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Monday, May 26, 2014

Christ-Shaped Thinking (Colossians 1:24-2:6)

Sunday, May 25, 2014

“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God.”  That is how Colossians begins.  We read this on May 4.
Then last week, we read from Colossians 1, a bit later in the chapter.  It says that the beloved son of God is the firstborn of creation.  This is Jesus.  “All things have been created through him and for him” (end of 1:16).  “In him all things hold together” (end of v.17).  “In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (v.19).
Jesus is God and Paul is the one sent by Jesus, Jesus’ apostle.  Paul speaks for Jesus.  He participates in Jesus’ work, including, according to v.24, Jesus’ suffering for the church.  Jesus died on the cross, taking sin on himself.  He did this for the world and he did this for the church.  In Paul’s suffering for the church, he hopes that the members may become mature in Christ (1:28).
Paul’s authority within 1st century Christianity is impossible to miss, and in his letters, he does not hesitate as he identifies himself with Jesus; the power he perceives himself to have stands out in his letters. 

1st Corinthians 14:37-8 – “37 Anyone who claims to be a prophet, or to have spiritual powers, must acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord. 38 Anyone who does not recognize this is not to be recognized. 

Second Corinthians 13:10 – “10 So I write these things while I am away from you, so that when I come, I may not have to be severe in using the authority that the Lord has given me.

2nd Thessalonians 3:6 – “Now we command you, beloved,[c] in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are[d] living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they[e] received from us.

Philemon v.8 – “I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty.”

            Paul felt that when he spoke to a church it was as if it were coming from Christ himself.  How did Paul handle this authority?
            Do we recognize the authority and power we possess?  How do we handle it?  In relation to Christ in us, how do we undestand and express power?  I specifically mean the way we exercise authority and power as Christ followers with Christ in us as we live within human institutions and structures including the family, neighborhood, and the church.
Methodist theologian, Jose Miguez Bonino, an Argentinian, wrote about four directions of power. 
-         The power an individual or group has to affect economic decisions.
-         The power to control political decisions. 
-         The power to affect ideology. 
-         The power of physical strength including military force. 

Bonino described these topics in relation to Christian participation in politics in a 20th century Latin American context.[i] 
Do his categories help us understand a relationship we find in the writings of Paul, the relationship of power to life in Christ? 
Consider power as related to economic decisions.  One of the major teachings on generosity as a core New Testament value comes from 2nd Corinthians 8-9 where Paul uses numerous forms of persuasion to convince the Corinthian church to contribute financially to the starving Jerusalem church.  Take Bonino’s second category, power and politics.  Paul’s allegiance is to Jesus, not Caesar.  The letter to the Colossians is written from a prison cell.  The forces of political power have locked Paul up because he relegates the emperor to second place behind Christ. 
Bonino’s fourth category, force, comes up throughout Paul’s letters (see Colossians 1:11).  We will look at this type of power expression later in the summer when we study Ephesians 6.  That will be a more direct examination of the way believers are filled the power of the Holy Spirit. 
Colossians 1 and 2 relates to power as it influences how we think, our ideology.  It is values formation for a group.[ii]  I engage in this weekly, this work of trying to shape how we think.  Totalitarian governments attempt to shape group ideology in ways that are insidious, deceptive and usually very affective.  The Nazid were excellent at this.  The Kim Jung Un government is a current example. 
My prayer is that when I wield by trying to exert ideological influence, I will be transparent, not sneaky.  I want the people of the church to choose to rethink everything in life, every choice, every expense, every relationship, every value, every thought.  We rethink everything in light of the rule of Jesus – his death, his resurrection, and his kingdom. 
How did Paul, with the power and authority of an apostle, try to shape ideology?  Looking at what Paul did, how do we create a thought world that reveals Christ in us as live in every day in 21st century America? 
The tone is set in Colossians 1:24.  “I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake.”  Usually, suffering brings lament.  It does not produce rejoicing.  Usually, people with power are not the ones who suffer.  They find the best table in the best restaurant.  They live a little better than everyone else, even in poorer contexts.  Even in the poorest countries in the world, the tyrants running the governments live in wealth as their people starve.  No, the powerful do not say, “I rejoice in suffering.”
Paul did.  He sat in the depressing Roman prison cell and he glowed with joy as Epaphras described the way the Colossian church was a witness for Jesus. Paul saw every situation as an opportunity to talk about Christ.  When he was arrested and carted off to Rome, he saw it as a chance to witness before the emperor.  He knew it would end in his death.  He never asked God to free him.  He asked God to embolden his testimony. 
Our context is different than Paul’s.  We face other temptations and challenges.  In some parts of the world today, countries that are dictatorial and primarily Muslim, Hindu, or Atheist, Christians are persecuted as Paul was.  But that will not be the case in the United States. 
Mostly we deal with are small inconveniences that come up in daily interactions and often have nothing to do with religion.  Someone hits my car.  Someone lies about me at work.  A friend betrays me.  A family member uses words to hurt me.  What do we do?  The power of God that made Paul an apostle is power available to us, but for what purpose?  Do we to try to use that power in hope that God will give grief to whomever it is that is bothering us?  To paraphrase the movie Bruce Almighty, do we look toward our neighbor, the one who made us so angry, and then do we look to heaven and shout “smite him, oh great smiter!” Did Paul do that?
As a Roman citizen, he could have gained release from prison, but he actually influenced circumstances so he would be taken to Rome.  He did it so he could share the gospel with the emperor.  Do we see conflict as an opportunity to love and witness to the good news? 
In his book Exclusion and Embrace Miroslav Volf says this type of posture toward others requires amnesia.  Volf writes,
At the center of God’s all-embracing memory there is a paradoxical moment to forgetting.  It is the cross of Christ.  God forgets humanity’s sins in the same way God forgives humanity’s sins: by taking sin away from humanity and placing them upon God-self.  How will human beings be able to forget the horrors of history?  Because at the center of the new world that will emerge after ‘the first things pass way’ there will stand a throne, and the throne there will sit the Lamb who has taken away the sins of the world and erased their memory.[iii]

            Paul does not mention forgetting, but what Volf is talking about is obvious in Paul’s life.  He believes his suffering leads to people becoming Christ followers and churches maturing in Christ.  He forgets the pain of the whip, the loneliness of the prison cell, and the fear of the ship at sea in a storm.  All these traumas for Paul were means by which he testified to the goodness of Jesus – Jesus as King, as Savior and Lord.
            Bonino lamented that though the human exercise of power is supposed to be a mediation of God’s power and justice, “it always tends to [see itself as absolute].”[iv]  Thus human exercises of power meant to uphold instead justice negate it.  We hear too many stories of megachurch pastors who get in trouble for taking sexual advantage of young church members or living lives of wealth and privilege, lives wholly unavailable to the members who gives the tithes that put the wealth in the pastor’s account.  Whether in the clergy, in lay leadership within the church, in politics, or in some other arena, Christians obtain too much power.  It corrupts the heart.  Those with such power-corrupted souls think they are untouchable. 
            Instead of orgetting past hurts, power possessed people forget that they desperately need God for life.  Even if they bear the name ‘Christian,’ their abuse of power and their hoarding of riches reveals them to be no different than secular people who have no affiliation with Jesus.
            You may hear this and think, “Oh, that’s not me.  I have no power to abuse.  I am weak and unknown.”  But in your own circle of relationships, you possess some level of power.  Is it something you use selfishly?  In your view do others have to lose for you to win?  Or do you use what power you have, however much it is, money, influence, position – do you use it to tell of the goodness of Jesus and to help those around you grow in their knowledge and love of him?  Paul forgot the injustices he suffered and remembered to always point to Jesus.
            His goals for the church were specific.  He wanted to present the church “mature in Christ” (end of Col. 1:28).  And he wanted the hearts of those in the church to be united to one another in love (2:2).  Bonino depicts Paul’s stance quite well when he writes, “IF God is present in the death of Christ – and on this the whole Christian faith stands or falls – he is not present as transcendent Power overruling human injustice and oppression from the outside, but as Jesus’ own power of truth and love operating ‘from within’ to surrender his life ‘for the many.’[v]  From his position of power, Paul surrendered his life.  He struggled and suffered, rejoicing all the while, because his giving of himself led to people coming to know and follow Jesus.
            We have a specific philosophy as a church in which we strive to be a community united in love.  We have assets – a building; committed lay leaders; an educated pastoral staff; members with a plethora of skills and talents.  We bring all this together, whatever power we have and we give it to the Lord that he might create here a safe community where hurting people can come for comfort, rejected people can come and be welcomed, the lonely can find a family, the confused can find meaning, and the empty can be filled.
            In this safe space, we worship Jesus; we open our hearts to him.   In Bonino;s critique of Christians abusing power, he points out two options – justice or abuse.  Power ends up with one of the other.  There is a third option: transformation.[vi]   Here, we want to create safe space where we come as we are, sinful, broken, and then we meet Jesus.  In that encounter, we are made new, transformed.  The transformation effected by him is why Paul could rejoice in suffering and eagerly struggle for the sake of the spiritual maturation of people he never met – the Colossian believers. 
            Paul states in Colossians 2:6, As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives[m] in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.”  That is our goal – life in Christ.  It is not easy and sometimes it is a struggle and sometimes we do suffer.  But the end is Christ, and there is indescribable joy along the way, even in trying circumstances. 
            May we be encouraged to turn to the Lord and seek the joy that comes when we are in Him.  May our church be a place and a people that encourages one another and all who come as they seek joy in Christ.

[i][i] Bonino (1983), Toward a Christian Political Ethics, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, p.90-91.
[ii] F.A. Hayek (1994), The Road to Serfdom: Fiftieth Anniversary Edition, The University of Chicago Press.  Chapter 11, “The End of Truth.”
[iii] Volf (1996), Exclusion and Embrace, Abingdon Press, Nashville, p.141.
[iv]Bonino, P.98.
[v] Bonino, p.114-15.
[vi] Volf, p.155-164.  He presents transformation as a third option (after justice and abuse) in his analysis of the Prodigal Son story.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Do we Know Jesus? (Colossians 1:9-23)

Sunday, May 18, 2014

            If you open your Bible, turn to Colossians and begin reading in the very first verse, you are struck with how positive this letter is.  “Grace and peace … we have heard of your faith and your love … [we heard] from Epaphras, our beloved fellow servant; … he has made known to us your love in the Spirit” (from v.1-8).  What a ‘feel good’ start! 

And yet, it is not all rosy.  It could not be, not for a first century church.  In the midst of a truly uplifting introduction, we read, “May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience.  … He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:11, 13-14).
            Why is Paul praying that the Colossians be “made strong?”  What ordeal required them to have strength?  Was the life of their church and their very selves as Christ followers threatened to the point that the only way they could maintain true faith and correct belief was by the glorious power of God?  Why did Paul think such a prayer was necessary?  What evil threatened the Colossian fellowship?
            “May you be able to endure everything with patience.”  He does not ask that God remove the threat, whatever it may have been.  He does not ask God to deliver the Colossians.  He asks God to uphold them that they might endure some trial.  I hear Christians ask God to protect them from trials and to heal wounds and for shelter in the storm.  Paul asks God to help the Colossian weather the storm.  The storm is inevitable.    The only hope they have is the help that comes from the Holy Spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ. 
What can be said about him?  Who is this son of God?  Who, exactly, is this Jesus to whom we have pledged our allegiance?  We have staked our lives, our souls, our eternal hope on what the Bible tells us about him.  Paul knew the Colossians could not hold up as a church without help from him.  For them and for us, he is the key to everything.  Do we truly know Jesus? 
            When he met a blind man, he spit in the dirt, made mud, and rubbed it in the blind man’s eyes.  Would you allow someone to rub mud made from saliva on your face?  It’s kind of gross.  Yes, gross, but the eyes of the man born blind were healed.  He could see.
Jesus enjoyed weddings so much he turned water to wine to keep the party going.  Before his disciples, he dropped to his knees and washed their feet.  He befriended prostitutes and disreputables, society’s dregs and rejects.  He partied with them and with those in high society.  Jesus was able to genuinely love everyone. 
All these anecdotes about Jesus form a picture of a great man – the greatest of human beings.  It is perfectly appropriate to talk of Jesus as a person.  You and I – we are persons, individuals.  So too was Jesus. 
            The very human Jesus truly is Jesus.  He was a first century Jewish man who came from the region of Galilee, received Rabbi training, whether formal or informal we don’t know.  His humanity must never be forgotten or ignored or intentionally shelved.  Neither may we do away with his divinity.  Jesus is both: 100% God and 100% human.  A robust, healthy Easter theology recognizes and insists upon the full divinity and full humanity of Jesus.  This duality is a great paradox, impossible to rationally explain yet undeniable.
            In Colossians, where the faithful have exhibited devotion in their faith, the accent is on the divine nature of the Son of God.  The Colossian believers are confused by other teachings that have come from countless angles in a culture so religiously diverse it’s dizzying.  Jewish, Roman, and numerous forms of Greek religious expressions competed for the attention and hearts of these people who have pledged themselves to Jesus. How could they maintain true faith?
Similar challenges confront Jesus’ church in every era and in every place.  Even though thousands of years and thousands of miles make us as different from our Colossians siblings in the faith as one might expect, we also are tempted by forces around us that would divert our loyalty away from our Lord.  Worse, we are weakened by sin.  Jesus has rescued us from sin in his death on the cross (v.13), but we are still vulnerable to temptation.  They were.  We are. 
            So Paul names his worries – weakness (he prays for strength), and trials and temptations (he prays for endurance).  Then , pointing to our source of help and hope, Paul quotes a poem that is dedicated to the rule and wonder of Jesus.  Most scholars believe Colossians 1:15-20 is a hymn Paul quoted, one likely older than anything Paul wrote.  What we read here was used in worship in the ancient church by the Christ followers probably even earlier than Paul’s conversion which is described in Acts 9.  Another example of Paul quoting an ancient hymn to make his point is Philippians 2:5-11.  In both cases, we find Christianity in its earliest most authentic form.  
In times of trouble, in times of confusion, when darkness threatens, we turn to Jesus.  Do we know Jesus Christ, the beloved son of God?  What would we say about him?  Look at Colossians 1:15-20 and see what the Apostle said.
            Jesus, the Son of God, is the firstborn of all creation.    Jesus, the man we meet in the New Testament, did not exist until the Holy Spirit impregnated Mary.  But Jesus as God, the divine logos described in John chapter 1, the Word, certainly did exist prior to the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.  He was, says Colossians, before the universe was.  From verses 16 & 17, “In him all things in heaven and on earth were created.  … He himself is before all things and in him all things hold together.”  Science can study observable phenomena, only that which occurs or exists within the history of the universe.  Jesus is before the history of the universe.  He is the pre-existent one.
            The son is distinct from the father, and here we find another paradox no theologian has adequately reduced to a definition we can grasp.  The term ‘trinity’ is not mentioned in the Bible, but it adequately names how God exists and how we know God.  Great minds have tried to make the trinity comprehendible for 2 millennia with no success.  The Father is God.  Jesus is God.  The Spirit is God.  They are distinct from one another.  There is only one God: 3 in 1.  This is where we turn, to this triune God, when we are in desperate need.  I could offer a plethora of metaphors to try to illustrate the trinity, but all come up short. 
            A while ago, a priest was the guest on Steven Colbert’s show.  The comedian is a devout Catholic.  I don’t know if he prepared the priest for what he was going to ask, but I was thoroughly impressed with the priest’s answer.  Colbert asked, “OK, what is God’s job.”  How would you answer?  I thought the question was kind of strange, but then I was struck by the thought that as a Christian, and especially as clergy, I should be able to answer that.  And I was stuck.  I did not know exactly where to begin.  What is God’s job?  Without missing a beat, the priest said, “God’s job is sustaining the universe.”  Brilliant! 
            The Father creates the universe and sustains it.  The Son draws humanity to the father, saving us from our sins and presenting us as righteous.  The Spirit is the constant presence of God in Jesus’ absence, the comforter and helper.  Each member of the trinity has a specific role and that is how we understand the trinity. 
Not so fast!  Colossians 1:17 says in the Son all things hold together.  Yes, God the Father sustains, but Jesus the Son has a role in holding everything together as well.  And, per v. 16, Jesus has a role in the creation of all that we see.  This verse, Colossians 1:16, indicates that the man from Galilee, before he was ever born in a Bethlehem stable, was the agent of creation and the goal of creation.
            Then verse 18 zooms in from the view of everything that exists in the cosmos to a focus on a particular people on earth, those who follow Jesus, the church.  We are the church.  From believers in megachurches housed in multimillion dollar facilities that sit on campuses that would make many colleges jealous, to groups of believers that gather in dirt floored third-world huts, the church is the gathering of people who follow Jesus and worship God through their knowledge of Jesus.  From the first century believers in Colossae to us who gather on Sundays at HillSong in 2014, we are the church.  Colossians 1:18 says the beloved son, the pre-existent one and creator of all, is the head of the church. 
            He who formed the Milky Way galaxy astronomers spend their lives observing is the one who watches over and leads us and all churches like us and those thoroughly unlike us.  Why?  Jesus is the firstborn of the dead.  The resurrection links his humanity and divinity; and it links us to him. 
            We would be destined to be separated from God for eternity if not for Jesus.  Our sins cut us off.  I think Hell is eternal separation from God.  All the descriptions of unquenchable fire and lakes of sulfur and weeping and gnashing of teeth – these are Biblical metaphors employed to show just how bad eternal separation from God is. However, Jesus came, died, and rose.  The New Testament says over and over, because of what he did, we have hope of resurrection.  He paves the way and makes resurrection a reality for us, his followers, so he holds first place in everything.  Any portion of life we can imagine, no matter how we see our lives or divide life into segments, Jesus, the resurrected, is first in all.  Not only is there no portion of life Jesus does not touch.  There is no portion of life Jesus does not rule.
Because of sin, the world is a fallen place, a place of pain, but Jesus is working through His church for the healing of the world.  Verse 20 says, “Through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven by making peace through the blood of the cross.”  This verse does not say that the purpose of Jesus’ death on the cross was to provide salvation for us from our sins so we would go heaven when we die.  It does not say his death on the cross was for that.  Salvation is a consequence of the crucifixion of the son of God.  We are saved.  We are made righteous by him and promised to be with him eternally.  But Colossians 1:20 says through the cross all things are reconciled to God: animals, plant life, the elements (wondrous rock, gems, and metals in the earth), the cosmos, and people – all was declared Good in the creation.  All was corrupted in the fall.  In the death and resurrection and return of Jesus, all will be reconciled to God.  When we love the earth and act as the stewards God has called us to be, we are caring for what God made and what God will make new in the future through the work of Jesus, the Son.
Paul prayed that his readers would be made strong and be prepared to endure.  They worshiped as a minority faith in the midst of an empire that was pagan, polytheistic, and insistent upon all acknowledging the supremacy of the Roman emperor.  They were surrounded by people who sneered at their monotheism or mocked their claim that the Messiah had come and had been resurrected.   The first readers of Colossians were trying to follow Jesus in a world that potentially could hurt them severely for doing so.
We read Colossians as we live in the American empire.  Ours is vaguely Christian, or at least was born in the tradition of Christendom.  What threatens and causes us to rely upon Jesus for help? 
-                           Some reduce our faith to a system of morals.  We cannot.  The way of Jesus is very moral as are many religious faiths.  We are distinctive in that we insist that Jesus is Lord. 
-                           Another threat is the idol of materialism.  Life is all about me, so following Jesus is fine as long as it is good for me.  This idolatry will lead us straight out of the kingdom of God and in America, where freedom has been corrupted into the notion that we “deserve” immediate satisfaction in all things, we are bombarded by the deception of materialism. 
-                           Another threat is the way our culture has turned the concept of tolerance into the undiscerning practice of saying all things are OK and all religions are basically the same.  It’s a double lie; all behaviors are not OK and all religions are not, at the core, the same.  Each religion is unique from all others. 

We need help from our Lord so we can be strong enough and clear enough and loving enough to say Jesus is King, to kill the idol of materialism and to overcome the lies that are birthed by the siren song of tolerance. 
We could probably name numerous other threats to Christian faith in America.  If we considered other places in the world, the threats would be deadly in addition to being ideologically dangerous.  The Colossians prayer fits.  We need Jesus if we are to stand for him and with each other.  That we will be made strong and be prepared to endure so that with a gentle voice of welcoming love we can tell the world around us that all things come together in Christ alone – that prayer is one we need.  And we need to look to and point the world to Jesus, the beloved son of God, the creator and sustainer of all. 
He is Lord of the universe and head of the church and we and all his followers, no matter how different than us, comprise the church, the body of Christ. 
No matter the cost or consequences, together we are in Christ, the Lord of all.


Tuesday, May 13, 2014

When a Theologian says the Resurrection did not happen

                I read a title by a theologian or Bible scholar, someone like John Dominic Crossan, Bart Ehrman, or Geza Vermes, all scholars who write extensively about the New Testament and about Jesus.  Each doubts or outright denies the bodily resurrection of Jesus.  Each in different ways respects Jesus, but none of these or many others think Jesus really, truly rose from the grave into a body that would live eternally.  I read the works of these and others, and I get upset.  I feel my faith is under attack and I need to defend it.
            I think the simple answer is this stuff matters to me.  By “stuff,” I mean the Gospel.  My life is built upon proclaiming that God is real.  God chose Israel as God’s particular people through whom God would reach the world, which had fallen away from God in sin – original sin and perpetual inevitable repetition of sin.  God fulfilled all promises to Israel when God came to earth in the form of a human, a Jew, Jesus of Nazareth.  Jesus lived a sinless life, died on the cross for the sins of the world, rose from death, ascended, and sent his Sprit to his followers.  All who give their lives to Him and spend their lives following him will spend eternity with him in the eternal Kingdom of God, the joining of renewed Heaven and renewed Earth. 
            I believe all of this.  I feel like my choices in life are based on all of this.  My future and eternal destiny depend on this.  I don’t know who I would be if this were not true.  The bodily resurrection of Jesus is essential in my belief.  So, when I read a far more schooled writer, like Vermes or Ehrman, and that author questions the core components of my theology, I feel assaulted.  If this learned person is right, then who am I?  What has my life meant?  Have the last 25 years been a waste?  I became a Christ-follower at 11.  I heard God call me into pastoral ministry at 20.  I am now 44.  Has my life been a lie?
            I don’t think so.  But when I read the works from critical scholars that say, no, Jesus wasn’t really raised from death, that is just a spiritual truth, then I have to step back.  I want to read honestly.  Reading honestly requires that I give consideration to the arguments scholars make.  Of course, I find the cases made by N.T. Wright, Mike Licona, Douglas Groothuis and others to be more convincing.  But Wright, Licona, and Groothuis believe what I believe.  So, am I convinced by them?  Or was my mind already made up and they gave me “proofs” that support what the conclusion I would have inevitably drawn anyway.  Is their thinking better supported, a wiser analysis of the available evidence, a more logical theology than that of scholars that drift toward heterodoxy, agnosticism, or even atheism?
            I don’t know.
            Here is what I do know.  I know truth is really important.  I am no relativist.  I am, to a point, a pragmatist when it comes to enforcing ethics, but just because I accept something as a reality (like abortion) does not mean I think it is OK.  On abortion, pragmatically, I think it is here to stay as an option for women.  Fighting to make it illegal is akin to a hamster on a wheel.  The destination will never be reached.  Ethically, I believe abortion is murder – the murder of a human being.  I believe that to be true and I won’t waver on that belief.  Abortion is one of countless issues that demand both unwavering truth and creative pragmatism in how the truth is connected to practice in society.  I have built my life on telling the truth (preaching the Gospel). 
            Along these lines, I appreciate a blog I recently encountered -  I became involved in a minor twitter spat with the author of this blog, and I wish I had handled that differently.  I don’t agree with everything she writes but I understand her fierce commitment to the truth.  An assault on truth is an assault on Jesus.
            It thus makes sense that I would have an emotional reaction when Ehrman or whoever makes such an assault.  But pragmatically speaking, emotions don’t help for a couple of reasons.
            First, emotions do not help me think clearly.  O, Vermes is saying the resurrection didn’t happen!  What?  The resurrection did not happen?  At this point, I am either mad at Vermes and I am retreating to N.T. Wright so I can prove Vermes wrong.  Or, I am questioning everything I ever believed.  Neither is overly helpful.  I need to calm down, breathe deeply, and trust that Vermes is a scholar who is going where his research has taken him.  Even if he wrote with an agenda, that’s between him and God.  I need to be sophisticated as a reader that I can engage with Vermes or whomever, and realize that my faith is intact.  I am not under attack here.  I am with someone whose believes differently than me and has written what he or she believes and is giving reasons why.  I need to think it all through thoroughly.
            Second, I might learn something.  My own knowledge of God and of the scriptures and of how theologians reach conclusions might expand and mature.  If I can listen to thinkers and hear what they are saying and why they are saying, my own theological reasoning will develop and deepen.  If I cannot do this, I will remain irrationally angry.  I won’t grow. 
            My hope in writing what I have here is that I can come to recognize my own emotions as I read theological works.  Whether the authors are fundamentalist evangelicals or liberal atheists or adherents to other faiths, I want to be an intelligent, perceptive reader.  The eternal fate of the author is between that author and God.  My own eternal faith is between God and me.  I am responsible to share the Gospel.  How I do that, my method, will change and mature, will expand and improve, as I educate myself.   So, I want to submit myself to theological education with the names I have mentioned here and many others as my teachers. 

            If you have thoughts about reading theology, I would love to hear them either in the comments section, on Facebook, or by emailing me directly.

Monday, May 5, 2014

The Life Hope Creates (Colossians 1:1-8)

Sunday, May 4, 2014

            Imagine a series of events that might happen in life, any scenario that comes to mind.  A trip to Food Lion because we’re out of eggs; a 50th birthday party; the sinking feeling of the flashing lights in the rearview mirror and knowing you were going 50 in a 25 zone; finding a $20 bill on the sidewalk; reading your emails and coming across one that is surprisingly and extraordinarily negative; eating with your best friend at your favorite burger place; now, here is the question.  What difference does it make for you or anyone going through that situation, however important or banal, to go through it as one who is in Christ?
            This is not a suggestion that we ask, what difference does it make that I am a Christian? I have not forfeited the title ‘Christian,’ but it has been severely diluted by overuse.  Militants kill 100’s of Muslims and because they wear crosses, they are called ‘Christian.’  Christ did not endorse mass violence.  When they came for him, he rebuked his followers for resorting to violence (Matthew 26:52-54).  The term ‘Christian’ fits, but is unhelpful because it lacks descriptive power.
            Today we intensify a journey we’ve already been on, a quest to discover what it means for an individual and for a congregation to be “In Christ.”  As we discover this and grow in understanding of it, we live it.  We live in Christ.  Jesus not only influences, but is in everything.  So something as simple as going to the store or as weighty as deciding upon a major move doesn’t just involve our relationship with Jesus; it is determined by it.  Furthermore, Jesus does not just help us with decisions or ethics, “should’s” and “should nots;” Jesus defines who we are.  We cannot understand ourselves apart from Him. 
            Does it sound unrealistic?  Seriously, who thinks about Jesus all the time?  Maybe God is a part of my life, maybe even the biggest part.  Maybe church is very important to me.   Maybe I feel tremendous happiness in Bible reading and in worship.  Maybe I am proud to be a Christian.  But it is extreme to say, I cannot understand anything, not even myself, apart from God as I know God in Jesus Christ.  As right sounding as that maybe, it will never realistically be true.  Well, together, I want us to explore this.  Is it possible to be “in Christ” to the extent that Christ really, truly is in everything, every thought? 
            I am watching the Detroit Tigers.  Miguel Cabrera, the best player in baseball, is up to bat.  The Tigers are down 3-2 in the bottom of the 9thSo Jesus, what do think, will Miggy win the game for the Tigers with a big hit?  I do not say that.  I do not pray for Jesus to help the Tigers win.  That’s not what I mean.  No, I mean, Jesus is there, with me, and I know it.  How specifically does this affect me?  Any number of ways.
            Cabrera strikes out and the Tigers lose.  I do not fly into a cursing rage because Jesus would not approve.  But really, it is not about Jesus’ approval.  This is way beyond sin avoidance.  I do not fly into a cursing rage because that is not something someone ‘in Christ’ would ever do.  Because I am ‘in Christ’ and I am filled with the Holy Spirit, I just don’t do it and wouldn’t.  I am different – a new creation.
            And this “new me” or “new you” way of seeing and being is lived in all situations of life.  Of course the case of me watching my favorite baseball team is an example.  I am not holding myself up as a perfect example of what it is to be ‘in Christ.’  There are people in this church who model it better than me, but it is not really about “better.”  The beautiful thing about us all joining hands and together exploring life “in Christ” is no matter where or who we are we can enter the quest.  No previous qualifications are needed and it is not a continuum.  Your friend is not “more in Christ” than you, or less. 
Today, he might help you tremendously, and you may think, I can’t repay this.  The answer to your frustration would be of course you can’t repay it.  In Christ, there is no repayment.  There is generosity, there is peace, there is love; there is no debt; there is no hatred; there is no slavery.  There is joy and grace, mercy and faith.  Today, your friend in Christ helps you.  Tomorrow, you help another.  And that whole idea is just one way of countless ways of seeing, understanding, and living in Christ.
Just as living in Christ is fleshed out in more ways than we could possibly name, there are any number of places to begin looking for help as we strive to live in Christ.  We will begin in Colossians.  I don’t think of this as a sermon series in Colossians but rather, this New Testament epistle in tandem with the Holy Spirit will be our initial guide into life in Christ.  If you like reading ahead, read three short New Testament letters – Colossians, 1 John, and Ephesians.[i] 
This is not a four-part series in Colossians followed by a four-part in 1 John followed by four in Ephesians.  This is a journey.  As thoroughly unpredictable as it is, the journey itself will be part of the goal.  As we go, we discover what it means when we say we are disciples of Jesus.  As we discover, we live out discoveries realizing that everything changes from going on a simple errand to major decisions.  Nothing is ever the same once we give ourselves to Jesus and are filled with the Spirit. 
 “From Paul, chosen by God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus and from Timothy who is also a follower” (1:1).  The letter comes not from one, but from a group because when we are Christ, we are joined to one another; Paul and Timothy.  As we proceed, we will see many more than just these two in Paul’s work.  Epaphras, Tychicus, Luke; a few of the names sound funny to us.  These funny-sounding names and the more familiar ones were life for Paul.  His heart is joined to the disciples who walk with him.  In Christ, we are in a community, a family of believers.  We are connected to each other.  We belong to each other.
The different English renderings of Colossians1:3 show how deliciously deep is the meaning of what Paul wants to convey.  I am convinced that each of these renderings is near the mark on getting this verse right. 
Here is verse three in the New Living Translation: We always pray for you, and we give thanks to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” 
Here is the same verse in the New Revised Standard Version: “In our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Finally, the verse in the Common English Version.  “Each time we pray for you, we thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
The Greek grammar indicates an action – the prayer of thanks that happened and keeps on happening.  Paul and Timothy do not spend every moment of every day praying for the Colossian Christians, people they have never met.  Prayer is a constant in life, so when Paul and Timothy are doing other things- making tents, traveling, preaching – they are mindful of prayer and mindful of churches, those they know, and like the Colossian congregation, those they do not know.  Prayer and thanks are constant components of life for Paul and Timothy.  Neither man would be who he was without prayer and thanks.
The verb used might strike recognition, depending on your church background.  In Greek it is ‘eucharistio,’ a form of the noun ‘eucharistia.’  In English the word is Eucharist.  In many traditions this word refers to what we call communion or the Lord’s Supper.  Thus from Paul’s opening and from the prayer, we see that to be ‘in Christ’ is to be in a community where His followers are connected to each other, always praying for one another, thanking God each time. 
Faith and love: Paul delights in writing how the faith and love of the Colossians Christ followers sets them apart.  By love, he means that agape love, the love that is selfless, altruistic.  Someone in Colossae had done something so remarkable; Epraphas was moved to make a point of talking about it.  He did this so effectively that Paul makes a special effort to affirm the church as a faithful church willing to demonstrate Christ in her midst by acts of sacrificial love.
When we are in Christ, we love.  The fuzzy picture is coming into focus in just the opening verses of Colossians.  In Christ, we belong to one another.  We are in community.  In Christ, prayer is a constant; we could not imagine a life where prayer was not a core practice.  Furthermore, our prayer always involves thanksgiving.  In Christ, we have faith and it is a marker others see, something that distinguishes us.  Surely this comes through in our prayer life, in our conversations, in our ethical choices, in the tone of our speech, and in many other ways.  Finally, in Christ, we love with a self-giving, put-others-first kind of love.
Where does this come from?  Paul writes – “because what you hope for is kept safe for you in heaven. You first heard about this hope when you believed the true message, which is the good news” (v.5).  Note, he does not say it is saved “up in Heaven” as if Heaven were some place out beyond our galaxy.  It is not so much “up” as on an entirely different yet not necessarily distant plane.
Heaven is real and is a normal part of Paul’s conversation.  In Christ, we know about Heaven.  Moreover, we know the influence of Heaven.  The hope that is kept safe there is the hope of future resurrection after our deaths.  Just as Jesus rose so too Easter will come to us after we die, at the final judgment, when Jesus returns to unite forever earth made new and heaven made new.  While we wait for that consummation, Jesus is bodily in Heaven keeping the promised hope safe. 
What does that mean for us living here as we wait?  If we are in Christ, according to Colossians 1:3-5, our future hope creates for us here and now a life of faith and agape love.  Eternal life is not simply a promise that makes the present reality endurable.  Eternal life is something we live into; the values of God’s eternal kingdom are our values in our daily lives.  Colossians 1:5 is a clause in the midst of a long Greek sentence.  We could easily skim it without paying closer attention.  This might cause us to miss something profound.
Like us, those Colossian Christ followers wanted a blessed, pain-free eternity in the presence of God and the people they loved.  That is universal human desire – the longing to be free of fear and free to live in peace, prosperity, and happiness.  Everyone wants that.  Most religions have some version of an afterlife promise.  Epaphras has reported to Paul that the hope of resurrection, currently held in Heaven with Jesus but sure to come to all who follow him, has created a way of living for the Colossians: the way of faith and love, agape love.
In verses 9-14, Paul prays that God will guide the Colossians in their actions and in their thoughts.  “We always pray that God will show you … the wisdom and understanding that his Spirit gives” (v.9).  The reading closes with Paul reminding the Colossians that God has rescued them from Satan, freed them from sin, and brought them into the Kingdom.  They are already part of the Kingdom of God.    
This letter has been preserved by the Holy Spirit so churches like ours remember.  In Christ, God has rescued us from Satan, freed us from sin, and brought us into the Kingdom.  We are already part of the Kingdom even as we wait for its final consummation.    Our future eternal hope is held secure in Heaven.  And this brings us back around to the opening question.
What difference does it make in situations that come up in our lives, however important or banal, that we go through these situations are people who are ‘in Christ?’  Hope creates in us faith and love. 
I remember a church-going family, people who knew Jesus.  Because of their hope, they noticed the best friend of their 10-year-old son.  The boy’s parents were divorcing.  Mom was gone.  Dad worked nights.  Often the 10-year-old child had to fix meals for himself and his younger brother and sister.  These church goers, people ‘in Christ,’ did what they always did.  They went to church.  And they brought the boy and his younger siblings along.  Every Sunday.  For years. 
Now decades have passed.  The boy is an adult and he doesn’t often see that family that brought him to church, sometimes fed him supper, and had him over for sleep-overs.  When he does see them, there is joy and love, a family reunion for one not quite family but every bit family because he knows they made space in their lives for him.    They could not do otherwise.  They are in Christ.  Their hope made faith and love their life.   And so it is with us as Paul’s pray goes up for us.
“May [we] be made strong with all the strength that comes from [God’s] glorious power, and may [we] be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully12 giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled [us] to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light” (1:11-12).

[i] As an aside, I acknowledge that many scholars doubt that Paul wrote Colossians & Ephesians just as they doubt that someone named John wrote the letter we refer to as 1st John.  These scholars have good reasons for their doubts, but I will nonetheless refer to Paul and John as I go through these books.  I believe the ideas originated with these two even if others ended up writing them in the form we now have the letters.