Christ, the Church, and the Powers

As the time of Jesus’ state execution approached, he was engaged by agents of the scribes and chief priests. They asked him “Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” (Luke 20:22). Their question was intended to force Jesus to draw a hard line of separation between the Jews and the Roman state, a choice with both legal and popularity ramifications. Asking them for a coin and then to identify Caesar’s image on it, Jesus replied “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Luke 20:25). The answer Jesus gives makes no attempt to either completely isolate the entities from one another or to completely align their agendas.

Rather than drawing a solid line of separation between God’s people and the Roman state, he carefully crafts something of a dotted line between God and the powers that be, framing their relationship as one both taut with tension and set for the sifting of “the things that are Caesar’s” and “the things that are God’s”.

As seen in Jesus’ response, he had no intention to further elaborate here on the relationship between God and the powers. Nevertheless, the framework his words establish here raises questions: What is the precise nature of God’s relationship with the world powers? What is the church’s role within this relationship? Thankfully, the later writings of Jesus’ followers help many of these issues. This is the subject to be addressed here.

Before examining how the church should associate with the powers, however, we must first study who the powers are and what is their duty.  Then we will turn to what Christ did to the powers and how the church must live in light of his actions.

IDENTIFYING THE POWERS

Normally when referring to the various powers, Paul discusses what Jesus has done or will do with the powers and how the church is supposed to live in light of his actions, but what did Paul specifically mean by the powers?

In Ephesians 2:1-2, Paul writes to the church about how they used to follow the “ruler of the power of the air”, an evil spirit that works in those who are disobedient.  In the following chapter he writes about how, through the church, the wisdom of God is being revealed to the “rulers [arkae] and authorities [exousia] in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 3:10).  Here Paul mentions heavenly powers such as angels and demons—beings with which people of his culture were familiar.  In fact, his was a culture that was highly interested in the supernatural as evident in Jewish apocalyptic literature.

The Pharisees, a group to which he formerly belonged, was a mainline Jewish sect that embraced a hierarchy of angels and demons.  In Matthew 12:22-24 when Jesus drove demons out of a man, the Pharisees blasphemed the Spirit by asserting that it was by demons he performed the miracle.  A belief in angels and demons would be necessary for this assertion.  In chapter 10 of Daniel a conversation occurs between Daniel and an angel who was only able to reach him because Michael, the Prince of Israel, assisted him.  The author of Jude also refers to Michael when he argued with the devil over the body of Moses.  The Book of Revelation is filled with additional examples.  So it is clear supernatural and apocalyptic terms and themes were not new to Paul’s readers.

His “powers” language, however, is not limited only to supernatural or heavenly forces.  Paul uses the same terminology elsewhere to describe earthly powers that exercise authority on earth.  In Romans 13:1-4, when he urges those in Rome to be subject to their authorities [exousia], it is the same words used to describe both earthly and heavenly rulers [arkae] and authorities [exousia].  This shows that to some degree, depending on the contexts, Paul defines the words inclusively by the same meaning.  In 1 Corinthians 2:8, he writes, “None of the rulers of this age understood this [God’s wisdom]; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory”.  Obviously the rulers of this age are meant to be understood as the members of the Sanhedrin and the Romans who were involved in plotting and carrying out the death of Jesus.  When Paul refers to earthly powers, he is speaking about various parties with authority.

Lest we deduce these powers of heaven and earth belong to their own sphere and are unrelated to one another, there are verses in which Paul links the two.  In Ephesians 6:12, Paul specifies that our struggle is against the rulers and authorities and against the cosmic powers and spiritual forces of evil.  Our struggle is with the powers of both heaven and earth.

Paul also writes in Colossians 1:16, “For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him”.  Here we see that Christ has created all things, specifically the heavenly and earthly powers, for himself.  Having looked at just a few verses that deal with each category into which Paul seems to have classified the powers, we see a certain kind of commonality among both sets.  As different as they are, something unifies them.  The powers, whoever they are, were established by Christ for Christ.  So though they be of different matter, realm, or use, their shared origin is God.

THE NEED FOR THE POWERS

The necessity of the powers’ existence, therefore, is rooted in God’s purposes for them.  Those purposes are, in a word, good.  This is demonstrated in God’s appointing of Adam as caretaker of the garden, conveying upon him an authority that was originally good and served purposes that were entirely good.  The fall, however, thrust everything that is and will be into curse and chaos.  The accounts of Cain, Lamech, and others in Genesis 6, demonstrate that chaos in very grim terms.  Therefore God established kings, tribal leaders, and others as authorities on earth, using them to curb the chaos that has infiltrated His once good creation.  Paul clarifies this in Romans 13:1-4:

Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities.  For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.  Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.  For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil.  Do you want to have no fear of authority?  Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good.  But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.

From out of his sovereign authority, God has established and appointed contextually relevant authorities, delegating to them the temporary responsibility to govern, legislate, protect, and discipline in accordance with God’s sovereign will for history and civilization.  They are, in a sense, subconscious stewards, or unwitting workers of God’s sovereign will, appointed to regulate the fallen chaos that continues around us.

We still see these authorities demonstrating this regulation on a daily basis.  Leaders propose and pass laws and policies to govern their nations, national militaries stand ready to enforce those policies and protect their nations, law enforcement still police their local communities, school districts are frequently determined to provide safe education for students, employers normally do want a positive working environment for employees, and parents really do want what’s best for their children.  From the international to the local setting, God’s good will is being carried out by the established system of powers.

THE FALLEN POWERS

Despite being a system set up by God, however, it is also fallen.  And as a fallen system, it is likely, at some point, to begin working for its own interests rather than God’s.  Even though it still unsuspectingly works for God’s will, it also serves its own.

Adam and Eve’s authority over the garden came with the condition that they not eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  When Eve took of its fruit, however, she took assuming equality with God was something to be grasped.  This self-sovereignty not only comes to define the sinner, but the attitude of the powers as well when they secede from God’s lordship.  They take the authority God has commissioned to them and they go places with it God never sanctioned, making themselves gods (Gal 4:8).  For example, when northern Israel had continuously rebelled against the LORD, he sent Assyria against them to punish them.  Assyria, however, went too far, inciting God to speak in Isaiah 10:5-7: “Woe to Assyria, the rod of My anger and the staff in whose hands is My indignation, I send it against a godless nation and commission it against the people of My fury to capture booty and to seize plunder, and to trample them down like mud in the streets.  Yet it does not so intend, nor does it plan so in its heart, but rather it is its purpose to destroy and to cut off many nations.”

Having usurped God’s authority for their own, the powers lose no time in turning God’s appointed structure into their own system with themselves as the head of state.  They also waste no time in enslaving others to their system, demanding their loyalty and allegiance.

We see throughout history how our daily lives have been dictated to us by paradigms, standards, customs, laws, and practices which stem from the system.  Every couple of years, the paradigms and standards change, coaching us on how to comply this year, like some perpetual Big Brother.  The powers also teach their subjects to reject those who reject the system they have set up.  Anyone who does not adhere to their system of rules or thought must be written off as some fanatic or revolutionary who wishes to tear apart the system of which many subjects have grown fond.

In The Politics of Jesus, the author writes “These powers have rebelled and are fallen.  They did not accept the modesty that would have permitted them to remain conformed to the creative purpose, but rather they claimed for themselves an absolute value.  They thereby enslaved man and his history.  Man is bound to them; “slavery” is in fact one of the fundamental terms used in the New Testament to describe the lost condition of man outside of Christ.  To what is man subject?  Precisely to those values and structures which are necessary to life and society, but which have claimed the status of idols and have succeeded in making men serve them as if they were of absolute value.”

We see now the good for which the powers were intended is limited by their own fallen nature and resulting actions, and are, therefore, insufficient for restoring us to the good for which God has destined us.

Is it possible to escape the system to which we have been enslaved?  Who will set us free from this systematic yoke?  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

CHRIST’S TRIUMPH

Jesus’ crucifixion did exactly this, “having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. When He had disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through Him” (Col 2:14-15).

Christ’s death upon the cross deals not only with humanity’s slavery to the powers, but with the powers’ presumed sovereignty as well.  Throughout the ordeal of Jesus’ arrest, trial, the behind-the-scenes politics, and his crucifixion, the powers believed they were besting and silencing this rabbi, showing him up to be the revolutionary they took him for.  What they failed to see was throughout this process, Jesus was unmasking them.

Hendrick Berkhof writes “The scribes, representatives of the Jewish law, far from receiving gratefully Him who came in the name of the God of the law, crucified Him in the name of the law.  The priests, servants of His temple, crucified Him in the name of the temple.  The Pharisees, personifying piety, crucified Him in the name of piety.  Pilate, representing Roman justice and law, shows what these are worth when called upon to do justice to the Truth Himself.”

The public display Jesus made of them is seen clearly in the irony of his body hanging on the cross beneath a sign reading “THE KING OF THE JEWS”, a scene of which a representative of the Roman powers eventually commented “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39).  Self-proclaimed gods on the ground beholding God on the cross.  The paradoxical picture pulls back the curtain and reveals the great powers of the world to be but fallen humans in need of the same salvation they profess to offer through their illusion of sovereign control.

The cross is not the only display Christ makes in deposing the powers.  His triumph over the powers continues in his subsequent resurrection from the dead.  His rising is the consolidation of his authority, distinguishing him as king, “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come” (Eph 1:21).

In the turning of these spiritual and physical events, we are reminded of Jesus’ central message of the Kingdom of Heaven, and we begin to wonderfully realize his message was not metaphorical, but actual.  As his God-incarnate person, power, and proclamations set the blessed realities of heaven into the realms of earth, the means through which humanity and all reality would be restored to perfect goodness were being gradually established.  As Jesus’ ministry incrementally demonstrated how “the kingdom of heaven is at hand”, it also grows clearer that the Kingdom of Heaven is not merely an eschatological reality, but a very current one as well.  Though Christ’s kingship has already begun to subject and sum up all things in heaven and earth unto himself (Eph 1:10), the subjugation is not yet complete.

The current chaos rippling through the world is indicative of this.  The chaos and fragmentation will indeed end upon King Jesus’ return and the consolidation of his reign.  Until then, however, the world powers are authorized to maintain a semblance of order.  Though Christ has made a public display of the powers, as to their fallenness and limitations, he does not do away with them because a world that is not submissive to God must still be governed; but not without a concurrent witness to God’s ever-expanding redemptive lordship, of which Paul comments “And He put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (Eph 1:22-23).

The Church is the most visible representation of God’s Kingdom on earth.  As the community of the King, the Church embodies Jesus’ righteousness and mission.  Until Jesus’ return, however, that mission must be lived concurrently alongside the powers.

THE CHURCH AND THE POWERS

In an attempt to clarify for the Church her role within this tense, nuanced relationship with the powers, the apostle Peter wrote to the Christian communities scattered throughout the Roman world.  Addressing them as aliens and strangers, he writes “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right.  For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men.  Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God” (1 Peter 2:13-16).

The Roman world did not really know what to make of the early church.  Their core message of the Kingdom of Heaven likely set them up to be summarily viewed and eventually treated like trouble-making anarchists.  Peter’s statement here is meant to nurture the Kingdom community whose witness counters that perception; that by submitting to the powers, the Church demonstrates it is not her intention to overthrow or pattern them after her standards.  In doing so, she might ease and earn the ears of the world so the good news her actions proclaim might be better understood.  This submission is done primarily by adhering to the laws put in place to prevent evil and promote the common good.  When the government sets a speed limit, it proclaims the Gospel when the police do not have to pull Christians over.  When the boss acts like a jerk at work and yet we do as he or she says without making their job more miserable or bashing him or her behind their back, that preaches.  When a Christian wife honors, loves, and prays for her unbelieving husband, it testifies to him of her devotion to the Lord.  When the powers observe we are submissive to them as God called us to be, God is glorified.

Having said this, however, our submissiveness to the powers is not granted as an attempt to preserve their established system, but is more akin to tolerance for God’s temporary stewards.  Peter continues “Honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king” (1Peter 2:17).

Observe the distinctions Peter makes in the verbs he assigns to the nouns.  Honor is what we give to people in general, for everyone deserves a starting minimum of respect.  A sacrificial life of love, however, is reserved for Christian brethren.  Fear of the LORD, that sacred awe and devotion, belongs to God alone.  And honor is also given to the powers.  This is perhaps best illustrated in Jesus’ interaction with the scribes and chief priests in Luke 20:19-25 where he muses that while the powers obsess over their pocket change worth of respect, God is taking ownership of everything else, including our lives.  Since the powers, in their role and to the best of their ability, can only limit the world’s chaos, the justice, security, and freedom they believe they provide is always limited.  A limited goodness is not a complete goodness.  For all their pomp, campaign promises, policies, and propaganda, the powers can only ever offer a minimal good.  As a people called to give witness to the God who is complete goodness, the Church’s obligations must be prioritized and directed towards that which will allow goodness to be completely realized—the reality of Christ’s redemptive Kingdom.  Therefore, the Church is to give the powers genuine respect and submissiveness, but not our allegiance.

As this tension continues to define the Church’s relationship with the powers, at least two questions can be asked; firstly, what if the powers we submit to grow hostile?  Peter may have anticipated this concern, for he continues to write “Servants, be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are unreasonable.  For this finds favor, if for the sake of conscience toward God a person bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly.  For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience?  But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God” (1 Peter 2:18-20).

Regarding submissiveness, Peter doesn’t discriminate between good or bad powers, because our submissiveness is not governed by circumstances but by the command.  Whether “good and gentle”, or “unreasonable” or “harshly treated”, the circumstances are simply the conditions in which submissiveness is learned, practiced, and demonstrated, for it is in this we reveal God’s holy worth to the people and powers.  Not just submitting to the good, then resisting the evil, but submitting to both so both may witness God’s redemptive work.  Submitting to both despite the circumstances emphasizes the Church’s identity and mission revolves around the rule of King Jesus rather than whatever the circumstances might be or bring.  Should the circumstances prove hostile, they are an opportunity to please God by persevering in submission, patiently enduring the conditions in order to give witness to what is right within those conditions.  This, however, raises a subsequent question: is there ever a moment where the Church must stop submitting?

History and hypotheticals offer responses of every kind.  Peter, however, continues to fix his focus on Christ.  He continues “For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in his mouth; and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously; and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed (1 Peter 2:11-24).”

Living Christianly will always mean actively engaging circumstances that are challenging, and sometimes hostile.  Such circumstances will rarely offer clear wisdom for easy navigation.  Peter’s words, therefore, position Christ, his character, teachings, and example as what needs to be the sum of our efforts.  With Christ as our focal point, his singular pursuit of Kingdom reality becomes ours, regardless of the circumstances and the challenges they may present.  Just as hostile circumstances are a reflection of the curse and chaos that pervades our world, should the Church choose to cease submission and respond to the hostility in kind, for all the good we presume it could do, it would also reinforce the curse and chaos our witness is called to counter.  By choosing to imitate Christ in our endurance, however, not reviling in return or uttering threats, we give clarity into the one who heals humanity and is making all things new.

The uniqueness of the Church is rooted in the uniqueness of God.  God’s holiness calls the Church to live out this uniqueness amidst the world and her powers all the while set apart from them, even as they try to redefine us in their image.  The Church cannot fulfill God’s purpose for her by aligning herself with those who would usurp God’s authority for their own agenda.  The life of the Church must always be characterized by the life and example of her King, even when that example is shaped like a cross.  In the constant following of Jesus the Church continues to ever bear witness to redemption’s completed day when “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, [wherein] he will reign forever and ever (Rev11:15).”

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A post-election concern for the Church’s witness

As we come down to the end of what has been a very divisive election season, my concerns are focused primarily on the witness we as the Church are impressing upon the country and world around us.

As the field of candidates has gradually narrowed over the past year, many Christian believers have come to a “rock and a hard place” where it is supposed that desperate times call for desperate measures.  These desperate measures usually amount to what is resignedly referred to as “opting for the lesser of two evils”.

I understand the impulse within the rationale: “Do what you have to do”. “The ends will justify the means”. “It’s all for the greater good”.  Yet, after the impulse has passed, it still remains that we have aligned ourselves with a way that is contrary to the nature of the one to which we’ve been called.  The utilizing of this “lesser evil” logic makes little sense for a God-people who have been called to “be holy in all your behavior; because it is written ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy” (1Pt1:15-16).

I understand that, in the minds of those who use such rationale, the assumed short-term consequences of the “lesser evil” pale in comparison to the assumed long term consequences of electing one who might be considered the “greater evil”.  Be that as it may, the logic seems quite comparable to that of the historical apostasy rationale to “convert now, repent later”.  The logic may seem practical, but it’s just not Christian.

My concern here is the long term impact of the corporate Church willfully falling short of God’s glory.  When that willful shortcoming is committed corporately on a national scale, that impact will be significant.

How so?

One period many Christians frequently forecast is the end times.  It’s an unavoidable, futuristic period during which, among other events, great persecution will break out against the Church.  It will be a time when the gospel is no longer tolerated and those who proclaim it will be met with retribution in the form of societal marginalization, imprisonments, and executions.  Most of the time these forecasts conclude with a rallying cry for Christians to not compromise the faith.

The problem is that choosing the lesser of two evils is just such a compromise.  Granted, it may seem a fairly small compromise; but isn’t that the nature of the “slippery slope” we have historically been so wary to avoid?  The great momentous compromise never just occurs; it is gradually predetermined by the compromising choices we make on the way to that moment.

It inevitably raises the question: Amidst these politically turbulent times, precisely what are we the Church pursuing?  Is it the holiness to which we are called to live out in witness to God’s Kingdom?  Or is it simply the favorable conditions that allow us to go on living comfortably while tending to our religious practices?

My concern is that if in order to retain such comfortable conditions we must compromise our holy character, even in the privacy of the voting booth, what exactly is so special about what we Christians proclaim in our witness?  How can we be seen as anything more than just another people-group with compromised morals?  How can the world hear the good news if we might have had a hand in creating evil news?  Why should they?

This is not a demand or insistence that Christians should not vote or be concerned with elections or civics, but a reminder that as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession” (1Pt2:9), our devotion to Christ is not dictated by what the system and culture shaping elections and civics is demanding.  We need to be asking ourselves what the sum of our choices are saying about what it is and who it is we the Church are pursuing.  If the answer is anything or anyone that doesn’t look like Christ, we have positioned ourselves on that long slippery slope.

It’s a complex conundrum.  I do not expect or require that Christians can extricate themselves from this quandary cleanly.  I do, however, believe that choosing to “seek first the kingdom of heaven” in how we make our choices is a step in the direction that allows what is unique about Jesus and his Kingdom to marvelously emerge from among the mayhem.

The Eucharist’s witness to a fragmented world

The latest in a long series of violent incidents transpiring between African American individuals and police officers recently occurred in my home state of Wisconsin.  In the wake of these incidents, many details and factors are always repeatedly asserted and discussed.  While I believe discussion is always helpful, discussion must not come at the expense of resolution.  One question I’ve started asking more and more often as these incidents occur, and when other situations of human discord emerge, is “How might the Church’s mission to bear witness to Christ’s kingdom reality be carried out in such hostile or disunified settings?”

The answers will obviously vary, but I recently read a story whose themes echoed a mode of witness the modern Church has ceremoniously kept amongst themselves; a practice that, if extended beyond the meeting walls, could expand a reconciliatory spaciousness within the communities made minor through marginalization.

A few weeks ago in Wichita, Kansas, a group of the “Black Lives Matter” movement was planning on conducting a protest.  While meeting beforehand with the police department to establish an organized and peaceful march, an alternative was reached: instead of a peaceful march, the activists and local police officers decided to do a barbeque together.  They all came together to cook, hang out, eat some food, and to sit and discuss.  By the end of the day, many of them commented that their time together had allowed them to reach a deeper level of awareness and understanding.

The world possesses a diversity of races, classes, ages, and skillsets.  We have CEOs and maintenance staff, professors and students, bosses and employees, citizens and authorities, leaders and followers, friends and enemies.  But one commonality we all share is our need to eat.  No matter what one’s job or role is, at some point, everyone stops to eat food.  In this diverse world, our shared need to eat makes us equal.  Food brings us eye to eye.  In this equalizing sense, food has power.

Food has the power to slow the day down and facilitate calm.  Food pauses the pressure, invites us to relax, and look around the table.  The smells and flavors move our minds from an agenda to an aroma of brotherhood.  The shared stories of how Mom made it best unites our narratives.  Chewing forces us to listen and learn the value and beauty of the other.  Like a beverage washing it all down, the palate of our understanding is freshly cleansed.  As empty plates form contented smiles, a meal’s end greets a new beginning.  Food has the power to nurture reconciliation.

I don’t believe this is by chance.

Holy Scripture relates two significant moments that ripple through the timeline of world history with God’s salvation.  Those two moments are God’s deliverance of the children of Israel from Egyptian slavery, and Jesus’ death on the cross for the sins of the world.  Both of these moments are memorialized with food.  We know them as the Passover Feast and the Lord’s Supper.  With the latter a fulfilling enrichment of the former, these meals are joint revelations of the goodness God is pouring into the world.  In fact, the apostle Paul referred to these celebrations, which the early church celebrated as Christ-centered “love feasts”, as moments of both remembrance and proclamation.  In other words, the Lord’s Supper activity is done both as an act of worship and witness to the redemptive work God is doing.

How does this relate to the hostilities being encountered within our communities?

If the Lord’s Supper is an activity of worship and witness, Christians might start considering all of their meals to be an extension of the Lord’s Supper, where God’s love and goodness can be carried over into all our dining.  If God’s salvation has been commemorated with food, than food in general contains within itself a specific sense of God’s saving goodness.  God’s choice to convey awareness of his salvation through something as universal as food demonstrates his desire to make salvation universally accessible.  That isn’t to say that salvation is universally experienced, but that food is, and where food is served, so is an opportunity to sample his salvation.  And one of the most distinctive flavors of this salvation is reconciliation.

The New Testament Scriptures already provide fluent examples of this.  When Jesus publicly told Zaccheus “today I must stay at your house”, later when Zaccheus’ repented, he was able to declare “Today salvation has come to this house.”

When the early church distributed food to Greek Jews overlooked in the community, they appointed wise and godly men full of the Spirit to serve it so the good news would season the food that would refresh the marginalized.

The above Wichita story is a modern example of what this could look like.  No doubt a Christian community that is willing to “seek the peace of the city” could provide many more reconciliatory examples.

This isn’t to say it’s the Church’s responsibility to fix the world but that congregations who embody Eucharistic living may find themselves demonstrating good news in a Christ-centered way that results in relieving some of the pressures that might otherwise explode into local hostilities.  Eucharistic living helps show that coming together, preparing food together, dining together, cleaning up together, being together, and growing together is not a mundane activity, but a majestic reflection of how God’s salvation is shaping humanity into family.

The Lord’s Supper is a ritual exercise, but one whose spiritual and physical properties have the power to shake the foundations of division and discord plaguing this world and reconcile us again to God and each other in harmony and holiness.

Elections and keeping calm at the crossroads of history

My Dad and I were discussing the election the other day; I commented how elections always seem to generally bring out the scariest version of people.  Among the constant sense of upheaval and uncertainty, deep-seeded fears and ferocities seem to gradually emerge with every counted vote.  Even Christians may sometimes feel their support of a particular candidate somehow trumps the cultivation of Christ-centered fruitfulness.

Since America’s election process is spread out over so long a period, there’s no shortage of time and opportunity for candidates to outdo one another on positions and personality in clashes that are only matched, if not surpassed, by the ire of their supporters.  I understand the democratic process must do its thing; where I feel strained is the intense sense of finality often placed on elections.  As far back as I can remember and have read, every single election was supposed to have determined the fate of the world.  I’ve heard plenty of similar sentiments in these recent weeks.  I get it; regardless of how desires and support manifests, deep down people want hope and assurance that everything will be okay.  Regarding that, I’d like to share something that helps me remember hope and foster trust amidst all the drum beating.

Most of us remember the prophet Daniel from Sunday School as the guy amongst the lions.  His story is much broader than that.

Daniel was a man who had a front row seat to many of history’s crossroads.  He was born and raised in Judah, but when King Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem, Daniel witnessed his own city and cultural narrative come to a tragic chapter many assumed was the end as he and his countrymen were exiled to the land of Babylon.  An intelligent young man, however, endowed with wisdom and discernment, Daniel appeared an ideal candidate to serve in the king’s court.  His commitment to Jewish dietary and ethical standards helped set him apart from his peers, distinguishing his abilities as a counselor, and enabled him to thrive despite his strange situation.  In this he learned the possible end of his culture did not necessitate the end of his character and convictions.  As a counselor to Nebuchadnezzar, he would demonstrate what people of faith can be when they are in situations they would rather not be.

As if the traumatic upheaval and transition to a whole new land and culture was not enough, Daniel would eventually witness another of history’s most critical crossroads.  After Nebuchadnezzar’s death, Babylon soon fell to the invading Persian Empire.  Still recognized as a worthy counselor, Daniel once again found himself at the service of a conquering king.  His faithfulness would soon be intensely challenged by royal advisors whose conspiring would put Daniel into the lions’ den.  His reemergence the following day, however, would affirm to the Persian king the validity of Daniel’s God, again demonstrating how a person of faith can play a redeeming role within a hostile culture.

The greatest crossroad of history Daniel would witness, however, would be seen from afar.  During both the rule of Babylon and Persia, Daniel was given a glimpse to the future of not only his own people, but of all the world; of a time during which “the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which will never be destroyed”, and a Son of Man, approaching the throne of God, will be “given dominion, glory, and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations and men of every language might serve Him.”

These visions that illuminated Daniel were the very words declared by Jesus centuries later during the peak of the ironclad Roman Empire; into that tense, politically charged atmosphere Jesus proclaimed the good news that Kingdom of Heaven was at hand.  As Christians, we look to Jesus’ death on the cross as that cumulative moment that consolidated his authority to enact this kingdom reality amongst the nations, to unite them in service to God and each other.  This is what we as Christians are to always bear witness to as we live at the crossroads of history and the future.

Since, as Paul wrote, “there is no authority except from God”, the nations—be they Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome, or America—each rule in their time.  Since “rulers are servants of God”, whether Nebuchadnezzar, Darius, Alexander, Caesar, or our next president, each take their turn governing their generation.  But regardless of kings and countries, it is the rule of Christ and its redemptive reality that God-in-the-Church is sowing, cultivating, and growing within our cultural and international soils, whose foliage was beautiful and its fruit abundant, and in it was food for all. The beasts of the field found shade under it, and the birds of the sky dwelt in its branches, and all living creatures fed themselves from it.”

Daniel’s life and character show us how to behave when everything else seems to be or is crumbling.  His consistency of holy character during inconsistent times was rooted in the knowledge that, as Eugene Peterson writes, “more important than the people of this place or the conditions of this place is the God of this place.”

Daniel shows people of faith that difficult seasons do not excuse us from embodying holy character.  Difficult seasons can actually serve to legitimize that character.  Daniel experienced the loss of countrymen and his homeland, exile to a strange land and culture, pressure to compromise his convictions, the overthrow of his captors by new ones, conspiracies on his life, the burden of his people’s questionable future.  He endured this all without surrendering to cynicism, anxiety, malice, fear mongering, or the worship of powerful figures.

I do not know what this season will give shape to, but like Daniel amongst the Babylonians and Persians, I believe history is influenced by everyday people whose faith moves them to live redemptively amongst their neighbors and enemies while cultivating a fruitfulness that conveys the hope of Christ.  May the most important results throughout this election season be the fruit of God’s Spirit yielding in you the person of Christ Jesus.

‘White as Snow’ December: A Purification Challenge

A snowfall can afford us a most serene opportunity. We bundle up, step outside, and quietly stand still; we breathe in the cold air, our lungs and minds expanded by its brisk freshness. It’s incredible how loud the silence is in the falling of each frozen flake. Much like a dead man’s float in a pool, let yourself be subjugated to the gentle descent of its lightening burden. If we stand out there long enough, mesmerized by winter’s majesty, we eventually become part of it.

As we and the world around turn white, the hustle and bustle of the everyday tussle is hushed for a season of cleansing. These weeks of winter press pause on creation, as if placing it in the freezer to preserve nutrients to live and give another day. As participants in this seasonal process, we, too, are compelled to cease striving, be still, and be rejuvenated.

In Isaiah’s grand message regarding the sinfulness of God’s people, their impending judgment, and God’s eventual salvation, he incorporates this snowy imagery, writing “Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from My sight. Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, reprove the ruthless, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. Come now, and let us reason together,” says the Lord, “though your sins are as scarlet, they will be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they will be like wool.”

It’s interesting the author likens sins to the color of blood, that substance which preserves life, as if to infer the abundant splattered presence of sin is the dowsing of life. But like a fresh fallen blanket of unspoiled snow, God’s salvation covers the scarlet splatter, depicting us as a picture of purity. Or if snow seems too cold an image, Isaiah also names wool, that earthy material mothers and grandmas use to knit sweaters to warm their darling young ones. Purity covers and cleanses, wraps and warms.

Isaiah doesn’t just say “Cease to do evil”; he follows it with “learn to do good”. Purification is not simply the avoiding of the sinful; it is the pursuit of the sacred. Too often we define purity by what we avoid; purity is also cultivated by devotion to habits of holiness.

Over the past month, a friend of mine has kept to a challenge he has called “No Porn November”, posting little thoughts daily as a reminder to remain porn-free. It has compelled me to take on a similar challenge, which I’m calling “White as Snow December”; it’s simply a concerted effort to cultivate purity in all my ways, attitudes, thoughts, habits, relationships, intentions. Everything in our lives—the way we think, treat others, carry ourselves, habitualize—can be corrupted with cynicism, stained with self-centeredness, fouled with frustration, wrecked by the relativism of righteousness.

All of life and personhood requires occasional cleansing. The anticipatory season of Advent is the perfect time for purification as we “make ready the way of the LORD”. I’m curious to see what could happen through this month of December if my many ways could be flushed and fashioned in the torrents of God’s grace and truth; I invite you to the challenge as well.

Purification is neither hurried, nor delayed. Living in ways that are sacred and pure is not done with hustle and bustle. It is cultivated in gentle steps, as if gradually moving into the rhythms of God’s grace. The poet Wendell Berry is succinct:

Suppose we did our work

like the snow, quietly, quietly,

leaving nothing out.

 

A helper word for following Jesus

In the past few months, I have been reading and writing through the Book of Matthew.  With each text, I find myself pondering how I and we can actually embody and live these passages out in our daily lives.  It has been an interesting and challenging process, gradually forcing me to internalize the reality Christ is presenting and, I hope, form the character of Christ in me.

But not until just recently did I discover this discipline has a name: orthopraxyOrthopraxy is the discipline of actively obeying the Scriptures we are actually reading.

In congregational contexts, we talk a lot about obedience, but much of the time I sense we’re doing so with an abstract vagueness.  Many generalized calls for obedience aren’t always clear about what we should be specifically obeying.  Orthopraxy pulls us into specifics.  No longer are we generally reading our daily Bible plan; we’re assimilating Christ’s character.  The preacher is no longer just delivering a message; the text is becoming our task.  Spiritual thoughts are now not just for pondering, but personifying.  Orthopraxy holds up Scripture as life that must be lived.

For example, if you were specifically reading through Matthew 5:21-26, the discipline of orthopraxy might challenge you to actually take time to sort through and address anger issues you might have in general or towards specific people or situations.  The process could be an opportunity to filter all those emotions, issues, past memories, and “if I could have my way” fantasies through the holy character of Christ, prayerfully conforming to a patient peacefulness rooted in him.  This process could also be an opportunity to reconcile  wounded relationships and experience the healing of God’s holiness, or attempt to create Christ-glorifying peace between conflicting parties.  Ultimately the discipline of orthopraxy turns passages into projects and patterns for living in order that we may cultivate and give witness to the character of Christ in us.

The addition of this new word to my vocabulary has become to me something of a hiking pole, giving me balance or leverage to help lift my frame into the path where God’s righteous character is lived out.  I hope this word might serve like your own walking stick as we believers strive daily to keep in step with Jesus upon the way of his Word.

Why the Kingdom concept is important

In recent months I have been reading and writing through the Book of Matthew and am about to begin Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount”.  At this point I think it would be important to review the concept and language central not only to this sermon, but to the entire reality Jesus was establishing on Earth, that of the Kingdom of Heaven.

I recall one Sunday after Bible study, a member asked, “Why is it so important that we talk about this kingdom stuff? Shouldn’t we just be talking about walking with God, having a personal relationship with Jesus, and loving others?”

Since the concern is absolutely valid, I will here try to explain why what was central to Jesus need be central to us.  Please click on the links for Scripture references.

Why is the concept and language of the Kingdom of Heaven so important?

To begin with, the Kingdom of Heaven is the story arc of the Bible; it is the framework or structure within which God operates in relation to our world. In His first step towards redemption, LORD promised Abram that all the families of the Earth would be blessed through him and his descendants, the people of Israel; though he never saw it himself, Abram lived as one looking for a “heavenly country”. Generations later, after leading the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, LORD declared that, as His chosen people, they were to be a “kingdom of priests”. Israel later adopted an earthly kingdom model, rejecting LORD as their king. LORD later promises King David, as a commitment to Israel and a foreshadowing of Jesus, that one from his tribe would always sit on the throne. As Israel continues its journey away from LORD, the prophet Isaiah spoke of a servant who would uphold a future government from God. In later Israelite history, the prophet Daniel had a vision of future world powers that would rise, but be followed by a kingdom that would have no end, an idea reiterated when Mary miraculously conceives the child, Jesus. Thus far, God’s kingdom comprises the dots through which the line of history runs.

This brings us to the second reason why the kingdom concept is important: the Kingdom of Heaven was the message Jesus and his apostles proclaimed. While our churches usually define the “good news” as Jesus, Jesus defined the “good news”, or gospel, as the Kingdom of Heaven. He preached and demonstrated its reality through teachings and miracles, illustrated it with parables, citing the importance of its exclusive mysteries. He declared that the message of the Kingdom must be proclaimed throughout the entire world before the end. He spoke of it with Rome’s chief representative prior to his crucifixion and the concept was even in the mind of a criminal who died next to him. With His authority and power consolidated through his resurrection, he authorized his disciples to make disciples, those who would seek first the kingdom by making much of its king. As a prologue to the Book of Acts, Luke’s history of the formation and spread of the Kingdom community, Jesus continues preaching its good news until He ascends to the Father. Peter speaks of Jesus’ reign in his first Spirit-filled sermon. The apostle Paul spoke and wrote about it consistently; it’s actually the final image in the Book of Acts, leaving the reader to wonder where we go from there. Finally, in John’s revelation of the end of time, the theme returns to the calling of God’s people to be a kingdom of priests; the Book of Revelation concludes with all other kingdoms fading into darkness while the Kingdom of God arrives with salvation, power, authority, and eternal dominion.

It’s a very reasonable thought: if this is the language the Bible repeatedly uses, by all of its prophets, priests, poets, apostles, and King Jesus Himself, the responsible practice of Christians and ministers should be to incorporate this Kingdom-language into our everyday vocabulary as the expression of our Kingdom-reality.

What is the risk of not incorporating such language? We risk using phrases and concepts that, though interesting and perhaps possess elements of the truth, have the potential to not only inaccurately or incomprehensively describe the reality God has already established for us in His Word, but can also likely create a reality built on interpretations that best fit how we prefer to live. We risk twisting the kingdom-culture of Christ into a “Christian” culture of our own convenience.

In a world of religious pluralism where truth is being viewed as relative and we grow increasingly humanistic, the concept and language of God’s Kingdom is able to rescue and restore us to a reality established in the throne room where Christ reigns as King. Every biblical figure graced with a vision of God stood in awe of His majesty; if majestic supremacy is God’s constant reality, we must live according to that reality, rejoicing in our King, gladly submissive to His rule and decrees, and faithfully waiting as all of life is being brought into subjection to him.

May His Kingdom come, in our thinking, our actions, and our words.