Walking By Faith

Hiking is one of my favorite pastimes. There is something very satisfying about taking one step at a time and ending up far away from where you started. Also, observing life all around you in a way you can’t while driving. I am told they have a different name for this activity in England. They refer to hiking as a “walking holiday.” I suppose “walking” is what it’s all about after all. 
 
In 2 Corinthians 5:7, the apostle Paul draws upon his own experience and the biblical theme of walking to describe the Christian life: “we walk by faith and not by sight.” Throughout the Bible, the action of “walking” is very often used metaphorically to symbolize the way one lives, or how one conducts their life. A person’s “walk” with God essentially means the whole of their life before God. For this reason, Jewish tradition often speaks of the Hebrew Bible and other books of Jewish law as “Halakhah,” which in Hebrew literally means “walking”–how to conduct one’s life.
 
One of the most important “walkers” depicted in the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament) is the figure of Abraham, who was called to “walk before God and be blameless” (Genesis 17:1). To be sure, he does a lot of literal walking around in the Bible, but it seems God’s call refers more to the way he lives his life spiritually, ethically, prayerfully, lovingly before God. Another very important characteristic of Abraham described in the Bible is the way he lived by faith. “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). It would certainly be fitting for us to return to the story of Abraham (Genesis 12-22) to understand what Paul might have had in mind when he talks about us Christians “walking by faith.” 
 
But, Abraham isn’t the only figure in the scriptures we could associate with “walking by faith.” In the New Testament, Hebrews chapter 11 speaks of so many figures from the Bible who are examples of “faith” for Christians to follow or “walk” behind: including Noah, Daniel, David, and so many others. Before the apostles, the prophets similarly described the exemplary lives of “the righteous who live by their faith” (Habakkuk 2:4).
 
The question I am asking myself and my fellow believers this week is: How do we walk by our faith? It’s not enough to possess faith if one does not also walk, or conduct the rest of one’s life, in the light of their faith. Paul sheds a little further light on this subject when he writes, “from now on, we regard no one from a merely human point of view” (or, in Greek, literally, “according to the flesh”). Rather, we ought to regard each other, and everyone we meet, according to the Spirit. See others as God sees them. Look with the eyes of the heart of Christ, and not just our natural, limited point-of-view. This is part of what it means, says Paul, to walk according to our faith.
 
Do I look at others as God sees them? Do I even make the effort? Jesus often showed compassion for the hurt, sick, poor, immigrant, stranger, or “least of these.” I can’t imagine him being disgusted or put off by any man or woman’s sincere request. He wasn’t happy about the selfishness and impatience of the Scribes, Pharisees, and often enough, his own disciples or the crowds. But neither did he turn his face or loving gaze completely away from them. Patiently, he told them how he saw them and called them to be all that they could be.
 
How can you and I walk by faith and not by sight? I imagine there are so many ways of answering that question, but perhaps a good place to start is here with the apostle’s words. Call to mind the people you see or talk to every day, every week, every so often. Now think: From what point of view do I look at them? Is it all too human? How would Jesus view them? How does God view us now? Perhaps by such a simple act of prayerful imagination, the Holy Spirit will reveal to us how we can more beautifully and effectively “walk by faith” before our God today.


Christ, our Sanctifier

In this week’s gospel reading, we read Mark’s account of the transfiguration of Jesus (9:2-9). Peter, James, and John journey with Jesus to the top of a “high mountain” (traditionally, Mt. Tabor), where Jesus’ appearance is “transfigured” before them: his clothes become “dazzling white,” Moses and Elijah appear to be talking with him, a cloud “overshadows” them, and a voice speaks from the cloud, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” It is similar to the story of Jesus’ baptism, in which we heard the same voice from heaven and the Spirit appeared in the form of a dove rather than dazzling light and a cloud, and it similarly punctuates a turning point in the gospel of Mark. After this, Jesus begins to foretell his own death and resurrection (9:31), and the shadow of the cross will loom even larger over Jesus’ journey.
 
The transfiguration of Jesus is an event unlike any other in the gospels. For one, it is a secret vision or epiphany that is only given to a chosen few who travel up the mountain with Jesus. They are strictly commanded not to talk to anyone about what they have seen until after the resurrection (which reminds us that we are reading this story after Easter). Why was it important for only a chosen few to see this transfiguration? What does it add to the story of our salvation that we should be in on their secret? Interestingly, John keeps the secret in his Gospel. According to the other Gospel writers (Evangelists), John was there to see it; and yet, in the Gospel of John, we find no transfiguration story, at least not like this one at all.
 
I believe the transfiguration story is extremely important, despite the fact that John doesn’t give it to us directly (you could say he gives it in another form), not only as an additional fact or real event from the life of Jesus, but as a symbol of the whole reason why Jesus came in the first place–of what the gospel means for us and our salvation. It reminds us that Jesus came with more than an earthly, life-saving purpose. He came to do more than triage for a mass of diseased and sin-sick souls. He also came to take a few disciples with him to the top of the earthly mountain, to ascend a spiritual ladder to the heights of God and bring our humanity with him (sounds a little strange or cultish, but hey: I don’t make this stuff up). In other words, he came to earth and became human in order to ascend with at least part of us back to the Father, and in so doing, enlighten and sanctify our earthly human existence to make it capable of union with and participation in the divine nature of God (2 Peter 1:3-4).
 
I think the reason John might not consider it necessary to tell the story quite this way is because it does not speak of a true change or transformation that took place in Jesus. John knows Jesus was always the dazzling, enlightened being the disciples only saw him to be in this case for a moment. The transfiguration is only the story of a change in his appearance before the gaze of his disciples: an epiphany, a revelation, more of a change that took place in them rather than a real change in who Christ always was and is. Which is not to say that it isn’t the story of something that actually took place, that actually happened to those disciples and in them by the Spirit.
 
The transfiguration story is important because it reveals to us, in hindsight, that Christ is and has always been our sanctifier. He is the one who leads us up the mountain, toward our upward call to be holy as God is holy. He was with Moses atop mount Sinai giving the law for Israel’s sanctification in truth. He was with Elijah, the man of God, in the time between the times. It is only in him and with him that we encounter the heights of divine light and revelation in this life, and yet he is the same one who is there in the darkest and loneliest moments we know of. The fullness of his holiness and glory is revealed most “brightly” in all its “dazzling” array on the cross.
 
Our holiness tradition has tended to focus too exclusively on the role of the Holy Spirit in our sanctification. We have preached “Spirit-baptism” and recited prayers to receive the Holy Spirit, or entire sanctification, as a secondary gift, somehow different from receiving Christ as Lord and Savior. To be sure, the Spirit is rightly called our sanctifier. But, only because the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus, who makes it possible for us to live in him who has become our sanctification, who, in the glory of his own resurrected, but nonetheless human person, infuses this earthly life with all divine love and the possibility of heavenly bliss. As the presence of the whole Trinity in the transfiguration story symbolizes, there is no way to receive this Christ without the Holy Spirit, or to receive sanctification by the Spirit as anything other than a deeper and fuller awareness of the salvation we have received in Jesus–by participation in his broken body and even “the fellowship of his sufferings” (Philippians 3:10).


Our Calling and Election

“Brothers and sisters, be diligent to make your calling and election sure…” (2 Peter 1:10)
 
Chances are, if you grew up in an evangelical church like I did, you heard a lot more about making your own decision for Christ than you did about the biblical doctrine of God’s election in Christ. In fact, if you did hear the word “election,” it was probably in the context of the American political process rather than the context of the gospel of our salvation.
 
WARNING: SOME DENSE THEOLOGICAL/HISTORICAL CONTENT AHEAD… DOES HAVE A POINT IN THE END 🙂
 
One of the signs that we American Evangelicals have forgotten our roots, and all but cut ourselves off from the vine of authentic, historic Christianity, is the way we talk (or don’t) about the biblical doctrine of election, or predestination–especially in the Church of the Nazarene, which stands with others styled “Wesleyan-Arminian” in the habit of casting aside terms like election or predestination into the abyss with Calvin and other hard-line Reformers. The problem with our all-too-easy dismissal of Calvin, election, and predestination is at least twofold: (1) On the one hand, Calvin didn’t invent these important theological categories, and (2) on the other hand, we are more deeply indebted to Calvin for many of our own “Wesleyan-Arminian” theological formulas than we have openly admitted.
 
In fact, the theological language and traditional church doctrines of election and predestination come from the Bible, not only all over the writings of Paul in places Ephesians 1:4-5 and Romans 8:29-30, but also in Peter’s letters. Therefore, it is incumbent on every diligent student of scripture who would seek to be a “Bible Christian,” like John Wesley recommended, to make sense of what the Bible has to teach us about our own election and, yes, predestination in Christ.
 
I like to think I would have fully agreed with John Wesley, in his (in)famous sermon titled Free Grace (Click here to read it online), and all the arguments it spawned in writing between himself and his former colleague George Whitefield over predestination, that “the grace or love of God, whence cometh our salvation, is FREE IN ALL and FREE FOR ALL.” Therefore, I still stand with other Wesleyans opposed to all such forms of “Calvinism” which would limit the universal possibilities of the redemption God has freely offered in Christ, or undermine the work of preaching or missionary evangelism. But, the true, biblical doctrine of election/predestination does nothing of the sort. Moreover, I am afraid that in comfortably distancing ourselves from the language and from any trace of “high-Calvinism,” just to avoid the appearance of error, we evangelicals have succeeded only in straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel.
 
The camel I am talking about is voluntary, decision-based, my-will-be-done Christianity (if such a thing can really be said to exist). In our move away from talk about election, predestination, God’s sovereignty toward making a personal decision for Christ, or for your own salvation, of your own “free will,” we American evangelicals have gone a long way toward putting ourselves, rather than God, at the center of the drama of salvation. And, so, it’s no wonder we are now reaping the fruit that we have sown. People are voluntarily exercising their free will to vacate our churches, making personal decisions to worship Christ in their own way in the comfort of their own homes–to be “spiritual” but not “religious,” you know how that story goes.
 
Is there any way to reverse the course of American evangelicalism and put God, rather than ego, back at the center of our gospel and our church? Is there any way to repent of former preachers’ missteps, exaggerations, and over-compensations without surrendering our evangelical heritage? I think there’s no reason why we couldn’t do more to reconcile our Nazarene, Wesleyan tradition with the biblical doctrine of God’s election and predestination (which predates Calvin and Calvinism by a long shot), and pass on to the next generation a fuller picture than the one we have received. It all starts, I think, with coming to terms with what the Bible itself really has to say about our calling, our election.
 
First of all, the Bible teaches us that Jesus Christ himself is the Elect, the Chosen One of God (Luke 23:35, Isaiah 42:1). He was not democratically elected by the will of the people, or decided upon by any man, but called from being into becoming, chosen to be God’s messenger, par excellence, and sent to earth from heaven according to the sovereign will of God from all eternity. To lose sight of this truth is to lose sight of the glorious gospel of God’s sheer grace and our total dependence on God for salvation. To place the weight of salvation on our decision, or human elections of any kind, above God’s sovereignty and will for us expressed in the never ending kingdom Christ has established on earth in the form of the Church is to take a step away from hope into despair.
 
Secondly, the Bible teaches that we who are “in Christ” are elect in him (Ephesians 1:4). In other words, no one really is elect on their own in the absolute, eternal sense but Christ alone. If we are elect, it is only insofar as we really abide in Him and, thus, share in what is actually his election. Paul says in this way we have been “predestined for adoption” (Ephesians 1:5), but again, only in and through Jesus Christ, whom we inhabit as the Church, the body of Christ, through whom Christ also dwells in us by the Spirit and the spoken Word. It is not that some folk are elected and others rejected by God’s love, as former generations of evangelicals worried, but that God’s love is revealed in Jesus Christ, the One who was rejected by people but elected by God to reveal both what we are and what we are all called to become.
 
Finally, not only is Christ the called and elected one, but Christ himself calls and elects. The meaning of our election, in the Bible, is revealed both in Christ himself and in his calling of disciples whom he foreknew, those he purposefully called by name to follow him. It is not just that we have all been chosen, as human beings, to be conformed to the image of God revealed in Christ (our universal calling in the gospel); some have also been called by name to serve a particular purpose for the Kingdom and the body of Christ, the Church in history, just like Jesus called a few to be disciples long ago. This calling is not necessarily a promise of privilege or salvation. Christ called Judas Iscariot as well as Peter; in this sense, both could be called elect or predestined to play a role in God’s great act of salvation. Though in one sense their “calling” was the same, in another sense their “ministries” turned out very different. All according to the inscrutable plan and foreknowledge of the God who loves all, predestines, and personally elects by the Holy Spirit.
 
What does this last part mean for us today? Through Jesus, God has chosen and called into existence a people with authority to choose and call others by name to him. He calls us, “fishers of men.” He said, “follow me” to teach us to do the same. Think about the difference between been called, chosen, and having to make a decision by yourself. A calling from God must precede a decision for God if it is to have any real or lasting significance. We have not been called to make up our own new and attractive form of Christianity, but to extend God’s call in Christ others that they may answer that call and find abundant life in him. Who are you calling to follow you as you follow Christ?  Not just everybody, but who particularly, and by name? If we have no answer to that question, can it really be said that we are living up to our calling, following the example God has given us in Christ?


From Blessings to Woes, Matthew 23

You’ve heard of the eight beatitudes of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel, right? “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” and so on (Matthew 5). But, have you heard of the seven woes of Jesus, also in Matthew’s gospel? “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 23). I have seen the beatitudes posted on the wall in churches, but never the woes of Matthew 23. I wonder, why? Both would seem to be appropriate in the context of the church.
 
The first thing I think contemporary readers of Matthew’s gospel should know, before diving into the harsh words of chapter 23, is that these Pharisees Jesus is denouncing here are not his greatest enemies from the opposite side of ancient Israel’s social, theological, or political spectrum. In truth, these scribes and Pharisees probably represent the faction in Jerusalem whose beliefs and worldview would have been most sympathetic to Jesus. Jesus shares a lot in common with them: including a high respect for scripture and tradition, belief in the future judgment and resurrection of the dead. Unlike the Herodians, who probably would not have bothered, these Pharisees were among those coming out into the desert to be baptized by John (3:7). He even advises others to obey the scribes and Pharisees, respecting what they teach (23:3).
 
Perhaps that is exactly why Jesus reserves his most scathing critique for them. Jesus does not waste much time rebuking the pagan, Gentile world of foreign enemies. “The Lord only rebukes those he loves” (Proverbs 3:12). In this case, that happens to be the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus is engaged in a serious conversation with them for the purpose of their salvation, and ours. Jesus does the same with his own disciples in several instances. To his most eager disciple, Peter, he commands, “Get behind me, Satan!” (Matthew 16:23) The fact that he does not correct the Sadducees or Herodians or pagan Romans like this does not mean they are better off. If anything, they are in a worse position–not because God doesn’t love them, but because they won’t get close enough to Jesus to hear the truth from him. The woes are not simply condemnation; they are a wake up call! 
 
I think these seven woes of Matthew 23 belong in our churches every bit as much as the eight beatitudes of Matthew 5 because they apply just as much to us. Sure, we can identify with those spiritually hungry disciples who came out to hear the Sermon on the Mount in hopes of following Jesus. But we contemporary Christians also look an awful lot like these Pharisees who have, in theory anyway, aligned ourselves with Jesus’ worldview…just not always (or perhaps not ever?) practiced what we preach. Our hope is found not in further self-justification or flattery from each other, but in our being close enough to Jesus today to hear both his words of blessing and rebuke, that we may be formed and shaped by his Holy Spirit, and so be saved.
 
Discussion Questions
1. Which of Jesus’ “woes” to the scribes and Pharisees speak most to you about our own hypocrisy or the contemporary church?
2. How do you know or experience the conviction of the Holy Spirit? Are we close enough to Christ to be corrected by God today?
3. Is our love tough enough for us to correct and rebuke each other? Or do we indulge in flattery and gossip in secret, for fear of offending each other?


Love and Scripture, Matthew 22:23-46

Even though the Bibles we read today are similar in content to the ancient scriptures around in Jesus’ day, the way we read them is remarkably different. Today, Bibles are primarily read by individuals for morning devotions, in homes/churches and other relatively domestic, private, secluded places to inspire spiritual feelings in individuals or increase one’s personal knowledge. Scriptures are usually handled like “Chicken Soup for the Soul.”  The dominant metaphor I hear us using to support our contemporary scripture reading/memorization habits is the idea of “hiding God’s word in one’s heart” (Psalm 119).
 
Not that personal, domestic, or devotional scripture reading didn’t exist anywhere in the ancient world, but when Matthew’s gospel was written, the reading and interpretation of scripture was much more of a matter of public, legal discourse and political debate. The only analogy in American history that would seem to come anywhere close would be the social discourse about slavery that led up to the Civil War, which featured a number of public interpretations and political debates concerning the significance of biblical passages about slavery. In those days, nobody was asking, “How can I get inspiration from this passage?” They were arguing over what the Bible’s teaching on slavery commanded for their real, public actions in society today.
 
So it would not have been all that surprising, or a particularly unwelcome thing, for a Rabbi like Jesus to be engaged in an argument over scriptural interpretation in a very public place, particular near the temple in Jerusalem, like he is multiple times in chapter 22 of Matthew’s gospel. There was no separation of church and state, no privatization or domestication of biblical interpretation such as we know today. If they were going to talk about the Bible, it was going to be in public discourse. The first argument he engages in is about the idea of a future, general bodily resurrection from the dead, featuring a story that seems to be derived from the apocryphal book of Tobit, chapter 3. This was an issue people loved to argue about back then, perhaps because it was largely hypothetical, concerned the distant future, and there were relatively few scriptures to support the idea either way. So it was relatively “safe” to have different opinions about it. I can’t help but think it was a lot like Calvinists and Wesleyans arguing over things like predestination or free will.
 
And, while it would not be terribly unusual for a Rabbi like Jesus to weigh in with his own interpretation on the matter at hand, the way Jesus comes across is awfully direct: “You are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God” (v. 29). He defends the resurrection as if he had firsthand knowledge about the subject, and then supports his explanation with a…let’s say: highly creative interpretation of a passage from Genesis, one of the core books of the Hebrew Bible, Torah.
 
The second argument Jesus engages in gets closer to the heart of what Jesus has to say about interpreting the scriptures. The Pharisees ask him what is the greatest commandment in the law. Their Bible did not say. This question was a matter of interpretation, one that had long been at the heart of Jewish biblical interpretation. Rabbi Hillel said, “Do not do to your neighbor what you would not wish him to do to you. That is the whole law, the rest is just commentary.” Rabbi Akiba would say, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19). Rabbi Samalai would go on to say, “the just shall live by faith” (Habakkuk 2:4). Jesus answers, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” (Deuteronomy 6) And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19) On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (vv. 37-40).
 
Jesus has answered well, confidently, demonstrating command of their biblical scholarship as well as a deeper spiritual kind of knowledge or intuition about the subject. Finally, he raises a question for them about the Christological interpretation of a Davidic Psalm. He raises a question, but he does not answer! He leaves it at that, suggesting that the purpose of scripture is not only to answer questions, but also to raise them. In raising this question, he calls for a spiritual interpretation of the passage as inspired “by the Spirit,” but then leaves that work to us as readers, I suppose…
 
Besides the interpretation of scripture, using the Bible to reform our lives in this world and learn more about our future in God, the other theme that ties all these episodes in chapter 22 together would seem to be the message of God’s Holy Spirit of Love. If we understand that the “power,” “love,” and “Spirit” Jesus talks about in these passages are roughly synonymous, signs pointing in the same direction, then the message is: we can’t interpret scripture rightly without the Spirit of love.
 
The Spirit of love is not just an overriding principle, or even just a great commandment, but is the very person of God, the third person of the Trinity, if you will, present to help God’s people interpret scripture, as well as the world around us, and guide us into “all truth” (John 16:13). If, at the end of the day, we think the scriptures mean anything but love, we’ve heard them wrongly. We’ve lost the Spirit’s inspiration within the sometimes difficult, perplexing words of scripture, and have failed to see the forest for the trees.
 
But of course, we don’t have to be lost in the pages of scripture, or afraid of public discourse, even argument about the truth. We can not only hide God’s word in our hearts, but can also speak God’s word from the heart with the help of the Holy Spirit.  Or, if we are not sure, at least we have this promise from Jesus: that God, our loving Father, will certainly give the Spirit to those who ask (Luke 11:13). And in the Spirit, “we shall not full direction need, nor miss our providential way; as far from danger as from fear while love, almighty love, is near,” whether we are trying to find our way in the Bible or in today’s world. (Charles Wesley)
 
Discussion Questions
  • What arguments have you been in about the Bible, about religion or politics, theological or spiritual things? How did they end?
  • How can the Bible, with all of its violent language and imagery of war, sacrifice, and conquest, be said to be all about the love of God and neighbor in the end?
  • What lessons can we take away from the style or content of Jesus’ model of public discourse and biblical interpretation to make us better disciples of Jesus and seekers of the truth?


What Belongs to God? Matthew 22:15-22

Burned by all their previous encounters with Jesus, the Pharisees send others to do their bidding in this week’s gospel passage. They send “their disciples to him, along with the Herodians” (v. 15). You’ve got to love the subtle irony of the relationship this verse implies.
 
By rights, Pharisees and Herodians should not have been having anything to do with each other. The Herodians, Herod’s people, indicates the rich and powerful centrist group in Jerusalem holding on to the reigns of power from the palace by cooperating fully with the pax Romana, the rule of the Roman Emperor enforced through heavy taxes, soldiers, and other compromising forms of homage. The Pharisees, by contrast, were a conservative, religious, very Jewish, “back to God” resistance movement that had been formed in opposition to the kind of compromise with Rome that the Herodians represented. Politically, they were sworn enemies. But, in this passage, they are willing to “reach across the aisle” in order to deal with what they perceived as a common threat: Jesus of Nazareth, the people’s Messiah.
 
Like smug reporters, hiding their real agenda behind a veil of objectivity, they ask Jesus a question that they suppose is their ace-in-the-hole: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” And, the question we might need to ask as contemporary readers at this point is: Why would this question trap anyone? What’s really at stake in the question?
If any contemporary politician were asked this question, they would surely answer quickly: Of course it’s lawful to pay taxes. Why would you even ask? The only question we ask is how much the government should ask of individuals and households versus corporations.
 
So why didn’t Jesus just say that? For one, it is a different political and religious climate than our own. Ancient Judaism tended to take idolatry a lot more seriously than we do. Furthermore, Jesus is not a politician (they know this about him). In their eyes, he has already demonstrated sympathy towards the Pharisees’ philosophical/religious concern about Roman idolatry and the oppression of Jewish “values” that Roman taxes represent. He might even be in Jerusalem to incite a rebellion against Roman rule, for all they know, which could play right into their hands when (not if) the rebellion was squashed by Rome’s ample forces. They are definitely laying their cards on the table. 
 
But, to their surprise, Jesus knows just what to do with their question. As we have come to expect, he answers their question with a question. He asks to see a “coin used for the tax” (v. 19). In context, this is a very important moment in the narrative, pregnant with significance. It is safe to assume that Jesus didn’t have such a coin in his “pocket.” Not just because he was poor, from a certain point of view, but because of the imagery
stamped all over the coin that was flagrantly offensive to Jewish sensibilities. Not just the face of the Emperor on one side, and a high priestess on the other, but the inscription on the coin which read: “Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus.” Jesus’ request seems to imply a silent critique, as if he were saying: You tell me. Have you seen what’s on your coins that you are using in your idolatrous “lawful” exchange with Rome?
 
You know the rest of the story. “Whose image and inscription are on this?” he asks them. “Caesar’s,” they must respond. Then comes Jesus’ enigmatic saying that confounds them all: “Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (v. 21). Jesus’ answer is not just a fancy way of saying, “Pay your taxes.” Jesus’ answer begs another question that the Pharisees and Herodians are way too scared and cautious to answer: What really belongs to Caesar, and what really belongs to God? Now Jesus has hinted at a question that has the power to explode the fragile alliance between the Herodians and the Pharisees.
 
So, what does all that mean for us? I suppose that depends on our interpretation of history and who we identify with in this story. Obviously, the social and political dynamics in this story come from an ancient world different from our own. But just how different? And, are these kinds of power relationships and dynamics not evident in nearly every epoch of our history?
 

Evangelist Billy Graham and President Nixon wave to a crowd of 12,500 at ceremonies honoring Graham at Charlotte, North Carolina on Friday, Oct. 16, 1971. (AP Photo)

There is no Roman Empire left today, but are there no global superpowers that require taxes, homage, or compromise of our values? No Pharisees, but are there no conservative religious parties with powerful, if mostly secret, political affiliations? We seem to tell ourselves that idolatry is no longer a problem for us. It’s a thing of the past like animal sacrifice or theocracy. But, it is also possible to read world history in exactly the opposite way. It’s possible to see the emergence of the stock market and the global marketplace, a universal currency and economy based on inflation, as the greatest and most widespread system of idolatry ever conceived of by the human race. As money plays more of a role in human history, not less, it may be possible to see Jesus’ response to the Pharisees’ and Herodians’ question as more relevant today than ever.
 
What belongs to God? Well, “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” (Psalm 24:1), but more specifically, just as Caesar had presumptively stamped his own image on tribute penny, God has stamped his image on the earth in us. We humans are uniquely privileged to be made in “the image and likeness” of God (Genesis 1:27). And Jesus shows us, par excellence, what we are supposed to be, “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). The most important tribute that we ought to be worried about paying is, like Jesus, to God. Jesus paid that tribute for us, but also as an example: not with coins, but with the entirety of his life and death on the cross. We are likewise called to make a living and spiritual sacrifice of ourselves to God our first obligation in life, above and beyond, in and through whatever other responsibilities we feel led to take on for love’s sake (i.e. tithes and taxes). After all, “the glory of God is a human being fully alive” (St. Irenaeus). 
 
Discussion Questions
1. Who could we identify with in this story? Jesus and his disciples, the Pharisees/Herodians, or both?
2. What belongs to us, the church, or the state? What belongs to God? How do we practice faithful stewardship in our world today?
3. Can a Christian live in the “real world” today without their faith or life being compromised? How?


The Wedding Crashers, Matthew 22:1-14

In act 2, scene 2 of Shakespeare’s most ambitious play, Hamlet announces a sudden flash of insight: “The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.” He will produce a short play for the King (his murderous uncle) and Queen to watch that closely mirrors the King’s own treacherous actions, and see how he reacts.

Near the end of Matthew’s gospel, the parables of Jesus have a similar effect. The chief scribes, elders, and Pharisees realize that these stories Jesus tells are about them, and they don’t seem to be very happy about it. We as contemporary readers do not really mind these parables, but maybe that’s because we have not yet realized that Jesus might also be talking about us.

In the parable of the wedding feast (Matthew 22:1-14), Jesus speaks of a “human” king throwing a wedding feast for his son. The parable brings together two prominent figures in Jesus’ parables, that of the King and that of the Father, into one…which also is the way Jesus speaks in many places about God. Thus, the fact that this parable is really about God and God’s kingdom seems pretty clear. But who are the others in this story? The “servants/slaves,” the “called/invited,” and the “chosen”?

First of all, it’s a story and these categories are not mutually exclusive, but the language of “sent” (Gk. apostello) seems to suggest that the “servants” (Gk. diakonos) and “slaves” in this story could symbolize the prophets of old and the apostles, though we certainly share their responsibility to be witnesses today. Then again, John Wesley observed, those “troops/soldiers” whom the king sends (v. 7) seem to represent those Roman soldiers who would destroy Jerusalem in 70 A.D., burning much of the city and the temple to the ground. These figures in the story could refer to others (in truth, there are a number of cities destroyed and burned down to talk about in scripture), but in any case, it’s important to observe that in Jesus’ story, the soldiers are also non-Christian servants of the same King/Christ…in some way under the command of the same God as the prophets!

Then, there’s the “called/invited” (Gk. kletoi), “gathered” (Gk. synagogos), and “chosen” (Gk. eklektoi)–which are all ways the scriptures also speak of Israel and we who call ourselves the “church” (Gk. ekklesia). Jesus makes a major distinction in this story between the many called and the few chosen. This and several other parables communicate the idea of a mixed church of good and bad, true and false Christians who can only be sorted out by the King at the final judgment. As such, it is interesting to note that only one man in this wedding hall filled with ragamuffin guests is here singled out as unworthy, not for being “bad,” but simply for not wearing the garment that was probably provided. The chosen “few” would still seem to be a pretty large number in this story, just not quite as large as the “many” who were called.

So where does that leave us? Who am I in this story? I should probably admit that, sometimes, I kind of look like the “called but unworthy” in this story: those blessed to be born and raised into the Kingdom who were too busy with their own business to pay attention to their King. As such, I’d better start paying attention to the living word of God as if my life depended on it. On the other hand, I am the “unworthy but called” who was picked up from nowhere and invited to the table of our Lord. As such, I’d better make sure to clothe myself with the Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 13:14), the wedding garments of justice, true faith, and holiness, and at least try to act my new surprising part at God’s table.

Either way, it’s not my job to judge who is not chosen or worthy. St. Paul seems to suggest that we can know if someone’s name is written in the book of life (Philippians 4:1-9), but not that we can know for certain that someone is not. That’s for the King, and only the King who is Jesus Christ to decide in the end.

Discussion Questions

  1. In what ways are we distracted by PROPERTY (what we “own”) and BUSINESS (acquiring more) rather than the Word of God, like the first invitees in Jesus’ parable?
  2. Are we too “choosy” about the way we call/invite others to the table of the Lord? Who should we be calling/inviting to discipleship, the church?
  3. Do I know God as both my Father and King? Do I treat Jesus as both my Savior and my Lord? Do I treat all others as called to be God’s children?


Listening for God, Matthew 21:33-46

This week’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel begins with a word loaded with significance for its original Jewish audience: “Listen” or “Hear” (v. 33). 
It echoes God’s command to Israel in Deuteronomy 6 (a.k.a. the Shema), a word oft recited in Jewish prayer and custom, “Hear, O Israel.” In other words, listen, really listen, to what God has to say. The implication, of course, is not just physical hearing or basic comprehension of the words, but spiritual/intellectual listening and faithful attention/obedience to the deeper meaning of God’s word. “Hear/listen,” Jesus says, “to another parable/story.” Even if you’ve heard this story a thousand times before, I’d ask you to do the same and trust that God still has something to say to us today.
 
The parable/story introduces a man, in this case a head of household, followed by a number of action verbs. The man “plants” a vineyard, “fences” it around, “digs” a wine press, “builds” a watchtower, “lets/leases” it to groundskeepers, and “goes away” for a while. So far, this parable follows the structure of the prophet Isaiah’s ancient parable almost exactly
(Isaiah 5:1-7). It is an example of Jesus himself interpreting “the Bible.”  
The parable portrays a lot of work that, really, only a head of household, landowner or other master-figure in the ancient world would have been in a position to do. No wonder, when he “sends” his servants merely to collect his share of the produce (which would have been an assumed part of the lease agreement between himself and the groundskeeper-farmer-tenants), and gets nothing but beatings, murder, and trouble in return, there is a certain amount of outrage, as there is in Isaiah 5. But the similarities stop there. Whereas Isaiah blames the vineyard itself for this inexplicable outrage, Jesus’ parable adds a number of intermediary figures: including tenants, servants, and a son. In so doing, Jesus seems to be taking the blame away from the vineyard. Also, what’s mind boggling in Jesus’ version of the story is how much patience, and little outrage, the owner shows toward the farmer-tenants. Three chances? And even after sending two waves of servants to the vineyard, the father risks the life of his own son? Strange behavior for a master-father, back then or today. 
 
The Pharisee’s answer suggests that they would not have been so forgiving. They would “put those wretches to a miserable death” (v. 41, NRSV). Notice Jesus never says that’s what he or the father in this parable would do. 
Methinks the chief priests and Pharisees do protest too much. At least their anger and their outrage suggests they were paying attention to the story. It turns out, in typical prophetic style (see the story of the prophet Nathan and David in 2 Samuel 12), Jesus uses the parable to turn the Pharisee’s anger and outrage against themselves: to demonstrate that the behavior they most fiercely condemn is the lack they can’t see (or confront) within themselves. But the Pharisees’ inexplicable, paradoxical outrage continues. Even though the Pharisees “realized he was talking about them” (v. 45), this only increases their outrage and desire to put someone to a miserable death. So they end up, after all, just like the bad guys in this story. Speaking for God, Jesus has never threatened to treat them the same way, only that the Kingdom would be taken away from them (suggesting that it presently belonged to them?) and given to others who would do the job faithfully. 
 
The way Jesus tells this story, it isn’t simply a repetition of Isaiah’s old familiar tale. It’s a traditional story played in an entirely new key, both to meet the interpretive needs of the present situation and, above all, to reveal the truth of the gospel of God: especially the patience and long-suffering of the Father and the Son for our salvation. We must do the same with our traditions, stories, situation, and the help of the Spirit’s inspiration today. We must so listen as to be able to reinterpret the traditions and the stories we have received, with the Spirit’s help, for different circumstances, in order to reveal the gospel of the steadfast love of God the Father and the Son who created us all and longs to give and for us to receive the gift of the Kingdom.
 
Finally, just as Jesus’ telling of the gospel story takes an inward turn, and the listener’s pointy fingers are turned in upon themselves, so should we pay careful attention in our hearing of God’s word to its meaning for our own inward life and spiritual journey. The culture of outrage and finger pointing in the news and social media is not so different form the world the Pharisees were building. If we are not careful, we may very well end up like the worst of them: always hearing these words of God, but never listening, never producing real fruit for the Kingdom, verbally beating each other to death with gossip, wanting to do something about our problem, but doing nothing for fear of other’s opinions.
 
 
 
 
 
Discussion Questions
  1. What part or parts do we play in Jesus’ parable? What does it have to do with us? How?
  2. What is the vineyard, gift, or stewardship God has given us to care for? What responsibilities are implied? What fruits does God expect of us? 
  3. How good do you think you/we are at listening/communicating? Do we hear, understand, and obey? Or are we too busy talking?


Letter to Exiles

“By the rivers of Babylon,” the old Psalm goes, “there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion” (137:1). It is one of the saddest (and angriest) songs of lament recorded in scripture, depicting the people of God as a defeated group of exiles commiserating on the outskirts of Babylon, complaining, “How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (137:4)
 
But, for all their weeping and wailing, the Bible says this was God’s will for Israel. Centuries earlier, the prophet Amos had warned, “Israel will surely go into exile” (Amos 7:11). Similarly, the Spirit spoke through other prophets: “They will not stay in the land of the Lord” (Hosea 9:3), “Your children will go from you into exile” (Micah 1:16), “My people will go into exile” (Isaiah 5:13), and “They shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years” (Jeremiah 25:11).
 
And, as it turns out, this exile would end up being for the good of Israel. In his famous letter to the exiles, the prophet Jeremiah wrote, “I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” (29:11). It wasn’t all bad news. Israel would grow and prosper, albeit in a different way. They would plant gardens and build households, instead of building temples. They would adapt, promote the welfare of the cities they inhabited, and spread their way of life and faith around the world. Some of the best of biblical literature would come out of their painful experience in exile: including the books of Esther, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and many of the Psalms.
 
In the Bible’s treatment of Israel’s exile, I am finding rich spiritual resources for thinking, preaching, praying, and working through our life together here in Hemet today. In some ways, exile speaks to the present and apparent future of our local church. We really are in a time of transition and disequilibrium, rather than stability–a time for moving forward, if possible, but not for standing still. We continue to try to move forward on the sale of our property, for example, with the awareness that our situation is likely soon to change. In any case, it could take some time before we feel at home again.
 
But, exile also speaks in a wider way to the situation of the church and Christianity in our culture. Church is no longer the only show in town on Sunday mornings. Competing with all sorts of other special interest groups for people’s time, resources, and attention,
 
Evangelicals have lost and are still losing their dominant “market share” in the American economy. So it’s not just us; it seems like Evangelicals everywhere, and the Church of the Nazarene in particular, has a long way to go if we will ever feel at home in our communities again.
 
Insofar as exile describes and speaks to our situation as Christians in the world today, I take some comfort in knowing that we, as the people of God, have been here before. Nobody goes into exile whistling and smiling, but at least we can do so with our heads and hopes held high if we know we are still within God’s will to give us new hope and a future. Recently, I challenged our church board to start reading Scott Daniels’ newer book, Embracing Exile, with me. My hope is that, by embracing rather than avoiding the subject of our contemporary “exile” spiritually, like the Hebrew prophets, we might be all the more resilient and free to overcome, with our Lord’s help, whatever challenges we may face tomorrow–to live and grow to preach the gospel to another generation. 
 
To be sure, God’s people have grown in Spirit through difficult days of exile before. And we may have a lot to learn from carrying our cross in these challenging times, singing the Lord’s song in what can seem sometimes like a foreign land. But we must remember, nothing compares to the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus, who “learned obedience from what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8), 
 
Bearing patiently with us in the great wilderness of our human exile from Eden, making a way for us back to paradise through his death and resurrection. Considering Jesus, the Nazarene, and his perfect love revealed for us, my prayer for our church in these times is that our “momentary, light affliction” will prepare us all the more for an “eternal kind of glory” beyond our greatest expectations (2 Corinthians 4:17). After all, the good news is: God is with us!


Authority Refigured

Matthew 21:23-32

Every now and then, I catch myself sounding an awful lot like my parents. In particular, I’ve noticed that I’m always talking to my kids about their “attitude.” When did I become so obsessed with attitudes as opposed to actions? Probably about the same time I became convinced of my own parental authority. “But why?” they ask me; and I reply, “because I said so.” Human authority figures like me rarely put up with too many questions, I’m afraid. And yet, somehow, we demand no less than total obedience with a positive attitude and a happy heart, which is quite a tall order when you stop and think
about it.  
 
In this week’s gospel passage, Matthew 21:23-32, Jesus deals with the question of human and divine authority and the problem of credibility. The political and religious authorities of the day, the “chief priests and the elders of the people,” approach Jesus in the temple and ask him the loaded question, “By what authority are you doing (Greek verb:

poieo) these things, and who gave you this authority?” (21:23)

 
Now, if this were a Sunday School class, some kids’ hands would be waving in the air as they pleaded, “Please, pick me! I know this one! I know the answer! Pick me!” The correct Sunday School answer to the elders’ question is, of course, God. God was and is the authority behind the words and actions of Jesus Christ, as he himself testifies in several other places. But, it’s very important and significant, I think, that Jesus does not answer the question in this manner. He is aware that the elders are not really asking a sincere question, but setting a trap. And Jesus is sensitive to the fact that the problem of authority and credibility in this world is not easily solved by playing the “God” card.
If you stop and think about it, there are at least two sides to almost every issue of importance, and authority figures speaking in the name of God on both sides. Both Confederates and Union soldiers in the Civil War insisted the Bible said that God was on their side. Despite their opposite stances on the Vietnam War, both Billy Graham and Martin Luther King, Jr., claimed to speak for God. The problem of human credibility has everybody looking for a source of divine, absolute authority, but still, we can only look at anything from our own human point of view.
 
That’s why Jesus’ response to the elders’ question is so unique and still surprising today. He answers their question with a question of his own, “Did the baptism of John come from heaven (that is, from God), or from men?” (21:25) I suppose this is one of those questions that is better than any answer we could give. First, it confounds the elders, who are not really interested in learning from Jesus but entangled in the politics of language. Then, it raises, but does not finally answer the question of where true authority comes from. Jesus, who is the only Son of God and God incarnate, surely does not need to cite any authority but himself. And yet, he chooses to cite the authority of the mortal man, John the baptist, to help us understand the source of his own authority! On the one hand, all human authority comes from humans in all-too-human situations, like the questionable prophet, John, eating locusts on the banks of the Jordan. On the other hand, the source of all true authority in heaven and earth is God. The all-too-humanness of the prophet is no excuse for not recognizing in him the true authority of the Word of God, Jesus seems to be saying. All true authority, wherever and in whomever it may be found, has one and the same source in God.
 
Next, Jesus compares this kind of authority that comes from God to the authority of a father figure in a parable about two sons (21:28-30). Rather than argue about the authority of the father figure, Jesus’ parable shifts the question with this parable to the subject of a child’s obedient faith, or trust. Apparently, these elders need to learn what it means to be a child of God before they go on worrying about the nature of authority. In this story, one child stubbornly defies his parents at first, but later changes his mind and does what he knows is right. The second one answers, “Yes, sir,” but forgets or fails to do his duty. Jesus poses another question to the elders: “which one did (Greek verb again: poieo) his father’s will?” Obviously, the first one, even though he had a real bad attitude about it at first.
 
Jesus’ final words in this passage tie it all together, and make it clear that this parable is about the unlikely but true authority of God that works through unlikely, all-too-human vessels (i.e. Jesus and the unlicensed John the baptist) and is credible, believable, and actionable to all, even “tax collectors and prostitutes” (21:32) who probably ought not to be the only ones recognizing the authority of God in Jesus.
 
In the end, this passage makes it clear that the true and spiritual authority of God’s Word can be known on earth today as it is in heaven, as surely as John the baptist and Jesus spoke on earth for God. God’s kingdom authority may not be found in the first places we would naturally look, however. Humans easily misunderstand authority and misplace our trust for all sorts of wrong reasons. We confuse pledges of allegiance and outward shows of unquestioning loyalty, for example, with truly heroic actions that spring from mature faith and the obedience of love.
 
God doesn’t. To be sure, our heavenly Father, the ultimate authority figure Jesus represents, wants true loyalty, mature faith, and heartfelt loving obedience as least as much as we do from our own children: what John Wesley so often referred to as, “the faith of a son.” But, the reason he gets it from us in the end is not just because God demands it, but because in Jesus he comes down to our level, forgives our protests, listens to our questions, and patiently waits for us to act on what we say we want and believe.
 
Lord, forgive us who presume to be mothers and fathers but need to learn again how to be your children. Give me the courage to ask sincere questions and allow myself to be search today by your loving Spirit. Help me to change my mind if I am found in the wrong and so be an example of the obedience of faith for others. Christ, have mercy and incline our hearts again to do your will.

 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. Why does Jesus refer to the authority of John the baptist, rather than to God, the Bible, Moses, or David to defend his own credibility?

 

  1. What’s the crucial difference between the two sons in Jesus’ parable? Does this story sound familiar in any way to you?

 

  1. What has been your attitude or actions toward all kinds of authority? Your parents? Are they consistent with who you know yourself to be?

 

  1. What are you like in any position of authority? What would others say about you? Does this reflect something of God’s loving authority?

 




 
 

2 Responses to “Pastor’s Page”

  1. Diana says:

    In the past, I really struggled with separating what my “call” was and “punching my time card.” Sometimes I feel like they are closely related, and then sometimes they couldn’t be farther apart. Interesting perspective coming from Moses’ POV. Good blog Pastor Michael! Keep them coming!!

    • Michael says:

      I still struggle with this… and maybe it is just a matter of perspective. I suppose the same work (of any kind) could be looked at “from above,” like a calling to cooperate with God, or “from below,” as a mere job. Thanks, Diana!

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