Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Reflections on Bonhoeffer’s Life Together – 84

“Not only the will, but also the honor of the others is more important than my own…The desire for one’s own honor hinders faith. Those who seek their own honor are no longer seeking God and their neighbor.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 73.

In the above paragraph Bonhoeffer quotes John 5:44, “How can you believe when you accept glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the one who alone is God?”

Do I desire the recognition of my brother? Do I think of my own recognition by others or do I think of others recognizing my brother? Do I want others to acknowledge my brother or do I want them to acknowledge me? Do I want my brother to receive compliments or do I want to make sure people compliment me? Am I seeking glory for myself? Am I in a community which dispenses glory to its members as they conform to its standards or is my community focused on the glory of God and His approbation? Is the least person in my community the focus of affirmation and honor, or do we reserve honor and affirmation for those who are useful and smart and talented and who are producers?

Jesus rejected the honor and glory of man; He would have none of it when crowds wanted to make Him a king, a leader – when they wanted to place Him at the head of the class, the movement, the tide of popular emotion and enthusiasm and thinking. Yes, there was Palm Sunday with its “hosannas!” but that was an acknowledgement of the Messiah as God’s Anointed, not as man’s anointed. And just as Caiaphas prophesied about Christ but didn’t know what he was saying (John 11:45 – 52), the Palm Sunday crowds hardly knew what they were saying as they fulfilled ancient prophecy – otherwise they would not have shouted before the week was out, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!”

When I prefer the will of my brother above my own, the preferences of my brother above my own…do I desire honor for having done so? Do I seek recognition for being a servant? Do I seek glory for being “humble”?

This focus of Bonhoeffer’s can be a hard saying for those of us in the West; we are taught to be individualists, taught to succeed, taught to achieve; the expectation is that if we are successful that we will receive honor. The church often models this way of life in the way it dispenses “honor” to achievers and producers and the bright and the handsome and the beautiful. How can we believe if we accept the glory of man and do not seek the honor that comes only from God?

I confess that I have been shallow in John 5:44; this is something that I must ponder. I have a thirst for recognition; I want others to acknowledge me – I should be seeking the glory of God alone; I should be desiring that others see the glory of God alone; and for   myself? What else could there be than to simply hear, “Well done, you good and faithful servant”? That should be enough.

When Bonhoeffer says that seeking our own glory hinders faith, he knows what he is talking about. I have an idea that Bonhoeffer wrote what he had experienced, he could look in the mirror as he wrote, and because he looked in the mirror he wrote with credibility.

To experience life together is to be committed to honoring my brother and sister; it is also, I think, a covenantal commitment not to adopt the ways of this present age in the dispensing of glory and honor – God’s economy is not the world’s economy. God chooses the foolish, the weak, the broken – dispensing honor and glory and grace to those which the world passes by – confounding the wisdom of world, debilitating the strength of the world.

There are at least two great antidotes to the propensity to seek our own honor. Bonhoeffer introduces the first when he writes (page 73), “What does it matter if I suffer injustice? Would I not have deserved even more severe punishment from God if God had not treated me with mercy? Is not justice done to me a thousand times over even in injustice?” Bonhoeffer will expand on this in the following pages, but he introduces the thought in the context of honoring others to remind us that not only do we not deserve honor – but that instead of honor we deserve judgment, and yet in Christ we receive justice and mercy and grace – we are justified in Christ, not in ourselves – let us not forget where we have come from and who we are outside of Jesus Christ.

The second great antidote that I have found is corporate worship; whether it is in a home, a church building, a stadium, or in a park – whatever the setting, corporate worship frees me from the shackles of self-promotion and as I behold the glory of God I also behold the glory of my brethren and I find myself wanting the best for them, I find myself honoring them. When the Shekinah glory of God fills His Temple there is no room for anyone to receive glory but Him, as His glory envelops my brothers and sisters I cannot but desire great honor for each of them.

I have lived long enough to know that seeking honor for oneself is a dirty trick of the enemy; it is petty, it is stupid, it is insidious, and it will be destructive if allowed to fester and take root. But I do not want simply to not seek glory and honor for myself, I want to proactively desire honor for my brother.

Who is there that I should honor today?

Monday, March 20, 2017

Whose Pain?

So sad that in a season in which we should be focused on the suffering and pain of our Savior that we are focused on a therapeutic message about our own pain. Perhaps this could occur only in the West with our narcissistic view of life. While much of the world struggles for day-to-day survival, we have affluent time to focus on our feelings and to bow down at the altar of self-absorption. Rather than seeking to be conformed to the image of the Crucified Savior, we seek to feel better about ourselves.

One of the sad consequences of this is that it shrouds the Christ of the Cross and the true eternal redemption and healing that the Cross of Christ offers to those who will repent of their sins and way of life apart from God – and who, in repentance, will take up their cross and follow Jesus Christ. There is no closure with therapeutic Deism; only in Christ and His Cross is there closure and rebirth into the image of God.

While in no way minimizing the evil that is in this world, while in no way minimizing the hideous works of evil that touch affluent societies as well as those societies which struggle with daily survival – our suffering, no matter the unspeakable depths to which it may descend, pales alongside the suffering of Jesus Christ as He bore the sins of the world, as He bore the people of the world, as He died as the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world.

This is love, not that God gave us a treat of cotton candy so that we might feel better for a little while on this earth; but that God gave His only begotten Son to bear the sins of the world – He made Him who knew no sin to become sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Only one of us has lived the fullness of Isaiah 53; His name is Jesus Christ.

Whether taught in a magnificent cathedral, in a corner church, or in a shack, anything that bases our redemption on anyone other than the Biblical Christ of the Cross is not the Gospel – God’s justice, judgment, love, and mercy are all found in Jesus Christ on the Cross – and the pain and suffering that brought redemption to us, in and through Jesus Christ, is what we ought to be focused on during Lent. When we see that Jesus Christ is our merciful and faithful High Priest (Hebrews 4:14 – 16) we can in freedom and acceptance go to the “throne of grace” in our deepest need and deepest pain – for Jesus Christ has gone before us.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Reflections on Bonhoeffer’s Life Together – 83

“Because they can no longer consider themselves wise, Christians will also have a modest opinion of their own plans and intentions. They will know that it is good for their own will be to broken in their encounter with their neighbor. They will be ready to consider their neighbor’s will more important and urgent than their own. What does it matter if our own plans are thwarted? Is it not better to serve our neighbor than to get our own way?” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 73.

There would be far fewer church splits if we lived according to the above; far fewer broken relationships in the Kingdom of God. What is it that drives us to want our own way? Pride? Ego? Self-justification? If others will submit to my agenda then they are acknowledging me, they are affirming me, they are justifying my thoughts and words and actions. When others acquiesce to my desires the spotlight is on me and I receive validation and honor and glory. There are few arenas that can match the religious arena for the building up of ego and pride – perhaps the political and entertainment arenas are on the same level.

In the political arena we receive glory via votes. In the world of entertainment we receive glory through appearances, applause, and money. The business world and academia have their glories, as do sports, the arts, and virtually all other vocational pursuits. Whenever two or three are gathered there is the temptation to seek one’s own glory, there is the temptation for self-justification.

However, in no arena is the temptation to self-glory as strong or as dangerous as the ideological arena – in this arena the stakes are the highest for they involve the entire subjugation of others – not just the actions of others but the thoughts and beliefs of others. Religion is included in the ideological realm, and self-justification in religion can be found in small house churches to mega churches to traditional denominations, churches, and movements. Whenever two or three are gathered there is the temptation to justify ourselves.

Can the Eucharist be properly celebrated apart from the washing of feet? I don’t think so. I don’t mean that we need to physically wash one another’s feet as we gather around the Lord’s Table (though we ought to do so periodically), but I do mean that we cannot partake of the bread and wine without partaking of both our Lord Jesus Christ and of one another in Him; and to partake of one another means receiving one another – I cannot receive my brother and exalt myself above my brother at the same time – the two actions are antithetical.

Paul teaches us that we are to use our liberty to serve one another in love. Our freedom in Christ is an invitation to serve others – since we are free…how many ways can we find to serve others? How creative can we be in discovering new dimensions and avenues of service? Will we learn to surrender our desires for the benefit and building up of others?

John the Baptist spoke regarding Jesus, “He must increase but I must decrease.” Can we say this of our brothers and sisters?

I cannot count the times I should have preferred my brother above myself but insisted on my own way. I am not talking about matters of sound doctrine; I am speaking of ways of doing things, of preferences, of red sauce and white sauce. How many times have I confused matters of preference with matters of eternal consequence? How many times have I cloaked matters of preference in the guise of doctrine of eternal consequence in order to justify myself? This is why religion can be so dangerous, we can take the mundane and elevate it to the status of the dogmatic when it has no business being there; then we take the dogmatic and use it to justify ourselves.

Dogma is important; there is beauty in the dogma of the Gospel – doctrine matters for doctrine shapes the soul; it leads us to Christ and it then forms us in Christ. But my will should never be dogma, and my agenda should never be doctrine, and I should never clothe my desires with religious garb lest I confuse my will with our Father’s, and lest I forget that I am to be the servant of all and wash the feet of all.

We are safe when we know and confess that our justification is in Jesus Christ alone. Our souls are safe and can live in peace, and others around us are safe from us and with us. When we are justified in Christ alone we are free to be broken bread and poured out wine for others – we, the people of God, are called to be “the safest place on earth”.

If I meet someone today who is looking for a safe place, may I give them your name?

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Reflections on Bonhoeffer’s Life Together – 82

“The Christian community should not be governed by self-justification, which violates others, but by justification by grace, which serves others. Once individuals have experienced the mercy of God in their lives, from then on they want only to serve.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 72.

After writing the above, Bonhoeffer quotes Romans 12:16; 12:3; and 12:17. He also quotes Thomas a Kempis, “The highest and most useful lesson is to truly know yourself and to think humbly of yourself. Making nothing of yourself and always having a good opinion of others is great wisdom and perfection.”

Bonhoeffer (page 73) writes, “Only those who live by the forgiveness of their sin in Jesus Christ will think little of themselves in the right way. They will know that their own wisdom completely came to an end when Christ forgave them. They remember the cleverness of the first human beings, who wanted to know what is good and evil and died in this cleverness.”

I want to say at the outset that I don’t understand all that Bonhoeffer means when he talks of “self-justification.” I am currently reading Bethge’s biography of Bonhoeffer and in Bethge’s discussion of Bonhoeffer’s theological thinking in prison, during the last months of his life, the subject of self-justification comes up. Since Life Together was written in 1938, and Bonhoeffer was still reflecting on self-justification in 1944 – 45, this idea was no doubt in a state of development.

We can tell what Bonhoeffer saw as the antithesis of self-justification by the extended passage in Romans that he uses as well as from his quotation from Thomas a Kempis. I am reminded of Paul words to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 1:26 – 2:2) – Christ is everything, Christ crucified is central, and we are to glory in Christ alone. God brings to nothing the things that are.

Why is the New Testament replete with exhortations to consider others better than ourselves? It is the way of Christ, it is the way of the Cross. It is the way God, who took upon Himself the form of man, who became a partaker of flesh and blood (Hebrews Chapter Two), who humbled Himself even to the death of the Cross (Philippians Chapter Two).

Justification by grace not only frees us from seeking self-justification before God, it also frees us from justifying ourselves before others. The justification by grace that allows us to stand before God is the same justification that allows us to live in the midst of others. When we are justified by grace we no longer seek to prove ourselves by our own merit, our own works, our own intellect – our focus is removed from ourselves and is centered on Christ, and through Christ our focus is on loving and serving others.

If I am nothing then I have nothing to defend, nothing to point others to for which they ought to glorify me. If I am what I am by the grace of God in Christ, if Christ is my life, if He is the Author and Finisher of my faith – then I am freed from the gravity of self-justification.

If I am reading Bethge correctly, and I still have much to read, it seems as if Bonhoeffer thought that religion often leads to self-justification. There was certainly self-justification going on in Corinth, one group identified with this teacher and another group with that teacher – hence Paul’s emphasis on everything being in Christ and all glory being found in Christ. Our religious traditions and our doctrinal “distinctives” and our music and I suppose so many other things can lead us collectively and individually into self-justification. I imagine that we are even capable of allowing white sauce or red sauce to be the basis for self-justification.

What I mean is that we have a propensity to justify ourselves, individually and as groups of people – we are all too ready to take glory that only belongs to God, we are too ready to add to the Cross, we are too ready to make something or someone other than Christ and the Cross the basis for acceptance, fellowship, and glory.

Bonhoeffer writes (page 73), “The first person, however, who was born on this earth was Cain, the murderer of his brother. His crime is the fruit of humanity’s wisdom.” This is where the wisdom of man leads us – to murder. It might not be physical murder, but it can be the murder of relationships, the murder of service to others, the murder of unity in the Word and Spirit in Christ, and it can lead to the death of koinonia, of life together.

Self-justification is toxic and confines us to the prison of self; justification by grace in Jesus Christ is life-giving, perpetually renewing us into the image of God in Christ, and it releases us for lives of service to others. When we live in self-justification our joy is in ourselves; when we live in the justification of grace our joy is in others…and that is a joy that we can carry into eternity. 

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Hebrews Chapter Eleven: 11

“By faith even Sarah received ability to conceive, even beyond the proper time of life, since she considered Him faithful who had promised,” (Hebrews 11:11)

If we read Sarah’s reaction to God’s promise in Genesis Chapter 18 and stop there we only have part of the story and are left with an impression of not only her unbelief, but also of her denying her unbelief. However, when we come to Hebrews 11:11 we see that Sarah “by faith” conceived Isaac because she considered God faithful – Sarah had faith in a faithful God.

Too often Christians portray faith as something that occurs in the absence of doubt, unbelief, and struggle. There are those who insist that we must deny doubt and unbelief and go to any length not to acknowledge their presence. This thinking creates hypocrites, in that it teaches people to act in a way that denies who they really are (people in process), and it truncates spiritual formation in that it does not allow faith to develop a deep root system in the hearts and souls of men and women because such thinking is shallow and is only concerned with the visible and short-term, not the invisible and long-term.

We are not privy to the growth of Sarah’s faith. Certainly Sarah had been living a life of faith at the time God announced that she would bear a son – after all, she had spent a lifetime of marriage with Abraham, the father of faith. Yet, the outrageous promise of God that Sarah would conceive and have a child was outside of the realm of possibility for Sarah – just as perhaps the idea that Jesus would be crucified and rise from the dead was outside the realm of possibility for His disciples. No matter what our faith is today, there likely remains that which is outside the realm of what we think possible. It’s okay to acknowledge that – in fact, if we don’t acknowledge that it may be unlikely that we’ll grow in our trust in God for we may think we’ve come as far as possible in faith in God.

Sarah’s laugh, I think, was the laugh of incredulity – “how could this possibly be?” Perhaps she had yearned for a child for so long that she just couldn’t believe it, especially since she was then far beyond her child-bearing years. Her reaction to God, her denial that she laughed…perhaps it was the denial of embarrassment, perhaps it was denial that she lacked faith…we are all capable of reacting when “caught in the moment”, when we are knocked off our equilibrium. When these things happen the quicker we look to God for our recovery the better off we are – our Father can return life and faith to its proper balance and place.

Sarah’s growth in faith teaches us that when the object of our faith is God and His Word that we can trust God to work with us through the processes of life to fulfill His will in our lives. Too often the object of our faith is our own faith – we get caught up in measuring our faith and we think that having faith in our faith is the determining factor in life. Better to have faith in God the size of a mustard seed than faith in our faith the size of a mountain.

Paul wrote that God counted him faithful, putting him into the ministry of the Word. God must have also counted Abraham and Sarah faithful to give them such an outrageous promise. Sarah’s reaction was understandable…if we will be honest about it, if we will acknowledge our own struggles, our own unbelief, our own need for the grace and mercy and patience of God as we grow in Him. Having faith and trust that we can acknowledge our doubt may be just as vital as having sure and certain faith in the promises of God – it may even free us to have sure and certain faith in Him…because we don’t have to pretend to be something we are not. We don’t need plastic Christians, we don’t need Christians who are formulaic to the point of denying flesh and blood struggles and who distain those who admit wrestling with unbelief.

If God has made outrageous promises to you, trust Him to bring you to them and through them – trust Him to fulfill them in you and through you. You may be past the season of natural life and ability, you may think time has passed you by, you may have despaired of ever seeing your hopes and dreams fulfilled…but perhaps that’s just the place you need to be to see God work.

Let us “consider Him faithful”.