God will set things right when God comes to judge the earth.

In response to this assurance, the heavens and the earth rejoice, the seas–and everything in it–celebrate with a roar, and the animals, who fill the fields, along with the trees of the forest sing for joy!

God is coming to judge the earth; not only to rescue humanity from its own chaos and injustice but also to rescue the earth from its bondage to decay.

Yahweh is king!

Yahweh secures the earth!

Yahweh will set things right!

This is the confidence in which believers rest, and, therefore, we are not afraid.


A Call to Worship in a Day of Fear (Psalm 33)

May 11, 2016

Psalm 33, a hymn of praise, expresses hope and joy in a time of fear.

Israel’s circumstances, whatever their precise character, generated a deep need for God’s help and protection (“shield”) in the face of death and famine (Psalm 33:19-20). This fear was possibly occasioned by the threat of war or battle (Psalm 33:16-17).

Given recent terror attacks and the threat of ISIS, fear abounds. The US political situation has also generated fear among many. Some respond with threats; others respond with hate. Still others respond with despair and worry. Psalm 33 calls for worship.

The Psalmist responds to Israel’s dire situation with a call to joyful praise. This is appropriate for the people of God who are characterized by a rightful trust in Yahweh (Psalm 33:1, 21-22) and place their hope in their Creator and Redeemer.

The Psalm opens with five imperatives, each a different verb (Psalm 33:1-3).  Each one is a call to worship because “praise” (tehilla) adorns and befits God’s people, even amidst their worst fears.

  • Sing joyfully in Yahweh (v. 1)
  • Give thanks to Yahweh with the lyre (v. 2)
  • Sing praise to Yahweh with the harp (v. 2)
  • Sing a new song to Yahweh (v. 3)
  • Play music skillfully on the strings with loud shouts (v. 3)

While fear seems the most prudent response to difficult circumstances–and we all experience such fear, the Psalmist calls Israel to worship.

Why this call to worship when we are surrounded by fear? Psalm 33 explains.

We worship because….

  • The word of Yahweh is upright, and all Yahweh’s “doing” (making) is done in faithfulness (Psalm 33:4-9).
  • The plans of Yahweh stand forever, and Yahweh’s “heart-thoughts” extend to all generations (Psalm 33:10-12).
  • The eye of Yahweh is set upon those who trust and hope in Yahweh’s steadfast love (Psalm 33:13-19).

We worship, even in times of fear, because Yahweh’s word is powerful and faithful, Yahweh’s intentions are permanent, and Yahweh’s care is interminable.”

First, the word of Yahweh” does not describe inscripturated propositions. The Psalmist is not talking about the Torah, though other Psalms do. Instead, the “word of Yahweh” is God’s active presence as Creator and Redeemer.  The “word of Yahweh” here is God’s performative speech

Performative speech actualizes something. For example, when the officiant says, “I now pronounce you husband and wife,” that language actualizes the union’s reality. The language has power; it does something.

God speaks, and it is done. What God speaks is done, and what is done is established as a firm, immovable rock. What God does is characterized by faithfulness (Psalm 33:4) and it stands (Psalm 33:9).

The word of Yahweh, then, is an active, living voice which actualizes what God intends, and nothing can resist it. God made the heavens and gathered the waters. God’s speech acts actualized the heavens and the earth. These words are the breath of God, which yield life, order, justice, and righteousness.

This creative work, and the redemptive work in the Exodus which this language also echoes (cf. Exodus 14:31; 15:6-8), arises from God’s love for righteousness and justice (Psalm 33:5). The divine goal, expressed as a confident reality in hopeful worship, is to fill “the earth” with “Yahweh’s steadfast love” (Psalm 33:5).

Israel worships Yahweh because the word of Yahweh accomplishes what it speaks by its powerful love.

We do not fear because the living word of God effects God’s righteousness and fills the earth with God’s steadfast love.

In the light of this, “let all the earth fear Yahweh” because Yahweh’s love is universal and Yahweh’s work is awe-inspiring.

Second, the plan of Yahweh is permanent. Yahweh’s intentions are evident to Israel; every generation knows what Yahweh plans will happen. Nothing can frustrate Yahweh’s goal, Yahweh’s “thoughts” (Psalm 33:11).

The nations believe they control their own destiny. They use their power to secure their own ends. What the nations plan, however, is no match for Yahweh’s plan. Yahweh “breaks” and “frustrates” the “plan of the nations.”

Whatever it may seem, however it may appear, the plans of the nations are subservient to the “counsel of Yahweh,” Yahweh’s “heart-thoughts.” Ultimately, Yahweh’s intentions are realized no matter what the nations may do. God is sovereign over the nations.

When fear pervades a people, they have lost their trust in God’s sovereignty. When worship fills our hearts, we trust in God’s powerful, redemptive, and loving work.

This is our blessedness. When we confess Yahweh as our God, we confess God’s election. Yahweh loved us, and Yahweh chose us, and we are Yahweh’s inheritance or heritage (Psalm 33:12).

This is not simply the confession of Israel. It is, in fact, the hope of the nations. One day, Isaiah promises, even Egypt and Assyria will be a “blessing in the midst of the earth,” and Yahweh will call them “my people” and “my heritage” (Isaiah 19:24-25).

Consequently, we do not fear because God’s intent is to bless all the nations so that the whole earth becomes Yahweh’s inheritance.

Third, the eye of Yahweh covers the earth to deliver from death those who hope in Yahweh’s steadfast love (Psalm 33:18-19).

This “eye” is not passive but active. Yahweh is no mere observer. On the contrary, the eye of Yahweh (Psalm 33:13-15):

  • looks down from heaven
  • sees all humankind
  • watches all the inhabitants of the earth
  • forms every human heart
  • discerns every one of their deeds

In other words, Yahweh is intimately engaged with human hearts and lives. Yahweh “forms” hearts just as Yahweh “formed” adam from the ground in Genesis 2:7 (same Hebrew term). Further, God “understands” or “discerns” humanity’s deeds. God not only knows what is going on, but God also discerningly considers what humanity does. God is attentive–shaping human hearts and probing their deeds.

This is a function of God’s sovereignty since Yahweh is enthroned above the earth from where Yahweh “watches” and “forms” all humanity.  The repetitive use of “all” (kal), used three times in Psalm 33:13-15, underscores the universal reach of God’s work.

Consequently, no king, army, warrior, or war horse can “save” by its own “great might” (Psalm 33:16-17). This once again echoes the Exodus narrative where no king or warrior saved Israel from Egypt’s mighty army. Instead, Yahweh redeemed Israel and delivered her from death.

The Yahweh of the Exodus is still Israel’s God, and Yahweh will yet deliver those who “fear him” and “hope in his steadfast love” (Psalm 33:18).

Therefore, we do not fear because Yahweh reigns over the earth, forms human hearts, and acts to redeem those who trust in God’s love.

We are not afraid because we know and have experienced God’s redemptive love in our lives, and we trust the one who has loved us.

The Psalmist dispels fear through worship because worship calls us into God’s story.

  • Yahweh’s word is powerful and actualizes what it commands.
  • Yahweh’s plan is firm and immovable.
  • Yahweh’s eye is squarely upon us for our redemption.

As a result, we “wait for Yahweh” because our God is our “help and shield” (Psalm 33:20).

We even learn to rejoice in the middle of fearful circumstances “because we trust in Yahweh’s holy name” (Psalm 33:21).

This patient endurance (“waiting”) and hopeful worship spawns a wish-prayer. It is the only word addressed to Yahweh in the whole Psalm. It functions like a blessing, a benediction, or a corporate response from the assembly. It is a prayer we should make our own.

Let your steadfast love, O Yahweh, be upon us, even as we hope in you.

Amen.

 


Four Means of Grace (Acts 2:42)

April 23, 2016

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”

Acts 2:42, NRSV.

harding-profile“Our greatest trouble now is, it seems to me, a vast unconverted membership. A very large percent of the church members among us seem to have very poor conception of what a Christian ought to be. They are brought into the church during these high-pressure protracted meetings, and they prove to be a curse instead of a blessing. They neglect prayer, the reading of the Bible, and the Lord’s day meetings, and, of course, they fail to do good day by day as they should. Twelve years of continuous travel among the churches have forced me to the sad conclusion that a very small number of the nominal Christians are worthy of the name.”

James A. Harding, Gospel Advocate (1887) [1]

As a summary of early Christian steadfastness, Acts 2:42 has served as a influential reference point in the Believer’s Church tradition, and it has been especially important to the Stone-Campbell Movement. As early as the 1830s some even regarded it as the biblical “order of worship.” Others simply emphasized its fundamental orientation. James A. Harding, co-founder of Lipscomb University and namesake of Harding University, called them “means of grace,” that is, four spiritual disciplines that form believers into the image of Christ.

Harding identified the four as (1) reading and studying the Bible, (2) ministering to others (especially the poor) as we share (“fellowship”) our resources, (3) participating in the Lord’s day meeting at the Lord’s table as a community, and (4) habitual prayer.[2] Sometimes Harding identifies these with the Lord’s Day assembly or communal gatherings but generally understood Bible study, missional engagement with the poor, and prayer as daily spiritual disciplines. According to Harding, believers should adopt a kind of rule of life which involves daily Bible reading, “doing good” daily as they have opportunity, and pray every morning, noon, afternoon, and evening.

But these are no mere duties. Rather, they are “four great means of grace—appointed means by which God dynamically acts among, in, and through the people of God.[3] They are not modes of human self-reliance but means of divine transformation by which God graciously sanctifies believers. They are spiritual disciplines through which God conforms believers to the image of Christ.

Harding stressed how “the life of a successful Christian is a continual growth in purity, a constant changing into a complete likeness to Christ.”[4] To “grow more and more into the likeness of Christ” should be the Christian’s “greatest” desire. [5] In other words, Harding believed discipleship was the central dimension of practicing the kingdom of God. Consequently, one of the dangers of revivalism (“protracted meetings”) was the immediate interest in a larger number of conversions where the main concern was “escaping hell and getting into heaven” as opposed to discipling people to lead “lives of absolute consecration to the Lord.” As a result, these “converts are much more anxious to be saved than they are to follow Christ.”[6]

Harding’s antidote recommended the “four habits” of Acts 2:42 as expressions of both communal and personal piety. Whoever neglects them will falter and their “falling away is sure.”[7] But if one will pursue these spiritual practices, “he will surely abide in Christ. These four are god’s means of grace to transform a poor, frail, sinful human being into the likeness of Christ.” Whoever “faithfully uses these means unto the end of life can not be lost.” Specifically, in response to the question, “Will God hold us responsible for little mistakes?” Harding answered: God “holds nothing against us” whether we sinned “in ignorance, weakness or willfulness” as long as we live in Christ as people who faithfully practice these spiritual disciplines with a heart that seeks God.[8]

God in Christ through the Spirit is graciously active through these communal and personal faith-practices. God actively transforms believers into God’s own image, and believers who pursue these gifts of grace will experience transformation by divine power rather than by human effort.

**This is adapted from John Mark Hicks and Bobby Valentine, Kingdom Come: Embracing the Spiritual Legacy of David Lipscomb and James Harding (Abilene: Leafwood Press, 2006), 75-77. One chapter is devoted to each of these means of grace.

[1]Harding, “Scraps,” Gospel Advocate 27 (9 February 1887), 88.

[2]Harding, “Questions Concerning the Way to Heaven,” The Way 4 (12 February 1903), 370.

[3]Harding, “Questions and Answers,” The Way 4 (17 July 1902), 123.

[4]Harding, “Scraps,” The Way 5 (23 July 1903), 735.

[5]Harding, “Scraps,” The Way 5 (15 October 1903), 945.

[6]Harding, “About Protracted Meetings,” Gospel Advocate 27 (14 September 1887), 588.

[7]Harding, “Ira C. Moore on the Validity of Baptism,” Christian Leader and the Way 23 (18 May 1909), 8.

[8]Harding, “Scraps,” The Way 4 (26 February 1903), 401-2.


What Does it Mean to Eat “Unworthily”? (1 Corinthians 11:29)

April 22, 2016

What does it mean to eat and drink “worthily”?

The church has variously interpreted the term “worthily.” A primary misunderstanding has been to read the term as an adjective rather than an adverb. Some believe they must be “worthy” to approach the supper, that is, they must have lived a pure, exemplary life before coming to the table. Indeed, some church traditions have emphasized the need for extensive introspective examination or ecclesial examination (e.g., examination by a Pastor) before coming to the table, and there is nothing inherently wrong with that. It can be a good practice. Nevertheless, it may unintentionally create a culture where many refuse to eat the supper because they feel “unworthy” due to their weaknesses or they may not come to the table unless they receive sanction or absolution from another.

But the word Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 11:29 is “unworthily” or “in an unworthy manner.” The adverb describes the way in which a person eats; it does not describe  the status of the person who is eating. In one sense, everyone is unworthy to approach the table. No one deserves to sit at the king’s table. Everyone should approach the table with humility and gratitude, and we must never approach the table out of a sense of our own worthiness. We are not worthy, if we mean by that we have secured a place at the table because of our goodness.

Unfortunately, this has led many people to stay away from the table because they are unworthy rather than approaching the table under God’s grace and mercy. Luther’s words are particularly helpful in this connection (and many Protestant traditions often later functioned like Luther describes as “under the pope”):

But suppose you say, “What if I feel that I am unfit?” Answer: This also is my temptation, especially inherited from the old order under the pope when we tortured ourselves to become so perfectly pure that God might not find the least blemish in us. Because of this we became so timid that everyone was thrown into consternation, saying, “Alas, I am not worthy!” Then nature and reason begin to contrast our unworthiness with this great and precious blessing, and it appears like a dark lantern in contrast to the bright sun, or as dung in contrast to jewels. Because nature and reason see this, such people refuse to go to the sacrament and wait until they become prepared, until one week passes into another and one half year into yet another. If you choose to fix your eye on how good and pure your are, to work toward the time when nothing will prick your conscience you will never go…He who earnestly desires grace and consolation should compel himself to go and allow no one to deter him, saying, “I would really like to be worthy, but I come not on account of any worthiness of mine, but on account of thy Word, because thou hast commanded it and I want to be thy disciple, no matter how insignificant my worthiness”…If you are heavy-laden and feel your weakness, go joyfully to the sacrament and receive refreshment, comfort and strength.[1]

When we feel unworthy or despair over our “worthlessness,” this is the moment to run to the table to receive grace, mercy, and encouragement. We don’t stay away from the table but we run to it when we are burdened with guilt and grief.

At the same time, we should eat and drink “worthily.” The specific context in 1 Corinthians 11 is the divisive character of the assembly. The rich are eating without the poor. The assembly is divided by socio-economic factors. The Corinthians ate “unworthily” when they ate in groups opposed to each other or divided from each other. Paul does not suggest some kind of private introspection as a resolution to this problem. On the contrary, eating “worthily” is a communal concern. The church eats and drinks “worthily” when it eats and drinks as one body.

Unfortunately, some think “unworthily” refers to the private thoughts of the individual. Believers eat and drink “unworthily” when they do not, for example, sufficiently concentrate on the death of Christ, or they do not “discern” the body of Christ in the bread, or they do not meditate in silence, or they let their mind wander during the passing of the elements, or they do not reflect on their sins and ask God’s forgiveness. In other words, “unworthily” becomes a bottomless pit into which we can throw anything that we think is inappropriate during the Lord’s supper.

We define “unworthily,” then, by our preconceived ideas of what we think the supper is. This move means we must first have a good theological understanding of the supper before we decide how “unworthily” might be applied in our contemporary setting. Thus, if we think the supper is a silent, private, meditative act of piety, then we would eat “unworthily” if we acted in a way that violated that piety (including “singing during the Lord’s Supper,” “talking during the Supper,” or engaging in communal prayer or reading during the Supper).

Contextually,  the emphasis of “unworthily” is communal. It eats the supper in a way that denies the gospel which the table is to proclaim. To eat “unworthily” is to eat in a way that undermines the gospel. In Corinth, they denied the gospel through their economic factions where the rich ate before and without the poor. They also denied the gospel by sitting at two tables—the table of demons and the table of the Lord (1 Corinthians 10:14-22). Though they ate at the table of the Lord, they denied the gospel through their immorality and idolatry.

“Unworthily,” then, is not a matter of private psyche at the moment we bite down on the bread. The consequence of that perspective is that we oppress ourselves with interminable questions (“Am I thinking about the death of Christ?” “Am I too distracted?” “Did I pray?” “Should I read a scripture?” “Did I drink damnation to myself because I had to pay attention to my children rather than the bread?” “Can I pray with a friend during the Supper?” “Can I speak with the person next to me about what I am experiencing in the Supper?” “Can we sing during the Supper?”).

Rather, it is about the manner of eating in relation to the community and our lifestyle. Do we eat with a double mind? Do we eat in commitment to the Lordship of Jesus as his disciples? Do we eat with prejudice and bias against another group within the church (racial or socio-economic)? Do we eat knowing we will pursue our own interests on Monday through Saturday? Do we eat on Sunday knowing we will deny the gospel through our lifestyle on Monday by cheating in our business, committing adultery, or denying justice to minorities? To eat “unworthily” in such way is to eat and drink condemnation.

Fundamentally, to eat “worthily” is similar to living “worthily” (Philippians 1:27). When we live, we must live out and embody gospel values as disciples of Jesus. When we eat, we must eat in a way that embodies gospel values as disciples of Jesus. The table must reflect the gospel; it must embody the character of its host. When we sit at the table in a way that denies the gospel, we eat “unworthily.” We eat “worthily” when we embody thegospel at the table, and at the table we are received by God’s gracious host, Jesus the Messiah and we experience the communion of the Holy Spirit as we eat and drink with Jesus at table in the presence of the Father.

[1] Martin Luther, “Large Catechism,” in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, trans. and ed. by Theodore G. Tappert (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959), 471.

**Adapted from John Mark Hicks, Come to the Table (Leafwood Press, 2001)**


I am Peter (John 21:15-19)

April 17, 2016

[Listen to the sermon here, from April 17, 2016]

Shame. Guilt. Grief.

I know those feelings. I’ve been overwhelmed by them at times. They have felt like a ton of bricks on my chest, and I couldn’t breathe.

I’m feeling them now. Sitting with Jesus on the beach, eating the fish he grilled and the bread he baked, I keep staring at the charcoal fire. Its burning my eyes and scorching my heart.

When Jesus was arrested, I followed him. John had connections in the household of the High Priest, by which we were able to gain entrance to its courtyard. I will never forget that courtyard. Even as I entered it, the servant girl recognized me and said, “You are one of them, aren’t you? You are one of Jesus’s friends.” And I said, “No, I don’t know him.” John looked at me, and I looked at the ground. What came over me? Why would I deny Jesus? It sort of just happened, and the words came out of my mouth before I could grab hold of them and stuff them back in. I never thought I would do that, but I did.

I moved over to the fire to keep warm but also to get closer to what was going on. I thought I might be able to see or hear something about Jesus. Gathered around the charcoal fire, they recognized me. Someone said, “You are one of his disciples. You are one of his friends!” “No,” I answered, “I am not!” I don’t think they believed me, and I didn’t even believe myself. Why am I denying I know Jesus? What is happening to me? Where is this coming from?

Then a relative of Malchus, a servant of the High Priest, whose ear I had severed in the Garden, recognized me. “Yes, you are one of his disciples! You were in the Garden; you tried to kill Malchus.” “No,” I yelled, “that was not me. I was not in the Garden! I don’t even know this Jesus.”

And then the rooster crowed, and I hit the wall. I came to myself and recognized what I had done. I left the courtyard and cried my eyes dry. I hated myself; I hated what I did. How could I ever forgive myself? How could Jesus ever forgive me?

The charcoal fire on the beach flooded my soul with those horrible, horrendous memories. I wish I could make them go away. I want a “do-over,” but that don’t exist. It is hanging out there in the air, at least that is how I feel. It is the elephant in the room at our breakfast table. And no one is saying anything about it, not even John.

Then Jesus looked at me. I though to myself, “Oh, no, here it comes! I don’t know what to expect. What will he say?”

The first words out of his mouth crushed me! “Simon, son of John,” he said. He did not say “Peter” but “Simon, son of John.” When we first met on these same shores several years ago, he called my name, “Simon, son of John.” But then he renamed me, “Cephas” (“Peter” in Greek), which means “Rock.” He called me a “Rock,” but not today.

This not-so-subtle address forced me to face myself. I thought of myself of a “Rock” among the disciples. I had a heroic self-image laced with arrogance and impetuousness. I thought my role to play the hero, but several nights ago I learned I was no hero. It was a façade, an illusion. I’m no hero; I have feet of clay.

I was so startled by the address that I almost did not hear the question. “Simon, son of John, do you love (agapas) me more than these other disciples?” I looked around the fire at my fellow disciples and friends, including John. There was no way I could say I love Jesus more than them. I knew myself well enough to know that. At least the arrogance was gone…at least for the moment.

Several weeks earlier I would have anointed myself the greatest. I boasted I would follow Jesus whenever he went. I told him in front of all the disciples that I would die for him. I thought I loved him more than the others. But no longer. I will not overstep this time.

In fact, I realized the question is confrontational. Jesus knows the contrast. He knows what I did. He forced me to face myself, to look at myself in the moment, and to take inventory. Who I am? Whom do I love?

I responded, “Yes, Lord, I love (philo) you,” but I dropped the comparsion. And I made one other adjustment to Jesus’s question. While Jesus asked, “Do you love (agapas) me?” I responded, “I love (philo) you.” I did not mean I loved Jesus less as if agapao is a greater or more devout love than phileo. “Yes,” I said, “I agapao you but I also phileo you.” In effect, I said, “I dearly love you,” or “I love you as a friend.”

Why did I change the verb? I wanted to stress to Jesus how deep my love was. I wanted to assure him that now I would die for him.

Several weeks ago, when we were sitting at the table with Jesus, he called us his “friends” (philous) rather than his servants. He told us there is no “greater love (agapen) than this than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (philous). Jesus asked me if if Ioved him, and I told him I would die for him.

Then Jesus startled me. “Feed my lambs,” he said. What? I couldn’t imagine feeding lambs; I couldn’t imagine participating in your flock. I was so ashamed and so grieved; I only wanted to sit in the back unobserved and unnoticed. I feel so unworthy to feed Jesus’s lambs. And I remembered how several months ago Jesus told us a good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The invitation stung me.

Jesus did not let up. He asked another question. This time he dropped the comparison, and the question became more pointed and more direct. “Simon, son of John, do you love (agapas) me at all?” It is almost as if he was asking me if I have ever loved him, and I understood why he asked. I failed him in the most crucial moment of my life and his. In the crucible I showed myself faithless. Do I even love Jesus at all much less love him more than the other disciples?

Jesus was probing me. He was performing a kind of heart surgery on me. Do I know myself as Jesus knows me? When I denied Jesus, I loved myself, and maybe that is still true.

But I responded, “Yes, most certainly, Lord; you know I love (philo) you. I love you dearly, as a friend, and I will die for you, Lord.”

Again, once again, Jesus invited me into his community; he invited to participate. He said, “Tend my sheep.” I can’t even go there now. That seems so distant to me; I feel so unworthy of such a charge.

Then, for a third time—yes, a third time, Jesus asked another question, a different question. Every question has been different. This time he changed the verb. He shifted from agapas to phileis. He asked the same question but this time used my language. “Simon, son of John, do you love me dearly? Do you love me as a friend for whom you would die?”

The question cut me to the heart. It grieved me. The question hurt but not because it was a bad question. It hurt because I knew my own actions had occasioned the inquiry. My heart rate tripled, burdened with anxiety and grief. I wish I could change the past. I wish I had a “do-over.”

“Lord,” I responded, “you know everything—you know my heart now just as you knew it on the night I denied you. You know I love you. You know I will die for you.” I know Jesus knows. He knew my heart several weeks ago, and he knows my heart now.

In all these questions, Jesus’s voice was strong and stern. I knew Jesus was confronting me with my sin, but I also knew he was inviting me into his community again. Again, he welcomed me to “feed his sheep,” to live as a shepherd among his flock. Again, I recoiled.

But then it dawned on me what Jesus was doing. Jesus was not torturing me or rubbing it in. The three questions paralleled my three denials. Jesus gave me the opportunity to reverse my denials as a way of repairing my past. He gave me a “do-over.” He walked me through a kind of repair therapy, moral repair. I re-enacted my denial. Jesus helped me repair my past.

With each question, I looked my past in the eye and acknowledged what I had done. With each question, Jesus embraced me in the present. With each question, Jesus offered me a new future.

Jesus walked me through a process of moral repair, a kind of spiritual therapy where I looked in the mirror and faced myself. Through that confrontation, I confessed my failure, recognized my woundedness, and Jesus reoriented my life toward healing.

Jesus did not say to me, “Its okay; it didn’t matter. No worries.” Just the opposite. I had to face what I had done, and I had to see myself for truly who I was. Even as I professed my love for Jesus, I tasted the bitter fruit of the denial. I recognized my false self, my heroic self-image, and I reached out for my authentic self in professing my love for Jesus.

This did not erase my past. It really happened; it’s not going away. But the grace Jesus offered in this moment—as painful as it was to hear it and embrace it—reframed my past. It is like it rewired my experience. I still acknowledge the past, but I now see it through the lens of grace and how Jesus calls me into a new future. The past is no longer debilitating; the shame is no longer incapacitating. I have a future with Jesus.

Jesus confronted me in order to embrace me, and he embraced me to offer a new future, a future without shame, guilt, and grief over my past.

And Jesus really does know me. He knows I will face my next crucible without wavering. When I am old, someone will bind my hands and take me where I do not want to go. Jesus knows when that day comes I will die for him.

Jesus knows my sin, and he knows my love for him. He welcomed me with the invitation I longed to hear, “Follow me.”

My name is John Mark Hicks, a disciple of Jesus. I am Peter….and so are you.

 

John 21:15-19: An Amplified Reading

When Jesus and his disciples had finished breakfast, Jesus asked Simon Peter (intentionally avoiding calling him the “rock,” which he wasn’t): “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these other disciples?” Peter, recognizing his allusion to his previous insistence on dying with Jesus and his subsequent denial, responded, “Yes, certainly, Lord; you know I love you dearly. I will give my life for you.” Jesus answered, “Feed my lambs; care for my little ones as a good shepherd.”

Then again, a second time Jesus looked at Peter and asked (again without calling him the “rock”), “Simon, son of John, do you love me at all?” Peter, feeling the hurt of his recent failure to go to the cross with Jesus, responded, “Yes, certainly, Lord; you know I love you dearly. I will give my life for you.” Jesus answered, “Tend my sheep; protect my people with your life as a good shepherd.”

Then Jesus asked a third time (without calling him the “rock”), “Simon, son of John, do you love me enough to lay down your life for me?” Peter, deeply grieved by Jesus’s persistent questioning for the third time, responded, “Lord, you know everything—you know my heart now just as you knew it on the night I denied you. You know I love you dearly. You know I will lay down my life for you.” Jesus answered, “Feed my sheep; care for my people as a good shepherd.”

Jesus continued, “You can be certain of this, when you were younger, you fastened your own belt and went wherever you wanted. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not want to go.”

[Note: Jesus said this because he knew Peter would, one day, die for him as a martyr. Jesus knew Peter loved him.]

After he said this, Jesus said to Peter: “Follow me—follow me even to a cross. I know you love me dearly and I know you will lay down your life for my sheep.”


Resurrection Sunday: The Emmaus Experience (Luke 24:35)

March 27, 2016

On Resurrection Day, almost two thousand years ago, two disciples were transformed by their experience of the risen Messiah at a table in Emmaus.

While walking to Emmaus, they heard the story of a Messiah who must first suffer and then enter glory. The stranger who walked with them expounded Scripture, and their hearts burned as they saw the story of God in new ways. As the Scriptures were opened, so were their hearts.

At a table in Emmaus, on that resurrection day, the risen Messiah was “made known” to these disciples “in the breaking of the bread.” We know from reading Acts (2:42, 46; 20:7, 11) “the breaking of bread” continued as an ongoing table experience among the followers of Jesus, Israel’s Messiah.

What happened in the “breaking of the bread?” What continues to happen “in the breaking of the bread?”

The living Messiah is “made known” within the community of disciples. When disciples of Jesus are gathered around the table, Jesus is present, and—more than present—Jesus is revealed.

Jesus said as much earlier in Luke:

  • “This is my body” and
  • “This cup…is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:19-20).

Of course, the problem is the meaning of “is”? It depends on what the meaning of “is” is, right?

Paul expands the “is” in 1 Corinthians 10:16: “is it [the breaking of the bread] not a sharing in the body of Christ” or “is it [the cup] not a sharing in the blood of Christ?” When we eat the bread and drink the cup, we participate, share in the blessing of, and commune with the one who gave himself for us. We share in the benefits of God’s work in Christ; we experience the reality the body and blood of Jesus effects. We experience peace with God, and at the table we are not only assured of God’s grace but God also gives grace there.

Luke also provides his own explanation in Luke 24:35. At the table, the living Jesus is “revealed” or “made known.”

What exactly does that mean? I think the Eastern Orthodox theologian Schmemann illuminates this a bit (For the Life of the World, 142).

In the early tradition, and this is of paramount importance, the relationship between the sign in the symbol (A) and that which it signifies (B) is neither a merely semantic one (A means B), nor causal (A is the cause of B), nor representative (A represents B). We called this relationship an epiphany. “A is B” means that the whole of A expresses, communicates, reveals, manifests the reality of B (although not necessarily the whole of it) without, however, losing its own ontological reality, without being dissolved in another “res” [another “thing,” JMH]. But it was precisely this relationship between the A and the B, between the sign and the signified, that was changed. Because of the reduction of knowledge to rational or discursive knowledge there appears between A and B a hiatus. The symbol may still be means of knowledge but, as all knowledge, it is knowledge about and knowledge of. It can be a revelation about “res” but not the epiphany of the “res” itself. A can mean B, or represent it, or even in certain instances, be the “cause” of its presence; but A is no longer viewed as the very means of “participation” in B. Knowledge and participation are now two different realities, two different orders.

The bread and wine (the signs) remain bread and wine—their nature as bread and wine does not change. The relationship between the sign (bread and wine) and the thing signified (body and blood) is not merely symbolic or representative, but neither is it a change of nature or ontology (such that the bread becomes the body or the wine becomes the blood as different substance so that the bread and wine are annihilated).

Instead, the bread and wine become a means by which the living Christ is revealed. It is an “epiphany,” which “expresses, communicates, reveals, [and] manifests the reality” of the living Christ in the midst of the community. The table becomes more than a cognitive remembrance where we learn something about Christ. The table becomes a means by which we experience the living Christ and participate in the reality of the new creation, inaugurated by the resurrection of Jesus.

At the table, Jesus reveals the future, we remember the future, and we experience the future. The table is an “ephipany”—we see the future! Death will not win; Christ has already won!

On Easter Sunday, like Resurrection Day itself, disciples all around the world gather around a table, and there the living Christ is “made known.” We not only learn about Christ, we experience Christ. We not only learn about the new creation inaugurated by the resurrection of Jesus, we taste it!

O Happy Day—the day God announced the future of the world through the resurrection of Jesus.

O Happy Day—the day we gather at the table to taste that future!

Blessed be the name of the Lord, who did not leave us in the dust of death but has given us new life through Jesus, who is our life.

 


“I Thirst” (John 19:38)

March 26, 2016

Brief words often speak volumes. They say so much, and no other words are needed. “I thirst” is exactly that.

While, at first, we may think this is primarily about physical thirst—and we should not discount that dimension, the words are more about the situation in which Jesus finds himself.

“I thirst” is the cry of several lament Psalms in the Hebrew prayer book.

• “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” (Psalm 42:2).
• Enemies gave righteous sufferers “poison for food and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink” (Psalm 69:21).
• “My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death” (Psalm 22:15).

This language, in one respect, arises out of isolation and desolation. The righteous sufferer agonizes over the reality of death and is disheartened by the loss of friendships.

And it is also  a cry for God to quench the thirst of the sufferer. It is not so much a thirst for water as it is a thirst for God. In effect, this is another way of calling upon God for help, seeking God in the midst of suffering. It is a cry for God’s presence; it is John’s version of the cry of dereliction, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

Today is “Holy Saturday.” On this day, Jesus lies in a tomb, the disciples are hiding, and Israel’s hope in this Messiah is gone. All seems lost.

“I thirst” is the cry of a dying Messiah. It is the cry of disciples who have lost hope. It is, often, our cry. We cry, “we thirst,” when we sense God’s absence in the midst of our experiences of terror, death, and injustice.

Where are you, God? We thirst for the living God. Where is our hope?

The cry, “I thirst,” receives a divine response on Sunday, but we must endure “Holy Saturday” before Sunday comes.

We endure it, in part, by crying with Jesus and the Psalmists, “I thirst.”