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.

 


Easter Morning: From Joshua’s Grave to Joyous Assembly

March 27, 2016

This Easter, before assembling with other believers, I visited Joshua’s grave.

photo

For me visiting graves has rarely been comforting. In fact, it is the opposite. The graveyard seemed too permanent. It contained too many granite stones which testified to both the pervasiveness and intransigence of death.

I have found in recent years visiting graves is good grief therapy for me. It can become a moment of spiritual encounter with God as I learn to face the grief and live through it rather than avoid it.

As I drove to the grave on Sunday morning early, I listed to some lament Psalms (including several musical versions of Psalm 13). I imagined the journey of the women to the grave that morning. I felt the lament, the sadness, and the disappointment (lost years, what could have been, he’d be 31 now). The women and I shared something.

At the grave I remembered, prayed, and protested.

But the grave does not have the final word. It seems like it does. Death overwhelms us–it looks permanent, immutable, and hopeless.

But that is why I assemble with believers on Easter (but also every Resurrection day, every Sunday). When we assemble, we profess our hope, encourage each other, and draw near to God. We encounter the living God who is (yet still, even now, and forevermore) the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The hope of the resurrection is a future one. God did not leave us without a witness to the future. The resurrection of Jesus is our resurrection. His victory is our hope. His empty tomb is the promise of our own.

That hope, for me, is experienced not so much at the grave (though God may be encountered there as well), but in the assembly. When I assemble with other believers to praise, pray, and profess. In that moment the assembly of believers becomes one–one with the past, present and future, heaven and earth become one, and God loves on those gathered. In that moment, I stand to praise with Joshua rather than without him; we are one for that moment at least.

We continue to lament–both Joshua and I. We both yearn for the new heavens and new earth. We both pray for the day, like the souls under the altar in Revelation 6, when God will put things back to right and make everything new.

But for now the journey from the grave to the assembly is no easy one. It is filled with obstacles. Faith is a struggle and the walk is arduous. But at the end of the journey is an empty grave rather than a filled one.


Holy Saturday–Sitting By the Grave

March 26, 2016

Good Friday, and then Easter.

But a day is missing in that story. To move from Friday to Sunday we must walk through Saturday.

Saturday, however, is a lonely day. Death has won. Hope is lost. Jesus of Nazareth lies in a tomb. His disciples are afraid, hiding, and deeply depressed. Everything in which they had invested for the past three years seems pointless now.  They forsook their Master; they lost faith in that moment. They are leaderless, hopeless, and aimless.

On Holy Saturday we sit by the grave to feel the gloom of the grave, to face the reality of death itself. It is a day to weep, fast, and mourn. The late second century church (e.g., Irenaeus) fasted from all food on this day because it was a day of mourning. They did not break the fast until Easter morning.

Those of us who have spent time at graves–in my case the grave of a parent, wife, and child–understand this grief, the despair of the grave. I have spent much of my life running away from graves, and I have rarely spent much time thinking about Holy Saturday.

It is much easier to skip from Friday to Easter than to dwell on Holy Saturday. As what happened in my life, we skip grief as much as possible. It is easier to run from grief. We prefer to escape it rather than face it or endure it.

Holy Saturday reminds me to grieve, to lament. It reminds me to rail against death, the enemy of both God and humanity. It reminds me to protest death and renew my hatred for it. It reminds me to feel again and sit with the disciples in their despair.

Indeed, to sit with the disciples is to sit with humanity in the face of death. When we sit at the grave we recognize our powerlessness. We cannot reverse death; we cannot defeat this enemy. Holy Saturday creates a yearning for Easter. We need Easter for without it we are dead.

But Easter is a faint victory if we do not fully recognize the horror of death. Death threatens us with non-being, and it dismantles life so that there is no meaning, purpose, or joy that lasts. Easter is God’s gift; it is God’s “Yes” to Death’s “No.”

Yesterday we remembered the death of Jesus on Good Friday, today we sit at the grave, but tomorrow, Sunday, we are renewed by the hope of the resurrection.

Jesus walked that path, and we follow him.  We, too, will have our Friday; one day we will be entombed and loved ones will mourn at our graves. However–by the grace and mercy of God–on that great day we will rise again to walk with Jesus upon the new heaven and new earth.

That is the meaning of Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter.


“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.”


The Real Political Struggle

March 14, 2016

To which polis do you belong?

I’m not asking in which geographical cities do we live, nor am I asking which nation-state do we inhabit? I am asking which polis shapes our identity, drives life, and defines our telos (the end toward which we live life)? Which polis gives our lives meaning and purpose?

Paul explicitly addressed this question with overt political language.

Philippi was a political settlement; it was a Roman colony, filled with retired legionaries.  This was a precarious situation for a new, fledgling community that confessed “Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not.” We might imagine political and personal harassment from neighbors, perhaps even economic oppression of various sorts. Living in this polis (Philippi) entailed hardship for those who professed and acknowledged they belonged to a different polis.

Paul identifies the Christian polis in Philippians 3:20. “Our citizenship (politeuma) is in heaven.” The term politeuma has the word polis (city) embedded in it.

We might render the term “commonwealth” or “state,” and it identifies a political relation. “Our citizenship is in heaven,” while others find their “citizenship” on earth. The contrast is stark. The Christian community derives its identity from the reality of God’s new creation, inaugurated by the resurrection of Jesus who reigns at the right hand of God.

More particularly, politeuma was often used, as Silva writes (WBC, cv. Phil. 3:20), “to designate a colony of foreigners or relocated veterans (BDAG) whose purpose was to secure the conquered country for the conquering country by spreading abroad that country’s way of doing things, its customs, its culture, and its laws.” In other words, it is a missional outpost whose purpose is to transform the surrounding culture. In other words, the heavenly politeuma breaks into the earthly politeuma for the sake of bringing heaven to earth. This is, in fact, the essence of the Lord’s Prayer:  “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

This, then, is the real political struggle–the transformation of the earthly politeuma by the in-breaking of the heavenly politeuma.

How does this happen? What kinds of practices serve this purpose? How do people, who belong to a different polis, live in the midst of another polis?

We might imagine all sorts of possibilities. These are but a few, and the list does not advocate for any but simply identifies possibilities.

  • violent revolution where we achieve a new polis by violence, thinking that we are doing this for sake of the heavenly polis.
  • democratic processes where we fully participate in the earthly polis, including its passions (whether good or evil).
  • isolationism where we disengage from the earthly polis and hope for others to join us.
  • prophetic witness where we speak to the earthly polis out of the values of the heavenly polis, advocating for the interests of the weak.

We might find ourselves attracted to one of these, or perhaps several of them, possibilities (or another unidentified possibility). There are  many options.

The heavenly politeuma is our identity as disciples of Jesus, but it does not disconnect us from life. On the contrary, it calls us to live a particular kind of life amidst the earthly polis.

This is the real political struggle–which polis will shape our attitudes, actions, and practices.

Paul addresses the point in Philippians 1:27:  “Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (NRSV).

This plea–imperative!–is more significant than the translation “live your life” offers. The root verb is politeuesthai, “to live as a citizen” (the word polis is present in the verb). This is a call to live out one’s citizenship; to live out of the polis to which they belong.

In the broadest sense, according Brockmuehl (Philippians, p. 97), this is a “deliberate, publicly visible, and…politically relevant act which in the context distinguished from alternative lifestyles that might have been chosen instead.” This is God’s politics. Belonging to a different commonwealth, a different kingdom, and a different polis, those who embrace the good news of Jesus as Lord and Messiah embody a different ethic, a different way of being, a different political agenda.

This is not dual citizenship. Disciples of Jesus, in contrast to others, belong to the new creation, to the heavenly polis. Our commitment is not to the nation-state in which we live, but to God’s new creation.

We have a political imperative:  “Above all, you must live as citizens of heaven, conducting yourselves in a manner worthy of the Good News about Christ” (NLT).

How do we so live? Paul does not leave us without some direction. Fundamentally, it is not about self-interestedness. Rather, it is about serving the other, considering others better than ourselves, and dismissing vain conceits for the sake of the other (Philippians 2:1-4).

This is embodied in the life of Jesus the Messiah, and we are called–as a community and a people–to become the gospel (see the recent book by Michael Gorman by that title), which is the life and ministry of Jesus.

We are called to serve others just as Jesus did, who–though he existed in the form of God–did not consider his equality with God something to use to his own advantage (NIV, NRSV). Instead, he poured himself out as a servant; he humbled himself and became obedient to the will of God, even to death on the cross (Philippians 2:6-8).

  • Disciples of Jesus belong to a polis that is more concerned about the other than they are themselves.
  • Disciples of Jesus belong to a polis that is just as concerned about Guatemala as it is the United States.
  • Disciples of Jesus belong to a polis that is not interested in grabbing and holding wealth for the United States rather than sharing wealth with others.
  • Disciples of Jesus belong to a polis that speaks up for the weak, oppressed, and persecuted, including the unborn.
  • Disciples of Jesus belong to a polis that loves their enemies rather than spewing hatred against then and demonizing them, even when those enemies are political opponents in the United States.
  • Disciples of Jesus belong to a polis that speaks kindly and gently rather than with violent anger or through disruptive intrusions.

The list could go on.

I don’t expect the earthly polis to conduct political campaigns by the values of the heavenly polis, but I do hope Christians who participate in the earthly polis do so with with the values of the heavenly polis.

Disciples of Jesus must clarify to what polis they belong, commit to how that polis supercedes all others, and–in the long run–no earthly polis can fully embody the heavenly polis.

We live in tense times, but the tension arises because self-interests war with each as they seek control of the earthly polis.

The real political struggle for disciples of Jesus is to engage the earthly polis with the values, attitudes, demeanor, and love of the heavenly polis. When disciples of Jesus become what they oppose, then the heavenly polis has no witness.

At bottom, whatever one’s earthly commitments to the political process are (whether Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, etc.), as disciples of Jesus our commitment to the heavenly polis is more fundamental, greater, and–in some sense–exclusive.

As Paul says, “live out your heavenly citizenship in such a way that you embody the good news of Jesus who poured out himself for the sake of others.”

Where we see hate, violence, intrusive disturbances, name-calling, war-mongering, bigotry, and fear, we know it arises from the earthly polis rather than the heavenly one.

“Our citizenship is in heaven.”

May it be evident for all to see!

May God have mercy.

 

 


In Defense of “I’ll Fly Away”

February 24, 2016

This past weekend, on February 20, I was honored to participate in the memorial service of a godly woman in Colonial Heights, Virginia.

Rose Marie Paden–the beloved mother of the Paden boys and girls, and the second mother of the Hicks boys and girl–passed from this life on February 12, 2016. In 1953, Rose Marie and her husband Lowell Paden, along with their three boys at the time (L. V., Mike, and Dan), joined the Hicks family in Colonial Heights, Virginia, to assist in the nurture of a new church plant. The Padens and Hicks were extended families for each other as both were so far from their West Texas roots, and we shared many occasions but especially every Thanksgiving where we would play games, sing songs, and eat together. Rose Marie was a pillar for the church in Colonial Heights for over sixty years! Her works will follow her (Revelation 14:13).

The most moving moment in the memorial service was singing some of her favorite hymns as a congregation, led by three of her grandsons. Those hymns opened our hearts and minds to her faith, and we wept and were comforted.

One of the songs was, “I’ll Fly Away.”

Some glad morning when this life is o’er,
I’ll fly away;
To a home on God’s celestial shore,
I’ll fly away (I’ll fly away).

Chorus
I’ll fly away, fly away, Oh Glory
I’ll fly away; (in the morning)
When I die, Hallelujah, by and by,
I’ll fly away (I’ll fly away).

When the shadows of this life have gone,
I’ll fly away;
Like a bird from prison bars has flown,
I’ll fly away (I’ll fly away)

Oh. How glad and happy when we meet
I’ll fly away
No more cold iron shackles on my feet
I’ll fly away

Just a few more weary days and then,
I’ll fly away;
To a land where joy shall never end,
I’ll fly away (I’ll fly away)

I have been known, at times, to chuckle about this song and sometimes to oppose it. There are several reasons the song makes me a bit uncomfortable.

For example, I believe our final resting place is the new heavens and new earth, when heaven and earth become one. Then God will dwell with the redeemed on a renewed earth, fitted for eternal habitation. I don’t believe our final state is some celestial home outside of the present cosmos beyond the lenses of the Hubble telescope.

Another reason for discomfort is the implied assumption that “flying away” is the final journey or goal. This tends to say something like, “When I die, I go to heaven, and that is all I desire.” This leaves out the resurrection from the dead, which is the hope of the Christian faith, and it lends itself to a dualistic understanding of the human being as the physical (material) is laid aside to inherit a wholly “spiritual” (immaterial) realm.

But in this moment I want to offer a defense of the song.

It expresses a deep faith in God’s victory over death.  In other words, death does not win, though it may appear to do so. Human identity does not cease. We are carried away into the bosom of Abraham. Rose Marie flew away into the arms of God. It is her home…for now.

It expresses a deep sense of the chaos in this present world. As the writer of Ecclesiastes says, “everything is hebel” (or absurd, enigma, a breath, vanity). This present cosmos is enslaved and shackled, and the creation itself longs for redemption and renewal, according to Romans 8. The song expresses joy of release from this present bondage to a place where Rose Marie awaits the full redemption of the cosmos, including her own resurrection.

It also expresses a truth about the state of the dead, which is dear to my heart. While death destroys the unity of the human person–separating body and spirit–human identity remains (“I’ll fly away”), and human persons, despite death, escape to a place of joy without end in the presence of God. It goes to the question, “Where are the Dead?” (A question I addressed in a series of blogs, which you can find in my serial index; here is the link to the first one.) In particular, I regard Revelation 7 a fairly clear statement about those who were once upon the earth but have now crossed over into the throne room of God where every tear is wiped away (see my blog on this text). I believe when we die, though we are absent from the body, we are present with the Lord. In some sense we are at home, sheltered by God and the Lamb. And there we wait with the whole creation for the redemption of both the cosmos and our bodies. While we wait, however, we enjoy God’s presence and join the chorus around God’s throne.

I don’t imagine that most people think about all this when they sing the song. Most likely many (if not most) simply think about going home to heaven and never returning to the earth or they don’t think about the resurrection of the dead.

But on February 20th, I sang “I’ll Fly Away” with gusto because it expressed what I knew was true about Rose Marie Paden.

And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this down: Blessed are those who die in the Lord from now on. Yes, says the Spirit, they are blessed indeed, for they will rest from their hard work; for their good deeds follow them!”

Amen, and Amen.  Rest in peace, Rose Marie.  Say “Hello” to Lowell for me.


Visibly Practicing the Unity of the Spirit: What Shall We Do?

February 23, 2016

Many have heard about the “five steps of salvation,” but here are  my “five steps” toward visibly embodying the unity the Spirit has already created.

  1. Confession – we confess Jesus is Lord by the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3).
  1. Transformation – we are sanctified by the Spirit (1 Thessalonians 4:3-8).
  1. Liturgy – we worship in the Spirit (John 4:24; Philippians 3:3).
  1. Practicing the Kingdom of God – we minister in the power of the Spirit (Luke 4:18-19).
  1. Spiritual Formation Practices – we pray in the Spirit (Jude 20).

See the fuller article here.


Jesus Wept (John 11:35)

February 8, 2016

[Hear this sermon at here.]

When Jesus saw Mary wailing in grief and saw the others with her—both men and women—visibly sobbing, a deep anger welled up within his spirit, and he roused himself and asked them, “Where have you laid him?” They responded, “Come and see.” Then Jesus burst into tears. As a result, the people present said, “See how much he loved him!” But some of them complained. “Could not this man who healed a blind man also have kept Lazarus from dying?”

 John 11:33-37 (my translation)

Angry. Agitated. Sad.

Jesus felt all those emotions when he encountered death and deep grief among his close friends.

“Lazarus is sick” is the way the story opens (John 11:1). The sisters, Mary and Maratha, send for Jesus because they know Jesus can heal their brother, and they have every reason to believe Jesus will come quickly because Lazarus is a dear friend whom Jesus loved. Rather than rushing to his aide, Jesus lingered for two days and arrived four days after Lazarus died.

His delay is deliberate. The death of Lazarus will serve a greater purpose. If Jesus had arrived earlier to heal the sickness, he would only confirmed his reputation as a healer. Jesus wants them to see something more; he wants his disciples to believe (John 11:14).

But believe what? Not that Jesus was a miracle-worker. More than that. He wanted them to believe something much deeper and more profound.

As Jesus arrives in Bethany, Martha runs out to meet him. She voices what Jesus has already discussed with his disciples. If he had arrived earlier, Lazarus would not have died.

Now we hear the profound truth Jesus wants his disciples and Martha to believe:

“I am the resurrection and the life.”

“Martha,” Jesus asks, “do you believe this?” Disciples, do you believe this? Church, do you believe this?

This is why Jesus did not rush to heal Lazarus. He had healed the blind, the lame, and the diseased. He had even cast out demons. Such healings, wondrous as they are, do not threaten death. Death still reigns, and life itself is enslaved by it.

But Jesus is the “resurrection and the life.” He is the great liberator who frees us from the bondage of death. He brings life and conquers death.

Church, do you believe this?

Martha retrieves Mary, and Mary expresses the same sentiment as the disciples and her sister, “if only you had been here, Lazarus would not have died” (John 11:32). For the third time Jesus hears the misgiving, even an implied complaint. We can hear in her voice, “Why didn’t you come? Why weren’t you here to heal my brother and your friend?”

When Jesus saw Mary wailing in grief and saw the others with her—both men and women—visibly sobbing, a deep anger welled up within his spirit, and he roused himself and asked them, “Where have you laid him?” They responded, “Come and see.” Then Jesus burst into tears. As a result, the people present said, “See how much he loved him!” But some of them complained. “Could not this man who healed a blind man also have kept Lazarus from dying?”

Angry. Agitated. Sad.

Jesus sees Mary’s grief, and he experiences the communal grief that surrounds her. Jesus enters into a grieving community. He has walked into a funeral home where grieving family and friends have gathered.

And he is angry.

Jesus is greatly disturbed in his spirit. The Greek term (embrimaomai) is an intense one. It describes the snorting of a horse in battle, or a personal scolding (Mark 14:5) as well as stern rebukes (Matthew 9:30; Mark 1:43). The word is about anger rather than compassion. The point is not sentimentality but emotional irritation. Jesus is on the verge of rage; he is upset, emotionally disturbed.

He is not annoyed by their grief as such. Jesus himself will also weep. Perhaps he is angered by the reality of death itself. He may even be angry with himself as if he “rebuked himself.” If he had come earlier, Lazarus would not have died and he would have spared this whole community such grief. Jesus is angry about the situation.

Jesus is annoyed by what death brings, angry at how death rules humanity, and recognizes that he opened the door for this grief in the case of Lazarus.

And he is agitated.

Literally, “Jesus stirred himself.” He troubled himself. It is the same language as in John 5:7 where an angel stirred the waters, and it is the same language that describes troubled hearts (John 13:21; 14:27). Jesus is disturbed, but determined. He turns to his firm purpose as he asks where they laid him. Jesus has stirred himself to action; he is determined to face the reality of death and act.

And he is sad.

Hearing the invitation to the grave site, Jesus burst into tears. It is similar to bursting into tears when one sees the grave of a loved one or the first time you see them in the casket.

We don’t want to sentimentalize his emotions here—they are raw, real, and deep! There are visible tears. Jesus weeps openly, visibly—real tears. The verb comes from the same root for “tears.” We might say Jesus sobbed.

Even though he knows what he has determined to do, and he knows the raising of Lazarus from the dead will reveal the glory of God, he is nevertheless still sad. The grieving community affects him, and the trauma of Lazarus’s own death grieves him. Jesus does not minimize the bitterness of death. He feels the sadness.

And he raises Lazarus from the dead.

Yes, Jesus could have healed Lazarus before he died, but the death of Lazarus serves the glory of God. It reveals Jesus as the “resurrection and the life.” It bears witness to the reality that life has come into the world, and this life overcomes death and will ultimately release the creation from its bondage to death.

Jesus asks, “Do you believe?”

Nevertheless, until that day, human beings live with death. Death and chaos fill our lives, and we wonder—at times—how to respond, especially since we also have a great hope.

Jesus shows the way: anger, agitation, and sadness.

  • We might express a holy anger against humanity’s great enemy, death. Sometimes we are angry with ourselves, sometimes with the one who died, and sometimes with God. We lament and ask, “Why?” Anger is good.
  • We face the reality of death with a determination to live in its shadow. Lean into grief, walk through it, and head towards the light. It is good to “stir ourselves” to action.
  • We weep, grieved by the reality of death and how it affects humanity. Tears are good; they are cleansing. Let’em flow.

And….we believe:  Jesus is the resurrection and the life!

“Do you believe?”

Yes, we believe.

Death will not win!


Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace

February 1, 2016

Review of Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace, by Keith D. Stanglin and Thomas H. McCall.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.  This review first appeared in Restoration Quarterly 56 (2014): 258-259.

This book is long overdue. While the shelves are filled with scholarly summaries of Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and Wesley, this is the first book-length rigorous exposition of the theology of Arminius. MCall and Stanglin intend their work as a complement to the magisterial 1971 Arminius biography by Carl Bangs. They write within the framework of a renaissance of Arminius scholarship (whaich began in the 1980s) that is more objective (as opposed to polemical) and contextual (recognizing a Reformed scholastic setting) than previous studies that heralded him as either saint or sinner.

The subtitle reflects their specific intent. They explain Arminius’s theology of grace in the light of the topics that most consumed his attention in the first decade of the seventeenth century and what “recent scholarship has found to be central.” Through a “constructive synthesis,” McCall and Stanglin “attempt to show what “makes him tick” (21). Grace is a pevasive theme that drive his pastoral and theological interests. This stands in contrast with some interpreters who think Arminius subverted the Reformed understanding of grace by “elevating autonomous human free will and introducing anthropocentrism into Protestantism” (22). On the contrary, Arminius consistently maintained the necessity and sufficiency of grace.

While developing his perspectives within the heart of the Reformed faith, the authors argue that Arminius had a “different theological starting point” from that of his opponents. Arminius begins with a theology of creation whose central feature is a love for the creation as well as a love for righteousness (God’s faithfulness to God’s own self). Out of this dual commitment, God “free–not of necessity–obliged himself to creation and set limits for his own actions” (93). The drama of redemption, then, is driven by God’s love for creatures coordinated with God’s own sense of justice. Arminius’s understanding of predestination, sin, and salvation arise from this fundamental theological orientation.

McCall and Stanglin place Arminius in the trajectory of Irenaeus, the Eastern Orthodox, Aquinas (Jesuit interpretation), and Molina (whose “middle knowledge” he adopts) in contrast with the line that begins with Augustine, continues through Aquinas (Dominican interpretation), and finds expression in Calvin.

The authors have succeeded. Their work will become a standard resource for the theology of Arminius in the foreseeable future, just as Bang’s biography has been for over forty years. Historical theologians, students of Arminianism and Calvinism, and those engaged in contemporary discussions of neo-puritanism (the young, Reformed, and restless) owe to themselves as well as to fair sense of history to digest this book carefully.