Thursday, March 31, 2016

Pondering Proverbs- 5

“My son, hear the instruction of your father, and do not forsake the teaching of your mother; for they will be a graceful wreath on your head, and pendants about your neck,” Proverbs 1:8 – 9.

Continuing our reflections on these verses from the previous post in this series:

As I shared previously, while I realize that the primary “mother” of Proverbs is a natural mother of a natural child, when I read this passage (and others) I also relate the mother to the church that we see from Genesis to Revelation, including church history. The Jerusalem above is our mother (Galatians 4:26; Isa. 54:1) and the New Jerusalem is our destiny (Revelation Chapters 21 – 22). That which is above is also on earth, and the fullness of that which is above is being matured on earth – this is an “already – not yet” proposition. We can say, “We are becoming who we are.”

We are those whom Jesus prayed for when He said, “I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me,” (John 17:20-21). We are built “on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone,” (Ephesians 2:20).

There is much that we can learn from our mother church over the years since Pentecost, just is there much that we can learn from her, in the form of Israel and the Patriarchs, prior to Pentecost. Her history prior to Pentecost was not without blemish, nor is her history from Pentecost to our present day. However, what we see on earth is not what we see in the heavens – for Christ is making her a glorious church without spot or wrinkle (Ephesians 5:27) and we do well to keep this in mind as we grapple with the low points of church history. From the New Testament epistles forward much ministry has been devoted to Christ cleansing His church and molding her for eternity – corrective ministry in the Holy Spirit is a ministry of redemption, the goal of which is the image of God in Christ – when the New Jerusalem is fully manifested nothing unclean will enter into it (Revelation 21:27) – a point we seem to miss today considering what we invite into our individual lives, the lives of our families, and the lives of our congregations. Until that day garbage trucks roam our streets – hopefully we allow them to identify the trash in our lives and remove it.

The Bible is replete with history, but it is not history for the sake of history, it is history which is intended to instruct (1 Corinthians 10:1-11). Biblical writers look back at history in order to teach their generations. The great prayer book and hymnal of the church, the Psalms, is filled with reflections on the history of God dealing with humanity in general, and His people in particular. The rich texture of the New Testament, including Revelation (a book we seem adamant in exercising unending speculation about), can only be appreciated against the backdrop of what we term the Old Testament – the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. In the case of Revelation, we would rather speculate what we think the images and motifs mean, than learn the Old Testament to the point that we see its fabric embedded in what Jesus Christ gave John to write.

There is much to instruct us in both the words and deeds of the church – we can read her mistakes, we can see her faulty thinking, and we can also see her love for Jesus Christ and others. We can see her struggle to understand the Gospel and the teaching of the Apostles; we can see her struggle to live faithfully in the Word of God and our Lord Jesus. There are times she has been overcome by the world, and there are times she has overcome the world. Yes, she is not perfect as we see her, but she is still our mother. Yes, there are things she has done (things we have done) that should make us weep, and then there are things that should humble us in their beauty. It must elicit tears in heaven when the children of the church inflict pain on one another – we can learn from that, we can be warned by that, we can be reminded how deceitful our hearts are outside of Jesus Christ.

I have a photo album of my mother’s and in it are many photos from the late 19th century and the early 20th century – they are photos without names. All I can do is admire the images and wonder who they are, I cannot relate them to each other or to myself. Because she died suddenly when I was seventeen there are many questions I never asked her, many things I never did with her, such as reviewing this photo album. The condition in the church in North American is worse than that of my photo album and me – at least I have images to ponder whereas most of the church has no awareness of anything than transpired in the life of its “mother” prior to its own generation – and often not even that for we have become like the beasts of the field…always living in the moment. (We think living in the moment is commendable – strictly speaking it is a step downward for humanity).

An awareness of church history is important, for church history instructs us in both words and deeds and it informs our understanding of the Bible – yes, sometimes our forebears got it wrong, sometimes grossly wrong – and when they did we should not apologize with the excuse that they were “products of their time” – that is not a reason nor an excuse for the church of the living God – sin is sin, even if it is our mother we are talking about. We have a rich heritage that we know little or nothing of, a heritage that God has given us, and we can learn much from what our mother has bequeathed to us in her teaching – not the least of which is that we are not to live life in isolation and not to think about and understand the Scriptures in isolation – on earth our mother church may not be perfect, but she is still our mother. 

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Peace or Anger? (Letter to a Brother) Page 19

“When He broke the second seal, I heard the second living creature saying, ‘Come!’. And another, a red horse, went out; and to him who sat on it, it was granted to take peace from the earth, and that men would slay one another; and a great sword was given to him,” (Revelation 6:3-4).

As, at your request, I have pondered the juxtaposition of peace and anger, of peace and hatred, I have been struck more and more by the swelling and roaring waves of anger, anxiety, and hatred in our generation. It is as if the red horse of Revelation 6 is on a rampage – when peace is absent men turn on one another, and when men turn on one another peace is absent. We only kill with the sword when we have first killed with our hearts; our words follow our hearts, our actions follow our words. Eye and ears that drink violence sow seeds of violence in the soul that will bear the poisonous fruit of violence in words and deeds.

The peace that materialism offers, the peace that religion and “spirituality” offers, the peace that political and economic systems offer – is illusionary and never satisfies. Transitory peace entices us with unfilled promises that in turn beckon us farther into a labyrinth with the false hope that lasting peace and tranquility is just around the corner. Much of the professing church markets peace and self-fulfillment and self-esteem as an alternative to the world, as if the church were a competitor in a retail marketplace – this element of the church takes its cue from the world just as corporations do. There is lasting peace in none of the foregoing; frustrated peace leads to anger and anger thwarts peace.

I don’t think we see the danger of a continual diet of anger; I don’t think we see that it can warp the soul and destroy Christian witness. Followers of Jesus Christ cannot be angry day after day with impunity. There is an irony in Christians being preoccupied with teaching about the “Last Days”, speculating about what is next in world events, when (however you care to look at it) we live in a time when the red horse is rampaging through our generation, removing peace from the earth…and by the way…removing peace from our own lives, our family life, and from many gatherings of Christians. Many in the professing church are so angry about political, social, economic, and even moral issues that they have forgotten that we are to be peacemakers and ambassadors of reconciliation.

We are called, as much as possible, to be at peace with all men (Romans 12:18). Paul writes that the “…kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. For he who in this way serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then we pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another,” (Romans 14:17 – 19). The context of Romans 14 is the church; we must be a people of peace in our church community in order to radiate peace into the world – but too often our conversation when we gather is not one focused on peace and reconciling the world to God, but rather on agendas that have nothing to do with the kingdom of God. The red horse runs up and down and through the professing church and we don’t know it – we think anger and vitriol is normal. We are more focused on Washington, New York, and Hollywood than we are on the New Jerusalem – we can quote media commentators more easily and freely than the Scriptures.

We must beware the red horse. We must fear lest we invite the red horse into our souls, our families, our churches, our friendships. We must also be prepared to suffer, for I think that it is only through suffering that we can know peace – I will pick this up on the next post in this series.

  “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God.”

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Reflections on Bonhoeffer’s Life Together – 18

“Thus, in the spiritual community the Spirit rules; in the emotional community psychological techniques and methods. In the former, unsophisticated, nonpsychological, unmethodical, helping love is offered to one another; in the latter, psychological analysis and design.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), pages 14 - 15.

Continuing from the previous post…

What is “unsophisticated, nonpsychological, unmethodical, helping love”? I don’t know that I can answer this question from Bonhoeffer’s point-of-view, at least not at this juncture in Life Together. It may be that the answer will unfold as we continue to explore the book – certainly elements of it will become clearer. However, I will answer it as I see it contrasted with “psychological techniques and methods” both in Life together and in the contemporary Western church.

I’m going to call Bonhoeffer’s “unsophisticated, nonpsychological, unmethodical, helping love” – “simple love”. I’m using this term because I think simplicity is a characteristic of this love; it is uncomplicated, straightforward, sincere, without pretension, without guile, and without manipulation. It is also simply based on God’s Word.

In “simple love” Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the Word mediate and inform relationships. In the emotional community psychological dynamics foster manipulation (no matter the motives) because these dynamics are considered the framework of thinking, relationships, and organizational and community dynamics. In the emotional community not adhering to the latest psychological or sociological data and thinking is considered na├»ve and ignorant and the idea of “simply” relying on God’s Word, Christ, and the Holy Spirit is not thought practical.  In simple love God’s Word is thought sufficient for life together, in the emotional community there may be the idea that God’s Word in some form is necessary, but it is not sufficient – it must be augmented (at best) or made subject to (at worst) psychological and sociological thinking.

In simple love we believe and act on the promise that our souls are purified as we obey the truth and that this results in “sincere love of the brethren” (1 Peter 1:22). We believe that we have been born through the Word of God (1 Peter 1:23) and that this Word is the continuing source of our life in Christ (James 1:18, 21; Hebrews 4:12; 2 Timothy 3:14-17; Mark 4:1-20).

One way to determine whether we are living in an emotional community or a spiritual community of simple love is to observe where we go for answers – is it to the Word of God or is it to sociological and psychological thinking? Is it to the Word or is it to technique?

The emotional community primarily sees itself in psychological and sociological terms, the spiritual community sees itself as a community of citizens of heaven whose trajectory is to live with Jesus forever and ever, (Phil. 20 – 21). The spiritual community looks to Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the Word for guidance and identity; the emotional community looks to feelings, sociology, and psychology for identity, affirmation, and definition.

A measure of success in the emotional community is “how I feel, how we feel”. Feeling is critical for continued relationship. In the spiritual community we look to Christ and His Word and desire to be transformed into His image, knowing that embracing the suffering of the Cross is central to our lives.

In simple love we have simple freedom. In simple love we can simply look to God’s Word and in simply looking to God’s Word we have the simple freedom to speak it to one another without having to engage in sociological or psychological sophistication or manipulation. In simple love we do not require a methodical scheme in our relationships, we do not desire to devise complicated plans that cloak our direct thinking, our direct feelings, our direct desires – in other words, in simple love we can learn to be simply without guile as we trust our Lord Jesus and one another. In simple love Christ, His Word, and the Holy Spirit mediate our relationships in life together; in the emotional community psychological techniques, methods, and designs meditate relationships, teaching, preaching, and…alas…worship services.

Jesus prays, “Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth,” (John 17:18). Paul writes that Christ cleanses His church, His community, “by the washing of water with the word,” (Ephesians 5:16). Because the spiritual community is a supernatural community that exists within the person of the resurrected Jesus Christ, it worships God in spirit and in truth (John 4:23-24). The natural man rules in the emotional community, the Holy Spirit rules in the spiritual community of simple love. The spiritual community has its roots in the heavens in Christ, the emotional community is rooted in earth. The spiritual community can do nothing without Christ the True Vine (John 15); the emotional community can do all things through sociology and psychology. The spiritual community is willing to fail in the eyes of the world rather than take matters into its own hands outside the Vine; the emotional community insists on sociological and psychological and organizational success and employs technique and manipulation to achieve it. The spiritual community embraces the eternal certainty of the Cross in the midst of temporal uncertainty; the emotional community strives for temporal certainty regardless of its eternal result (see 1 Corinthians Chapter 3).

The spiritual community says, “Better to fail in the eyes of others than add anything to Jesus Christ.” The emotional community says, “We have the techniques and tools to achieve what we want, it would be irresponsible not to use them.”

We no longer believe that the Word of God is sufficient for our lives; is it any wonder we are in a state of perpetual seeking for answers and self-analysis? Is it any wonder that we are ever selling and buying new programs and techniques and market studies and outreach programs? Jesus and His Word no longer satisfy and we have so clothed and hidden the Gospel beneath layer upon layer of sociology and psychology and self-help (individual and collective) that the Bible is now a foreign language with foreign images and patterns to much of the professing church in the West. It is little wonder we have ceased in large measure to be salt and light to our generation. We taste the same as the world around us.

When John wrote his first letter (1 John in the New Testament), he wrote in a time of confused thinking and persecution – an emotional community was seeking to displace the spiritual community of the church of Jesus Christ. His first letter is the best succinct example of simple love that I can think of in the Bible. In simplicity is restoration.  

Monday, March 28, 2016

Reflections on Bonhoeffer’s Life Together – 17

“Thus, in the spiritual community the Spirit rules; in the emotional community psychological techniques and methods. In the former, unsophisticated, nonpsychological, unmethodical, helping love is offered to one another; in the latter, psychological analysis and design.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), pages 14 - 15.

While Bonhoeffer writes this in observing his own times, one wonders if he envisioned the progression that psychological technique would take in the professing church – to the point of overwhelming and subduing the Scriptures. Bonhoeffer’s observation regarding psychological techniques is more than a record of what he saw in his own generation (and leading up to it), it has a prophetic ring that reminds me of the warning by Francis Schaeffer that the danger the church must beware of at the close of the twentieth century is “personal peace and affluence”; in other words, “leave me alone in my bubble of personal peace and allow me to pursue my own personal good and I won’t bother the world with the Gospel”. Both Schaeffer and Bonhoeffer saw something that the church did not see, they saw something which we do not see.

Just as in the days of Jesus on earth the Word of God was made of no effect by religious tradition (Mark 7:9), so in our own time the Word of God is being made of no effect by psychological techniques and methods.  Just as the Word of God can be hedged in by tradition so that it loses its effect, it can also be hedged in by psychological analysis and design. In our own time, our first recourse is not to the Bible but to therapeutic technique and analysis – this is true in ministry to the congregation, and in ministry to families and individuals. Instead of asking how a situation is Biblically informed, instead of looking to the living Christ Jesus, instead of seeking to understand what obedience to Jesus is – our first recourse is to therapy – whether it is “over the counter” therapy through popular authors and thinking, or through paying experts to massage our souls.

The pastor, the preacher, the worship leader are expected to dispense “feel good” palliatives and if they will not do so then the professing Christian will go to a church or minster who will. It is more important for me to feel good than it is for me to encounter the Bible and the Cross and the living Christ of Revelation Chapter One. Worship services are often designed not to offer service and worship to God, but to promote feel-good experience. When a marriage is in trouble we don’t look to the Bible so that we can learn obedience to Jesus Christ, but to self-analysis, technique, and the massage of our souls. When we need the Cross to bring us to death so that we might be raised in newness of life; when we need to consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God; when we need to recognize that we are “crucified with Christ” (Gal. 2:20) – instead we embark on a quest of self-understanding designed to preserve much of what is the cause of our trouble – ourselves outside of Christ. We do not look to Christ as the reality of life and the reality of life together, but at psychology. Biblical self-understanding is an acknowledgment that outside of Christ there is nothing good in me and that I desperately need the Cross of Christ – God is not interested in preserving my life, He desires to bring me to death in Christ so that I might rise in newness of life in Him (Romans Chapters 5 – 8). We don’t need self-help, we need to allow God to put an end to the nonsense of ourselves outside of Christ and learn to find life solely in Him.

There is irony in Bonhoeffer’s emotional community. On one end of the emotional community are elements which we might term unscientific – those are the elements which gravitate toward the visceral and intuitively know how to arrange things in the community to achieve emotional results. On the other end is the scientific element, it exalts the soft sciences, such as sociology and psychology, above the Word and the Holy Spirit, to also achieve emotional-therapeutic results. On both ends of this spectrum the Biblical text is an adjunct, the Bible is to serve the emotional needs and goals of the community; the Bible is not to form the community or to mold preaching, teaching, or pastoral care. We may read a Biblical text on a Sunday morning, but then we quickly dispense with it and say what we really want to say.

We are suppressing the Scriptures on both sides of the emotional community, on the scientific and unscientific – whether in a sophisticated urban setting…or elsewhere. Bonhoeffer witnessed the former in the United States and in Europe – those were the circles he lived in; he may have also had the latter in mind too.

I’ll continue this in the next post…

Friday, March 25, 2016

Three Hours

“Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them…He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him,” (2 Corinthians 5:18ff).

The darkness that covers the land for three hours hides the eternal transaction between Father and Son; hides suffering and penalty that are incomprehensible to us; cloaks in utter darkness that which transpired to bring us into inexpressible light. Speculation on what Jesus experienced is futile; if anything should remind us that we are less than children, that we are hardly infants in understanding, these three hours and all that surround them are that reminder, that arrow into the heart of our pride and vanity. If there is anything that can utterly destroy our self-righteousness and religiosity it is the Lamb on the Cross.

“After this, Jesus, knowing that all things had already been accomplished, to fulfill the Scriptures, said, ‘I am thirsty’…He said, ‘It is finished!’ “, John 19:28ff. It is the height of folly and arrogance to think that we can add anything to that which Jesus Christ completed on the Cross. Our assurance and our hope is the conviction that we can add nothing, and that is a core element of the Gospel – we could do nothing so He did it all, and since He did it all we can do nothing. We pollute the Gospel and our own souls when we think we can do anything to enhance or supplement the sacrifice of the Lamb.

“He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us…” I have more hope of leaping into the mouth of a volcano and returning to tell about it unsinged than I do of penetrating the shroud draped over the land for three hours on Good Friday. Into the Holy of Holies Jesus goes as our sacrifice, bearing our sins, bearing our sin, bearing ourselves – and in that darkness He offers Himself and in offering Himself reconciliation is “finished”. The veil is rent from top to bottom and that barrier which once separated us from God is removed in Jesus Christ and we can now enter into that place where once we could not go – a place that was once hidden but is now made manifest for those who will follow the Lamb – for He leads those who look upon Him into that place into which He has already entered – entered and returned; entered as a sacrificial Lamb, returned as the Resurrection One.

The three hours of darkness are three hours in which we can do nothing; the mouth of mankind is shut – we are struck dumb. We cannot portray what occurred in a movie, in literature, in painting; we have no analogy to use, no simile to invoke, nothing with which to compare. It is beyond us and when we try to make it otherwise we affirm our infancy, if not our foolishness; but when we fall to the ground as mute we give testimony to the incomprehensible love and mercy and grace and justice and judgment of God – all of which surpasses our understanding and which dwarfs our comprehension in Jesus Christ on the Cross.

Jesus went where we cannot go in order to bring us into that place where He went. He went into the Holy of Holies as a slaughtered Lamb in the midst of darkness so what He might return and lead us back into the Holy of Holies as the resurrected Lamb in the radiance of light.

When our tongues are loosed before the Cross we can but say with Thomas, “My lord and my God.”

“Worthy are You to take the book and to break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men and women from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth,” (Revelation 5:9 – 10). 

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Pondering Proverbs- 4

“My son, hear the instruction of your father, and do not forsake the teaching of your mother; for they will be a graceful wreath on your head, and pendants about your neck,” Proverbs 1:8 – 9.

Many of the words of Proverbs are the words of a father to a son (2:1; 3:1; 4:1; 5:1) – the “voice” of the book is the voice of parental instruction from a father, sometimes from a mother (31:1). As we read and meditate devotionally on Proverbs can we “hear” the voice of our Father speaking to us as His sons and daughters? Even as the father of Proverbs speaks to his son, he speaks not only of his (the father’s) instruction, but also of the mother’s teaching – the voice is parental.

However, unlike what passes for parental voices in our culture, the parental voice of Proverbs is straightforward with both affirmation and warning – it is anything but indulgent; it cannot be indulgent because its goal is the welfare of children, and young men and women; its goal is a life lived in the shalom of God, the peace and wholeness of God – a life of wisdom and righteousness and equity. There are stark warnings in Proverbs and vivid portrayals of the outcome of disobedience and sin; there are also beautiful images of lives lived in righteousness.

While I realize that the mother of Proverbs 1:8 is a natural mother of a natural child, just as the father of Proverbs 1:8 is the natural father of a natural child, I like to think of the father as my heavenly Father and the mother as the Church of Jesus Christ (the people of God from Genesis to Revelation). Since I acknowledge that the original reference was to a natural father and mother I don’t think I’m doing violence to the text by transposing upward the original historical meaning. As Paul points out in Galatians 4:26, the Jerusalem above is the mother of those who live in Jesus.

In Proverbs we have what can (mostly) be read as a letter from a father to a son or daughter in which the father reminds the reader of the mother’s teaching and influence. Its thirty-one chapters naturally lend themselves to being read one chapter a day each month. I think reading one chapter a day can be fruitful in the context of reading and knowing the entire Bible, just as I think reading the Psalms every day can be an anchor in our communion with the Trinity. In Proverbs we can discern the voice of our Father giving us insight into the world in which live, its dangers and pitfalls, how to relate to others, how to think about life, how to communicate, how to make decisions, and how to build a life on the foundation of wisdom and the fear of the Lord. The more familiar we are with Proverbs the more we will see it as a tightly woven tapestry and the more naturally its words and images – for it is a book of images, rich in portraiture – will become a picture book in our hearts and minds.

In 1:5 we see that a wise man will “hear”; and verse 8 begins with “hear”. Proverbs invites us, and commands us, to “hear”. The Scriptures are ever commanding us to “hear” – from “Hear O Israel, Yahweh our God is one…” to “Let him who has an ear hear what the Spirit says…” Reading is of no profit unless we hear what we read, granted, there may be times we read simply to sow a seed, but if the seed sown is never watered with prayer and reflection so that it sprouts and grows and matures then our reading is of no avail. The Pharisees apparently read and read and read – but most of them did not “hear” – in fact they rejected and Word when He was living and speaking in their midst. The Pharisees killed the very Word they read – a not uncommon occurrence.

The Great Commandment begins with “Hear” (Shema) – but do we hear?

Are we listening as we read the Scriptures? We are all deaf without the enabling of the Holy Spirit, we cannot hear without Him. Isaiah writes, “The Lord Yahweh has given me the tongue of disciples, that I may know how to sustain the weary one with a word. He awakens me morning by morning, he awakens my ear to listen as a disciple. The Lord Yahweh has opened my ear; and I was not disobedient nor did I turn back,” (Isa. 50:4-5).

We live in an increasingly noisy world in which it is increasingly difficult to hear. By God’s grace we must tune our ears to hear the instruction of our Father and Lord Jesus, we must learn to cultivate a sensitivity to their voice, a voice that speaks through and in harmony with the written Word, a seamless harmony. This active listening not only hears what God says but it also responds in obedience to what God says – sometimes the response begins internally and is then manifested externally through action, somethings it begins in action and the heart follows, sometimes the inner and the outer move in beautiful synchronization. Who can know the intricacies of who we are? I think only God. To be sure hearing the Word commands a response from us, a decision, an action of the “will” enabled by the grace of God. This is too mysterious for me to comprehend – the interplay of grace and will – and will and grace…but I know that it is so…it cannot be otherwise for without God we can do nothing.

So we are called to “hear” and then called to “not forsake”. I will pick this back up in the next post in this series. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Peace or Anger? (Letter to a Brother) Page 17

“Scorners set a city aflame, but wise men turn away anger…A fool always loses his temper, but a wise man holds it back…Do you see a man who is hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him…An angry man stirs up strife, and a hot-tempered man abounds in transgression.” Proverbs 29: 8, 11, 20, 22.

A city, a people, an organization, can sow seeds of destruction internally as well as invite destruction from external sources. As I’ve pondered the first of the above proverbs, I’ve thought of both external and internal scenarios. In the ancient world a city that was consistently scornful of its neighbors might incur their animosity and wrath - resulting in the city’s destruction. It’s stupid to be scornful of the people around us, it’s arrogant, it’s prideful, and it promotes not peace (internally or externally) but chaos, anger, and eventual destruction. When we scorn others we scorn the image of God, no matter how fractured it may be; we scorn that image in others and we scorn that image in ourselves. When we scorn others we scorn God and when we scorn God we scorn others.

I like the directness of “A fool always loses his temper…” It is akin to a warning on a high voltage electrical wire, “If you touch this you will die.” We may focus on the word “always” and think it doesn’t apply to us, but we are better off not to do this lest we deceive ourselves – this deception can lead to us thinking that as long as we’re not “always” angry that we’re fine, and that deception will lead us to more and more anger – when we give ourselves permission to be fools we will become fools. When we give ourselves permission to sin “occasionally” we will sin more than “occasionally”. The word “fool” in the Bible, and in Proverbs especially, is a spiritual and moral class that is opposed to God – it is a class on a downward trajectory, a trajectory of death and darkness.

The warning of “There is more hope for a fool than for him” (a man hasty in his words) is stark. It is similar to the warning of Proverbs 26:12, “Do you see a man wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him.” It is bad to be a fool, it is worse to be a man wise in his own eyes and to be a man hasty in his words – there is more hope that a fool will change his ways than that a prideful person will become humble and that a man hasty in his words will become thoughtful and reflective. When we consider the characteristics of a fool (see Proverbs 26:3 – 12 to get the punch of 26:12) and how hopeless fools are, to say that a man who is hasty in his words or who is arrogant and prideful has less hope than a fool ought to sober us up when we consider our own pride, vanity, and propensity to be hasty in our words. It ought to frighten us.

This can be a hard lesson to learn in a society that talks more than it thinks and in which people shout to be heard. There are many words in our society but little content and most of the words have the lifespan of a mayfly – which means more words must be generated to hold our attention. Hasty words often lead to anger and frustration; when we’re talking we’re not listening; when we’re hasty in our words it makes it difficult for others to listen to us.

An angry person keeps the pot boiling, creating an atmosphere of strife and fear and anxiety, this person also abounds in and perpetuates transgression – sin. It isn’t just the anger itself that is sin, it is the effect of the anger on others, the violation of others, the harm inflicted on others. God’s desire for people is shalom; peace and wholeness in His image. Anger, in our context, is a destroyer of wholeness and peace, it is a disrupter of the shalom that God desires for individuals, families, and communities. We ought to fear being agents of destruction when God desires us to be agents of peace; we ought to fear our capacity for pride and anger and for producing hasty words.

We are called to be people who live in the wisdom and peace of God, and people who disseminate that peace and wisdom in a foolish and mad world. The world is mad and is getting madder…it is incumbent on us to learn the way of the peace of Jesus Christ.

“Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God.” 

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Reflections on Bonhoeffer’s Life Together – 16

“In the spiritual community the Word of God alone rules; in the emotional community the individual who is equipped with exceptional powers, experience, and magical, suggestive abilities rules along with the Word…In the one, all power, honor, and rule are surrendered to the Holy Spirit; in the other, power and personal spheres of influence are sought and cultivated.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 14.

If I were Bonhoeffer’s editor I’d suggest he strike the phrase “rules along with the Word” because either the Holy Spirit is ruling in Christ through the Word or He is not; and in the scenario which Bonhoeffer describes, one in which an individual(s) with exceptional powers is ruling, that person typically attempts to force the Word into a mold of his own image.

My sense is that the best we can hope for is an awareness of our propensity to gravitate toward the “emotional” leadership which Bonhoeffer describes above and to fear it – realizing that mutual submission to Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Word, and to each other is critical if we are to overcome the soul-driven/natural-driven desire for control. This desire for control is not limited to those who are the most visible, we all (I suppose) have it, and we can manifest it by identifying with those who are the most visible just as we can manifest it by insisting that we control spheres of our individual lives. The centurion of the Gospel recognized Jesus as a “man under authority” just as the centurion was a “man under authority” – this is why he knew that Jesus only needed to “say the word” and his servant would be healed – those “under authority” have true authority.

This is an “already not yet” proposition – Christ alone is Lord, that is the “already”; yet we are still learning how to submit to Him and to each other in Him, that is the “not yet”.

What would Bonhoeffer think were he to view the North American church today with its personality cults? (How sad that we have exported this toxin to other cultures). What would he think were he to read much of the “leadership” material produced by the professing church? We turn Christ’s words to Paul on their head, “My strength is made perfect in weakness…my grace is sufficient for you.” That is not the leadership we teach in the professing church, that is not the stuff of church growth, that is not media friendly.

Bonhoeffer’s “emotional community” feeds off our gravitational desires that exert a constant pull toward selfishness and away from the Cross of Christ and our shared life in the Christ of the Cross. Mutual submission to Christ and His Word, through the enabling of the Holy Spirit, create a corrective protection against succumbing to our natural desire to control others. It is easier to ignore Bonhoeffer’s warning about this propensity of the emotional community – otherwise we have to not only allow the Cross to work within us as individuals, we also must ask what this means in the life of congregations and denominations and movements…and in asking we must be prepared for answers that require radical change and submission to the Word of God.  

I cannot pretend to know why Bonhoeffer included this discussion of leadership and submission in Life Together, other than it is true. However, the historical context is one in which I can envision Bonhoeffer realizing that the emotional community cannot survive persecution because neither its leadership nor its thinking nor its soul is rooted in the Word of God, the Holy Spirit, and submission to Jesus Christ as Lord. The emotional community is, among other things, a community that lives life vicariously through its leaders – as go the leaders so go the communities. The communities do not have life or thinking or experience apart from its leaders – the communities are dependent on its leaders in distinction to being dependent on Christ and His Word and the Holy Spirit.

Wisdom in life together is knowing that most of us have the emotional propensity that Bonhoeffer describes and that we need each other desperately to ensure that life together is found in mutual submission to one another and in the submission of the church to Christ and His Word. Just as workers outside in excessive heat need to look out for one another for signs of heat stroke and dehydration, so in life together we have the privilege of helping one another overcome our selfishness and desire for control.

“…make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves…Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus…” (Philippians Chapter Two).

Monday, March 21, 2016

Reflections on Bonhoeffer’s Life Together – 15

Bonhoeffer defines “spiritual community” as that community which is created by the Holy Spirit and founded solely on Jesus Christ (page 13). He writes, “In this respect it differs absolutely from all other communities,” (page 13). Bonhoeffer defines an “emotional community” as that which comes from the “natural” man. He argues that the basis of spiritual reality is the “clear, manifest Word of God”; and that the basis of emotional reality are the “dark…desires of the human soul,” (Pages 13 – 14). He further argues, “The basis of spiritual community is truth; the basis of emotional community is desire,” (page 14). Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition).

Bonhoeffer’s discussion of the difference between spiritual community and emotional community requires reading and rereading and then more rereading. His examples of emotional community, which I will explore in future posts, provides insight into why he felt compelled to work through these distinctions. Yet, while his examples of the dangers of what he terms “emotional community” serve as sober warnings and correctives – and as you’ll see I agree with some of his pointed examples – I think that Biblically-based life together is more complex in its theology and its Biblically-based outworking than what we read in this particular section  of Life Together.

I want to hasten to observe that Bonhoeffer wrote Life Together in the midst of Hitler’s reign of terror; Bonhoeffer and fellow pastors and Christians were enduring persecution, never knowing what the next day or hour might bring. He didn’t have the leisure to attempt a well-rounded discussion of his subjects, he didn’t have the time to anticipate and answer questions that might arise in a reader’s mind – his goal, as I understand it, was to produce a core document to guide the church in its life together. Bonhoeffer was laying a foundation and providing a framework upon which and within which Christians could live as a worshipping, edifying, and witnessing community. In this respect the result is a book that should be read and discussed by Christians and which should be required reading in seminaries.

While the Bible distinguishes between the “natural” and the “spiritual” (1 Corinthians Chapter Two is a good example), this does not mean that the desires of the soul are always wrong, always aberrant, and certainly not always “dark”. While Bonhoeffer does not use the term “always” in the above quote, neither does he balance his statement about the soul when contrasting it with the Holy Spirit and this can lead to misunderstanding about the place of the soul in our relationship with God and with each other.

We are to love the Lord our God with all of our heart and all of our soul (Mark 12:30); as we live in obedience to God’s Word our souls are purified (1 Peter 1:22); and our sanctification encompasses the entire person – spirit, soul, and body (1 Thess. 5:23). The spiritual community founded in Christ and created by the Holy Spirit is a community of people in the Trinity, and these people have souls – the Biblical picture of redemption is one of the whole person – spirit, soul, and body.

 Bonhoeffer writes, ““The basis of spiritual community is truth; the basis of emotional community is desire.” While there is selfish desire, there is also desire born of hunger for the divine, there is the desire of coming home to God, the desire of finding that city whose builder and maker is God, the desire of discovering who we are and why we are here and where we should be going. Bonhoeffer will touch on this again in Life Together and I will question his view on this point. Desire can be truth, and truth can be desire – just ask anyone who has come to know Christ (such as C.S. Lewis) through what has been termed the “dialectic of desire” – more than one person has been surprised by joy.

I don’t know if Bonhoeffer is reacting against pietistic elements of the church or not, but I do know that intellectual “truth” without heart experience is a platonic relationship – we need a marriage of the heart and mind – Christ redeemed the whole person and we are to live as whole people. So I think we need to recognize that life together incudes desire formed by truth and truth informed by desire.

Bonhoeffer didn’t live long enough to expand on his thoughts or to answer our questions, and since he was a young man when he died he was a young man when he wrote – but he has given us a thought-provoking and challenging document in Life Together, a document which, whether we agree with everything in it or not, is worthy to be our companion.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Just a Person of His Times?

There is a debate about the name of a public school in the Richmond area; for decades its name has been that of a politician, a deceased government leader, who many say served the Commonwealth of Virginia for most of his life and deserves to have a school named after him. When others point out that he was a staunch segregationist and fought integration and equality the response often is, “He was just a man of his times, that’s the way people were back then.” Is the idea that a man or woman was reflecting the attitudes and thinking of her or his “times” justification for his or her attitudes, words, and actions – especially when it comes to honoring the memory of people and therefore holding that memory up as an example for present and future generations?

Regarding the above example, let me first point out, that the above individual may have been “serving” the white population of Virginia, but he was hardly serving the black citizens of our state. Furthermore, he would have better served the white population had he not been a man of his times and therefore had led the white population in moral and ethical change; and this leads me to the heart of the issue: people who are products of their times are not the people who should be honored, it is the people who transcend and overcome their times that should be honored.

Now to be sure there are some things in which being a product of one’s times is innocuous, others which are amusing, others which are wrong-headed but not moral or ethical; but there remain those which are matters of life and death, of good and evil, or of  morals and ethics; these latter are the things that matter. It doesn’t matter if someone believed there really was a bird called a Phoenix which rose from ashes, or that the sun revolved around the earth, or that swamp gases could make one crazy, or that travelling on a train at high speed would change your molecular structure. These are not first-tier questions, they are not life and death questions, they are not questions that affect the basic moral and ethical and spiritual structure of our lives. One can understandably be a person of “the times” in many things such as these without approaching issues that touch on the core of human life. (Think of how often dietary advice changes in our own “times” – smart people test the rats, then they ask us to behave like rats, then they test us, then they test the rats again, and then they ask to us change our behavior again based on what they just learned anew – it is a cycle that doesn’t end – we are all people of our “times” in many ways that don’t much matter).

Anyone can be a person of his “times” – but great men and women ought to be people above their “times” in the things that matter, and certainly segregation and equity and justice matter. If people of their “times” honored a man of his “times” using the standards of their “times” then we have an unexceptional honor given to someone by unexceptional people using an unexceptional standard. If our standards have changed today for the better, then we should ask how they changed and how we changed and what people were the catalysts for the change and honor them. This is not changing history or rewriting history, it is not about denying the past, it is, if anything, acknowledging the sins of our past, including the grievous sins of the leaders we chose to follow – their sins are our sins – perhaps that is why many of us are loath to question them, perhaps that is why we’d rather not consider renaming a school.

When we take this argument into the professing church we move from the civic to the eternal and in so doing have the argument that a person was a product of his “times” cut more deeply from beneath our feet – for the eternal by its nature is transcendent, the Biblical is not a prisoner of time and space and circumstance, it transcends all of these things for it spans the eternals. The earthly life of Jesus Christ is a recurring statement and example that life ought to transcend the things of earth and in doing so change the things of earth – change the hearts of men and women. Those who follow Jesus are called to be not people of their times, but people who change their times if possible, and if not possible people who live in opposition to their times.

When Christian leaders of the past have succumbed to fractured (and worse) moral and ethical thinking we ought to not explain it away by saying that they were people of their times – we ought to say that they sinned and fell short of the glory of God in those areas. When the professing church has failed to articulate righteousness and justice and failed to live in faithfulness to Jesus Christ and to its neighbors then we ought to acknowledge the truth of the matter and use not their “times” as our standard, but rather the Lord Jesus Christ and His Word.

When our own lives come to an end and we stand before our Lord Jesus and our brothers and sisters, will our lives be products of our “times” or will they be products of the transcendent Kingdom of God?

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Pondering Proverbs- 3

“The fear of Yahweh is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction,” Proverbs 1:7.

This is one of those Bible verses that we insist on dumbing down by explaining away. It can’t possibly really mean “fear”, we reason, because God would not want us to fear Him. By explaining away the fear of the LORD, we reject the beginning of knowledge. Paul, a man who knew and wrote of the love of God, also wrote, “Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men, but we are made manifest to God…” (2 Cor. 5:11). The same Paul also wrote, “For you have not received a spirit of bondage again to fear, but you have received the spirit of adoption whereby we cry, Abba Father!” (Rom. 8:15).

And so we fear but we don’t fear; we don’t fear but we fear.

When we view God as our Father in Jesus Christ we know that there is no fear in our relationship, we know that perfect love casts out all fear – this is the relationship of the Father and child, the relationship of our elder brother Jesus Christ to His brothers and sisters. When we view God as the Creator and Judge of the world, of the evil in the world, of the systems of this world that have set themselves against Him – then we ought to fear, then the world ought to fear – for there will be a judgment and those who stand before God outside of Jesus Christ will face an abyss which I shrink back from contemplating; it is outside the realm of my contemplation.

As Proverbs unfolds we see that it is teaching about life and death; life and death in this life and life and death in the next life. There are dead people walking the earth today, and there are people alive who are also walking the earth – but they are on two different paths, two different trajectories, guided by two different realms, living in two different fellowships. In this respect Proverbs echoes Psalms, and Proverbs Chapter One echoes Psalms One and Two. Psalm One speaks of the individual who lives in righteousness and the individual who lives in wickedness; Psalm Two speaks of the peoples and rulers of this age arraying themselves against God and His Messiah and of God’s response to their rebellion.

As we fear the LORD we realize the import of His instruction, the seriousness of His commandments, and the danger of flirting with sin and death. As we fear the LORD we fear being away from Him, we fear straying into the realm of darkness, we fear lest we should take the stairway that leads downward to Sheol to the chambers of death (Proverbs 7:27).

We do others a disservice when we attempt to ameliorate the word “fear” in Proverbs 1:7 – it is a word that we must each negotiate, a concept that we must work through in our relationship with God, an experience which must make an impression upon our souls. Yes, as daughters and sons of the living God we are to relish our intimacy with our kind and forgiving heavenly Father; we are to live in deep intimacy with Him and in Him; we are to know what it is to live without fear in Christ and to live in the freedom of the Holy Spirit in fellowship with the Trinity. But all the more reason to remember that just as our Father is holy so He has called us to be holy; He has called us to distinguish between the clean and unclean, between light and darkness. People who fear Him know that this is not a game – yes, He is indeed our Father in Jesus Christ…and yes…He is also the judge of the heavens and earth. The fear of Yahweh is the beginning of knowledge – only a fool would think otherwise. 

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Peace or Anger? (Letter to a Brother) Page 16

“Like a city that is broken into and without walls is a man who has no control over his spirit,” Proverbs 28.

In ancient times a city without walls was defenseless. An army wasn’t required to penetrate the city, a marauding band of brigands need simply ride down the streets. A city without walls was vulnerable to whomever happened to be passing by; there were no walls, no gates, no towers; and no guards or watchmen on the towers, gates, or walls. If what was happening outside the city without walls was good, then all was good. However, if what was happening outside this same city was bad, then the bad would soon be in the city. The city without walls was subject to the environment of what was happening outside the city – it had no walls to differentiate itself from its environment.

A man who has no control over his spirit, over his inner person, is defenseless against circumstances, defenseless against outside environments and attitudes. Such a person either reacts against what comes at him, or blends in with his environment – since his heart and mind have no control he cannot filter and process situations and emotional or intellectual environments – he can only react against the outside or conform to it.

People who have no control over their spirit tend to become angry; angry at their lack of self-control, angry at the intrusions of others, angry at conforming to emotional and intellectual environments with which they may not agree, angry at their lack of self-definition. This anger can be turned inward or outward – either way it is destructive, both to the person in question and to those around him or her.

Paul writes that a facet of the fruit of the Spirit is self-control (Galatians 5:23) and that one of the deeds of the flesh is “outbursts of anger” (Galatians 5:20). Peter writes that self-control is a quality that should be increasing in our lives so that we will not be “neither useless nor unfruitful in the true knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ,” (2 Peter 1:5 – 8).

A city with walls in ancient times was also a city with gates; and a city with gates had gatekeepers, guards who decided who could come in and who could go out. A faithless gatekeeper allowed anyone in, a faithless gatekeeper fell asleep on his watch; a faithful gatekeeper kept his eyes open and his mind awake, a faithful gatekeeper used discernment in deciding who could come into the city.

We are to guard our hearts and minds by discerning what is holy and pure and what is not; we are to recognize that not everything we think and feel ought to be allowed out of the gate of our lips for we still struggle with the toxicity of the fall. The Word of God can be a wall that protects us from the evil of the world that would crash our gates and destroy our walls and invade our lives in order to steal, to kill, and to destroy.

Self-control for the follower of Jesus Christ is surrender of the will to Jesus Christ; self-control is the surrender of self to Christ and His Cross. In this sense it is not so much self-control as it is submission of the self to Christ, and as we submit to Christ we find our refuge in Him, our shelter in Him, our peace in Him. Since no man or woman can be truly autonomous, our decision is whether we will submit to Jesus Christ or attempt to reign by ourselves in life; the latter ensures that we will become slaves of sin, of death, and of the devil. The latter ensures that we will be as a city without walls.

While in the ancient world cities had walls, in our world walls of distinction are discouraged and often attacked. Anything and everything goes in our society except the idea that on this side of the wall is right and on that side of the wall is wrong, on this side of the wall is light and on that side of the wall is darkness.

The New Jerusalem has a great and high wall (Rev. 21:12) and that which is evil and unclean cannot enter the city (21:27). This is the city to which we are called to live, a holy city. As living stones (Eph. 2:21; 1 Pt. 2:5) of this city we are to exhibit the characteristics of the city – the characteristics of holiness and righteousness and discernment. Rather than living in a world without walls in which all is chaos, we are to live as those who have the walls of discernment, sound judgment, mature thinking, wisdom, and understanding.

“Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God.” 

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Reflections on Bonhoeffer’s Life Together – 14

“Christian community is not an ideal we have to realize, but rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 13.

Here is Bonhoeffer’s recurring theme in Life Together: recognize the reality created by God and live grounded in that reality. Paul writes, “…we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal,” (2 Cor. 5:18). The writer of Hebrews tells us that, “…faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,” (Heb. 11:1). Our natural eyes will deceive us, but the eye of faith, through God’s Word, will ground us in a reality transcending time and space and present circumstances. Christian community, the church, is not an ideal we must attain, but a reality from which we are to live. When we enter the Sabbath of Jesus Christ, ceasing from our own works (Heb. 4:10), we learn to rest in the reality of Christ and His work, and in resting we trust Him for our sanctification and our community. We recognize and affirm what is, and in our affirmation we learn to abide in the Vine, and in abiding in the Vine we bear much fruit.

Bonhoeffer writes (page 13), “The more clearly we learn to recognize that the ground and strength and promise of all our community is in Jesus Christ alone, the more calmly we will learn to think about our community and pray and hope for it.”

It is difficult to think calmly when we think we must attain to a collective ideal – for we have to convince others that our ideal is the right ideal, the right vision, the necessary course of action. There isn’t much calmness in the professing church, for the professing church is addicted to action, to production, to making things happen, to numerical growth whether or not the lives represented by the numbers are disciples or not – whether they really know Jesus Christ or not. Those churches that don’t thrive on action will lose their people to those churches that offer something for everyone – for Jesus Christ is no longer enough.

Bonhoeffer writes that the ground of “all our community is Jesus Christ alone.”  We say it, we agree with it – but functionally that does not appear to be the case in much of the professing church. We insist that it be Jesus plus a political orientation; Jesus plus a national orientation; Jesus plus an extra-Biblical religious tradition; Jesus plus personal peace and affluence; Jesus plus an economic agenda; Jesus plus certain religious experiences. We have all things in Christ but that is not enough. Paul writes, “So then let no one boast in men. For all things belong to you…all things belong to you, and you belong to Christ; and Christ belongs to God,” (1 Cor. 3:21-23).

In the midst of nationalism, not just Nazism but plain nationalism, Bonhoeffer wanted his readers to know that Jesus Christ alone is the ground of reality for the Christian, and for Christian life together. We recognize “what is” and then we ask “what should this look like?” We discover what it should look like in the Scriptures and as we live life together in and through the Scriptures. In one sense the life together lives in us and through us, and as we allow the life together to live through us (which is Jesus Christ) then we learn what life together looks like. We experience Christ collectively as His body – we affirm who we are, and in affirming we rest in that reality – and can therefore think and hope and pray calmly – we can live in peace.

“Christian community is not an ideal we have to realize, but rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.” 

Monday, March 14, 2016

Reflections on Bonhoeffer’s Life Together – 13

“Like the Christian’s sanctification, Christian community is a gift of God to which we have no claim. Only God knows the real condition of either our community or our sanctification…the Christian community has not been given to us by God for us to be continually taking its temperature. The more thankfully we daily receive what is given to us, the more assuredly and consistently will community increase and grow from day to day as God pleases.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 13.

When Bonhoeffer writes, “…Christian community is a gift of God to which we have no claim,” my sense is that he means that we didn’t produce it and we can’t sustain it – thus our community in the body of Christ is like our individual sanctification – it is not of us, through us, or unto us – rather God is the author, the sustainer, and the perfecter. I am reminded of these words from a prayer, “Through grace let my will respond to thee, knowing that power to obey is not in me, but that thy free love alone enables me to serve thee.”

If I read Bonhoeffer correctly, he shares with C.S. Lewis the belief that Christians need to beware of self-analysis, of taking their vital signs, of being self-focused. Both of them had the same reason for their thinking; Lewis believed that no one could truly know himself or herself and that introspection was a voyage that would never end; Bonhoeffer wrote, “Only God knows the real condition of either our community or our sanctification.”

As is characteristic of Bonhoeffer, there is little simplistic about his thinking, and we’ll find later on in Life Together that he writes of confessing our sins to one another, corporate worship, and daily living in community – and when we writes of these things he gives form and definition to them; he writes of what they should look like and what they shouldn’t look like. As a good teacher, as a wise master builder (1 Corinthians 3:10), Bonhoeffer is laying a foundation to build upon, there must be a theological understanding of the essence and nature of our life together before there can be discussion of what life together looks like in daily life and of how we participate in life together.  If I am going to plant a tree and nurture the tree and feed the tree and prune the tree, if I am to be a wise arborist, I should know the nature of the tree I am planting – otherwise I will not know how to plant the tree, feed the tree, how to prune and what season in which to prune. People kill trees when they fail to plant, feed, and prune in harmony with their nature.

I contend that we, at least in the West, do not know the nature of the church of Jesus Christ. We are Galatians in practice, if not in theology. “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Galatians 3:3). We do not ask ourselves, “How does the nature of the church, the body of Christ, inform our congregational decisions?” If the body of Christ is bone of His bone and flesh of His flesh (Eph. 5), if we are eating His flesh and drinking His blood (John 6), if we are abiding in the Vine (John 15) and really can do nothing of ourselves – then the nature of the church is the nature of Christ and we must respond to and respect His nature and allow Him to guide our life together, including our “pragmatic” decisions.

Bonhoeffer writes Life Together in the midst of political, social, military, and spiritual chaos. My sense is that he writes in order to give professing Christians and pastors something they can build upon and which will withstand the intensity of the storm engulfing them. He sees things in the church that few others see; the propensity to compromise, the inevitable results of compromise, the danger of the church accommodating itself to the state, cheap grace, a failure to follow Jesus – and I sense that when he asks himself, “What can I give to young people in training for ministry, what I can give to those who are currently pastoring, and what can I give to Christians living in these times,” that his answer is Life Together.

“The more thankfully we daily receive what is given to us, the more assuredly and consistently will community increase and grow from day to day as God pleases.” Gratitude to God and thankfulness for one another in Christ promotes growth in community just as it promotes growth in friendship and in marriage. If we will give thanks for what we have, as opposed to complaining about what we don’t have, we will find our Lord Jesus multiplying loaves and fishes. As Bonhoeffer writes (page 13), “What may appear weak and insignificant to us may be great and glorious to God.” If we throw away the few loaves and fishes that we have we will have nothing to feed the multitude. If we insist on consuming the few loaves and fishes ourselves we will have nothing to feed others. If we hoard the loaves and fishes they will spoil. If we give back to God what God has already given to us then our kind and gracious heavenly Father and our Lord Jesus will once again confirm to us that their grace and provision are sufficient.

Unfortunately our pastors and churches are inundated with religious marketing ploys that insist that who they are is not enough and that what they are is not enough. Community is not enough. Witnessing to others of Christ is not enough. The Word and sacrament are not enough. Worship is not enough. The nature of the church is not enough. The Bible is not enough. Jesus Christ is not enough. We compare ourselves to corporations. We compare this church to that church. We compare the gifts of that pastor to this pastor. We take pride in ourselves rather than seeking the glory of Jesus. We have the world’s culture displacing the nature of Christ in His church – a culture of covetousness which is idolatry – a culture always crying, “More, more – what we have is not enough.”

“But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, so that, just as it is written, “Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord,” (1 Corinthians 1:30 – 31). 

Friday, March 11, 2016

The Lamb in Isaiah

“All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but Yahweh has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him,” Isaiah 53:6 (NASB).

“How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered! How blessed is the man to whom Yahweh does not impute iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit,” Psalm 32:1-2 (NASB)

“He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him,” 2 Corinthians 5:21 (NASB).

Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12 portrays the Servant of Yahweh “despised and forsaken of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and like one from whom men hide their face He was despised and we did not esteem Him (53:3). (Please read Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12, please read 2 Corinthians Chapter 5, and please read Psalm 32).

Living in the assurance that our sins are forgiven is inexpressible peace, and frankly the older I get the more precious Psalm 32 and passages like Romans 4:1 – 5: 11 are to me. I suppose I’m like a person who is cured from cancer going back to the physician to hear the words, “You are still clean, you are still cancer free.” One difference is that while the cancer survivor may not be able to trust his body to not produce future cancer cells, we can trust the forgiveness of God in Christ for eternity – God justifies us in Christ once and for all.

These passages become more precious to me not because I doubt the Gospel and therefore need greater assurance, but rather because the interplay of the Word of God and the Holy Spirit continue to penetrate my soul (Hebrews 4:12 in context) and reveal the depths of my sin. The Divine Sculptor chips away at all that is not the image of His Son (Romans 8:29 in context).

Yet, for me to be accepted Jesus had to be rejected. For me to be made righteous in Him, He had to become sin for me…for you…for us. Sin is hideous, it is vile, it is the toxin of all toxins, it is the toxin within which all toxins are found, from which all toxins flow. Sins flow from sin – and both must be dealt with if our union with God is to be restored – and thus we have forgiveness of sins in Jesus and we have our own death and resurrection in Jesus Christ, being made new men and women and children in Him. I learn to see myself in Christ as dead to sin but alive to God (Romans Chapter 6). Our sins are dealt with and we (the sinners) are dealt with – and we can say, “How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered!” We can also say, “If anyone is in Christ he is a new creation…” (2 Corinthians Chapter 5).

But to get from guilty to not guilty, and to be transformed from sinner to saint, we have Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12; we have the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. In Romans Chapter 5 Paul writes, “For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly…while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

Yet, we look on Jesus as one cursed by God; and even those of us who profess to know Him are often found with Peter saying by words and deeds, “I’m not with Him!” Little wonder the writer to the Hebrews counsels that we should go outside the camp bearing His reproach (Hebrews 13:13) reminding us, “For here we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city which is to come,” (Hebrews 13:14).

Have we lost sight of Isaiah 52 – 53? Living in the light of Isaiah 52 – 53 how can we not share Him with others? How can we not yearn for greater intimacy with Him? How can we not bow with thanksgiving at the miracle of forgiveness? How can we not live as those who no longer belong to themselves? (2 Corinthians 5:14 – 15; 1 Peter 1:17 – 25).

This is a good season to mediate on Isaiah 52 and 53; it is a good season to remind ourselves of just what it means when we say, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29; Revelation Chapter 5).