Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Presence/Future of the Kingdom and the Nature of the Church

The Presence of the Kingdom and the Nature of the Church

One of the joys of my life is the Junior and Senior High Bible Class at Somonauk Christian School. This semester I am teaching New Testament Survey and I cannot overestimate the benefit of broadly and systematically studying the New Testament. Also, the students are a gift from God because they help me feel the presence of Jesus and his kingdom as we submit to his authority through studying and learning and growing to follow him better.

I have been blessed with several “in-depth” studies of the book of Acts. This time around, however, something previously undetected caught my eye (with the help of N.T. Wright). Notice the way Luke frames his narrative of “all that Jesus began to do and teach.”

To these (the apostles) He also presented Himself alive after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God (Acts 1.5, NASB).

And he (the apostle Paul) stayed two full years in his own rented quarters and was welcoming all who came to him, preaching the kingdom of God and teaching concerning the Lord Jesus Christ with all openness unhindered (Acts 28.30-31, NASB).

With remarkable clarity Luke offers two “bookends” within which we should understand all that is found between. As Luke begins Acts (Vol. 2) (Luke 1.1-4; Acts 1.1), he wants the reader to understand that Acts is about Jesus and his kingdom. Within the span of the first eleven verses, he records that Jesus, over a period of forty days, appeared to his disciples and taught them concerning the kingdom. The questions the disciples asked Jesus regarded the kingdom. The promise Jesus offers the disciples pertains to the kingdom power they will receive through the Spirit to be Jesus’ witnesses to the remotest part of the earth. Jesus then ascends from earth into heaven to assume the King’s throne at the right hand of his Father. As both preachers and writers know, the introduction sets the stage for all that needs to be said, Luke clearly prepares us for the story he wants to tell – a story about what it looks like when “the kingdom of God comes to birth on earth.” So the kingdom of God is not another name for heaven – some place that is essentially far from us. Instead, the kingdom of God has come near; it has come upon us through the life and ministry and Jesus (Luke 11.20), a ministry that continues through the church because she has received the Spirit, the same kingdom power that enlivened Jesus. As we think about the kingdom, the words Jesus gave his disciples to pray are helpful in forming a definition. The kingdom is where the will of the King is gladly obeyed. This is why Jesus taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” So while I don’t believe we should equate the church and the kingdom, I do believe that within the church, God is demonstrating to the watching world what it looks like when the sovereign and saving rule of God is coming on earth as it is in heaven. Therefore, the church is pivotal within God’s kingdom story for the world.

First, while the church is not the kingdom, the church is evidence to the world that the kingdom is already present. This leads us to wander if we understand the church as having cosmic ramifications? Or is it simply some optional weekly event that may or may not improve our “spiritual lives?” Second, the church is God’s advance preview for the world of what life will be like on earth when God’s sovereign and saving rule comes in fullness. Thirdly, we must never forget Luke’s assertion that the church is the continuation of Jesus’ life and ministry. Notice again, the beginning of Acts. Luke describes his gospel as an orderly narrative of all that Jesus began to do and teach. The church, therefore, is the continuation of Jesus’ presence and ministry for the world. Finally, it seems to me (and others), that the story of Acts is Jesus’ “yes” to the apostles’ question, about restoring the kingdom to Israel. Through the gift of the Spirit, Jesus is restoring the kingdom to Israel, but in a way that Israel did not expect. Israel failed to hear from the prophets, that when Yahweh poured his Spirit afresh upon his people (i.e. restoring the Kingdom) nations would become one with God’s people (see Micah 4.1-2; Zech 2.10-11).  This seems to be the narrative Luke tells in Acts. Through the Spirit-inspired ministry of the apostles and the early church, the nations are coming to the light God shined over Israel (Isaiah 60.1-6). Additionally, Luke’s sporadic descriptions of the church describe for us how the early church manifested the presence of the kingdom and also embody from Jerusalem to Rome the nature of God’s sovereign and saving rule.  So it seems imperative for the church to understand itself as evidence of the kingdom’s presence and a foretaste of the kingdom’s future.

May each of us participate with devotion and transparency within our local congregations empowered by the King’s presence and his promise to come again.  

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Guarding Against Bibloatry

Why do you love the Bible? I will freely confess to loving Bibles, but that is not the same thing as loving the Bible. Fourteen Bibles are presently stationed to the left of my desk and I have a specific love for each of them. Whether it be, the language, the translation, the notes, even the special binding - each of these aspects are things I find attractive about Bibles. It needs to be the right size. It must remain appropriately open as I teach and preach from it. You see the reason I love "Bibles" is because a copy of the Scriptures is the tool of my trade, pastoral ministry. I carry a copy to the coffee shop, into the hospital room, through the hallways of the nursing home, and up to the teaching lectern and the pulpit. Furthermore the Bible a pastor carries says something significant about his ministry. What passages are underlined? How easily does it open? Are the gold edges sufficiently missing - betraying a minister who "loves the Word?" What translation does He prefer? I can imagine construction workers having conversations about which power tools they prefer. Are you a DEWALT or a PORTER CABLE man? Pastors discuss Bibles in the same way!

But I am praying to be a man who loves the Bible for the appropriate reason. Our love for the Bible should necessarily be linked to our love for the God of the Bible. We should love spending time in the Word because it is through the Word that we encounter the God to whom the Word testifies.

Listen to the words of the Psalmist.
Let my cry come before You, O LORD; give me understanding according to Your word. Let my supplication come before You; save me according to Your word (Psalm 119.169-70).
Notice that for the Psalmist, the word of God is that which guides his prayer life. The word is a means by which he encounters the God whose Spirit inspired the word. So the word cannot be loved for its own sake. It must be loved for God's sake. Otherwise we are guilty of what I like to call Biblioatry - a love for the Bible that can be disconnected from our love for God. An ancient practice that guards against Biblioatry is lectio divina, or sacred reading. As early as the Third Century, Christians practiced this discipline of praying the Scriptures. Because of a desire to purge my life of Biblioatry I am researching lectio divina. An introductory book on this ancient discipline is Conversing With God in Scripture by Stephen Binz. I have added a link below. As I read the book, I hope to share my thoughts on the blog. But more than that, I pray the book increases my love for the God who gave me the Bible. May each of us love the Bible because in it we encounter to God of the Bible whom we are growing to love. 
Conversing With God in Scripture 

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Jesus' Spiritual Barometer

During our Winter Sermon Series, Disciple, we are exploring Jesus' definition of what means to be a Christian. And according to Christ, a Christian is one who follows Jesus. Salvation is about transformation and Jesus' call to salvation is something like this: "Repent and believe in Me (Who I am and what I am doing) and be thereby graciously transformed through following me." Each week, then, we examine a word - a theme that Jesus said would characterize His followers. So we have been exploring topics like Repentance, Kingdom, Justice, etc. and what Jesus has to say about these ideas. This week our word is "Love." Jesus said, "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13.34-35, NASB). Jesus also upped the love ante when He said the whole OT hangs on the two commandments to love God and to love people (Matthew 22.34-40). So for Jesus, the defining quality for a disciple - that "thing" for which Christians should have a reputation is love. Furthermore, according to Jesus, spiritual formation is about being graciously transformed into a better lover of God and others.  Today I read this quote by John Ortberg in his book, The Life You've Always Wanted.
The true indicator of spiritual well-being is growth in the ability to love God and people. If we can do this without the practice of any particular spiritual disciplines, then we should by all means skip them … It is possible to spend every waking moment “practicing spiritual disciplines” but doing them in such a way as to make us less rather than more loving. In that case, of course, we would be better off if we did none at all. 
What are your thoughts?

The Jesus Way of Political Engagement

“If Jesus is not Lord of all He is not Lord at all.” The call to discipleship is the call to submit all arenas of one’s life to the Lordship of Jesus. Jesus not only embodies for the world the nature of God, He also reveals what should be normative for humanity. There is, therefore no question – no corner of living that should not be surrendered to what Jesus’ life demonstrated as God’s way of Wisdom within this unjust world. Consequently, we should always be asking, “What does the way of Jesus reveal about how I should live in this situation?”

In Matthew’s gospel we are blessed with a record of Jesus’ encounter with the world around Him and are reminded there is no sphere to which Jesus does not speak. The narrative I am considering can be found in Matthew 22.15-45 and can be divided into four segments.

The Empire: How Disciples Relate to Caesar (22.15-22)

Eternity: How Disciples Should Regard the Resurrection Life (22.23-33)

The Law: What Do the Scriptures Require of Disciples (22.34-40)

Christology: Disciples and the Lordship of Jesus (22.41-46)

I think one of the areas of life Jesus addresses, in which we often fail to appropriate His teaching, is the issue of how we engage civil and/or political authority. The attempted assassination of Arizona Congresswoman Gabriella GIffords, vividly reminds us of one wrong way to engage political authority. In fact, I think Jesus is pretty clear that followers of Jesus should never engage another with violence. Inappropriate ways of engaging civil authority can often be more subtle. A basic question each should ask is; “How does Jesus inform the way I engage the political system?” We must remember Jesus offers us authoritative teaching for the most basic issues. Does Jesus inform the way we talk about politics? Does Jesus inform the way you address those with whom you disagree politically? Furthermore, do you submit to the Lordship of Jesus as you talk about politicians whose policies you don’t support?

In Matthew 22.15-22 Jesus establishes for His followers a wisdom principle of respect and peaceful cooperation with political authority. As Jesus teaches, Matthew records the presence of the Herodians and the Pharisees, two powerful groups of people. The Herodians were friends of Rome and believed the purposes of God could be fulfilled through political power. The Pharisees, on the other hand, were anti-Rome and wanted the religious power of Israel to increase in such a way that Rome could be overthrown or at least weakened. Jesus accepts neither of these options as an appropriate way of being human in this unjust world. The way of Jesus is a bit more complex. Among his followers He endorses peaceful respect for government: Give back to Caesar those things that are Caesar’s. In other words, faithful followers of Jesus contribute to the good of society – they pay their taxes. The Pharisees, on the other hand, advocated a rebellion against Rome that included not paying taxes. So while Jesus advocated peaceful co-existence with government (something that did not sit well with the Pharisees), He also did not find any fans with the Herodians, by saying, “render to God those things that are God’s.” While Jesus is perfectly comfortable giving taxes to the government, He is certainly uncomfortable with rendering to the government only those things that should be rendered to God. It is no coincidence that immediately following this section of the narrative, Jesus concerns himself with loving God above all else (22.34-40) and His own unique lordship (22.41-46). I am amazed at the relevance of Jesus’ teaching for the thorny questions we face here in America? A good questions to consider is do we find ourselves tempted by the Herodian error – giving too much loyalty to political systems and theory, or the error of the Pharisees – not behaving with peaceful respect for the governement? From this narrative, a few application questions arise.

  1. When we engage the political scene do we do so with peace and respect for all human beings involved?

  1. Do we understand responsibilities like paying taxes as a means of following Jesus and contributing to the stability of society?

  1. Are we sufficiently guarded as we consider political “groups” who may desire from us an allegiance that should only be devoted to Jesus and His eternal Kingdom?

The Apostle Peter, who was ultimately crucified upside down by the Roman government, summarizes Jesus’ teaching with these words. “Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God. Honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the King” (1 Peter 2.16-17, NASB). May each of us submit to Jesus as Lord over all aspects of our lives, including political engagement.   

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Happy Meals, Haircuts, Tooth Removal and Abba's Heart

After a brief respite, I resumed my duties today as the only adult in our home that will pull teeth. This was a significant one too – Alle’s left front tooth! She turns seven on Monday, so this is a birthday weekend which means yesterday we took her and four of her friends to McDonald’s for Happy Meals, presents, and that ultimate challenge to every child’s immune system – A Few Rounds in the Playland!! This morning, Yulinda and Alle also took a trip to the Hair Salon and both returned looking more beautiful than ever!! We then realized the removal of the tooth that Alle had been wiggling with her tongue and thumb was long overdue. This meant she had fifteen minutes to find a way to get the tooth to its waiting-for-the-Tooth-fairy position before adult intervention was necessary. She tried and tried and tried, albeit unsuccessfully. I was then faced with the unlovely proposition of holding my precious Alle’s quivering face in my hands. Her face being cutely bordered with its freshly bobbed hair made this all the more difficult. Furthermore, Alle’s eyes make her a candidate for Southwest Airlines commercials. They are strikingly large and grayish green with lashes whose thickness make all the thin-lashed ladies guilty of breaking the Tenth Commandment. As I held her face in my hands, she cried, “I don’t want Daddy to pull it out. I don’t want him to pull it out.” At this moment I felt a small twinge of what it must be like for our heavenly Father, when He allows temporary pain into our lives, which while it hurts, ultimately results in our good and will lead to resurrection. As I worked to inflict as little pain as possible upon Alle and to keep all my fingers attached to my hand, I kept thinking, “Alle, if you only knew how good it will feel after this is all over.” I think, just maybe, something similar runs through the Mind of heaven as we suffer. I believe our grief grieves God. I don’t believe He whines to the Community of heaven about “those sad wimpy kids of his” as our prayers for relief reach His listening ears. Instead, Jesus embodies for us a for-us Abba who longs to put an end to the suffering of His children and who will one day “wipe every tear from our eyes.” 

So offer your prayers for relief to the Father of Jesus and just maybe you will sense his longing love say to you, “If you only how good it will feel after this is all over.”

May the hope of suffering’s end enable us to endure present suffering and to work to diminish the suffering of others.                

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Who will preach the Gospel to Glenn Beck?

There is no way around it. Today's post must concern the importance of justice. As a Western Christian with a Reformed background, the concept of justice calls to mind images of courtrooms with judges handing down sentences. This is one and only one element of the biblical theme of justice. This Hebrew concept of tzaddiq is described by Nicholas Wolterstorff as "rectifying justice." This justice concept involves meting out appropriate punishment to a wrongdoer and caring for the victims. An equally important element of biblical justice is represented by the word, mishpat. Wolterstorff describes this idea as "primary justice." This kind of justice is "behavior that, if it was prevalent in the world, would render rectifying justice unnecessary, because everyone would be living in right relationship to everyone else" (Timothy Keller, Generous Justice, 10-11).

Both of these themes are everywhere to be found in the Hebrew Scriptures. They are used to describe who God is and what He delights in (Deuteronomy 10.18-19; Psalm 33.5; Jeremiah 9.23-24). Tzaddiq and mishpat are also to be found in the man who can be described as faithful and righteous before Yahweh (Job 29.12-17; 31.13-28). Furthermore, Jesus himself rooted his mission from the Father in a text from Isaiah which promised good news for the poor, the prisoners, the blind and the oppressed (Luke 4.18-19). In this Lukan text we have clear indication from Jesus as to why the Father sent Him. The incarnation was motivated by the Father's concern for social justice.

This is why Timothy Keller says: "If I'm not generous with my money, I'm offending God, which means it's not an option and it is unjust by definition to not share with the poor. It's biblical that we owe the poor as much of our money as we can possibly give away."

So if you are a follower of Jesus and a believer in the Bible, the next time a preacher or a politician or a talk show host tries to discourage you away from addressing issues of social justice, go proclaim the gospel of Jesus to them.      

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

We never retire from the Kingdom.

Today I spent a strange amount of time thinking about widows. As I have been exploring Luke’s Gospel, specifically chapters 20 and 21, this biography of Jesus includes significant references to widows. For example:

While all the people were listening, Jesus said to his disciples, “Beware of the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely” (Luke 20.45-47, NIV)

And immediately following this prophetic oracle, this related narrative is included.

As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on” (Luke 21.1-4, NIV).

The chapter break in our translations is unfortunate because these two paragraphs are to be read in light of each other. The poor widow who is often appealed to as an example of how to give, is intended to be an example of one whose “house” had been devoured by the teachers of the law. These two texts are also to be read in light of the following prophecy of Jesus about the destruction of the Temple. More about that later.

But as I was studying these passages I received a phone call from one of our widows, Loretta. She was out delivering Meals on Wheels with another widow, Vera. As I concluded our conversation, I was overwhelmed with gratitude for the blessing that is mine to minister on behalf of a church like ours. We have been blessed with many ladies like Vera and Loretta, who in spite of the many difficulties they have had to endure; they haven’t ceased working for the cause of Jesus’ kingdom. May we rise up and call them blessed.   

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Who's afraid of Martin Luther King Jr.?

It’s the third Monday in January, so that means we are acknowledging the birthday of one public Christian for which we don’t feel the need to apologize. One of my “Significant Moments from the Day” was the realization that most of the Christians in my life, although they are thankful for holiday, don’t seem to celebrate or even acknowledge the day in any sort of public way. For example, of my 500 or so Facebook "friends," only three of them had any reference on their page to MLK. Now they probably do the same thing (nothing) on Columbus Day or President’s Day. But to me, this holiday should be different. The man was a devoted and public follower of Jesus. The man did an unimaginable amount of good toward equality in this country. These themes: justice, equality and peaceful resistance don’t seem to matter to many of the Christians in my life. But they mattered to Jesus (See his first pubic sermon in Luke 4). Why was this the first year our small Christian School chose to acknowledge the holiday? Why aren’t we more public in our acknowledgment of Martin Luther King Jr.? I’ve got some ideas. Anyone else?                    

Why blog?

Three different times I have committed to blogging, and three different times I was able to swing about six to eight entries, before the site resigned itself to virtual retirement. Then this past weekend Yulinda and I borrowed Julie and Julia from the Library and I was struck by how transformative the discipline of blogging was in Julie’s life. On a certain level the forced habit of sitting down every evening to write about her experience of cooking every recipe in Julia Child’s cookbook brought a measure of order to her previously chaotic life. Do you feel the need for order within the chaos of life these desperate days? I feel it. So I’m going to try it yet again. In order to develop a consistent discipline, most days I will simply record “Significant Moments from the Day” – items from the day that distinguished the day from others. Because much of my time is spent in the areas of Biblical and Theological studies, most of my writing will be in that small but significant corner of the cosmos. More than that, however, I hope this blogging experiment improves my skills as a writer and pushes me deeper into that discipline of critically evaluating each day in light of the call to follow Jesus.