Veritas et Equitas

A while back I preached a sermon from the first half of Matthew 21, a section that contains the account of the cleansing of the temple. Matthew does not give many details, but simply relays a concise account of the events. It is a very interesting story and can be considered from several perspectives.

From the standpoint of biblical theology, we are led to think of the return of YHWH to the temple, and to Zion, and the attending notions of the defeat of Israel’s enemies (usually the Babylonians) and her freedom. Of course, if we take this line of interpretation we have to the ask the question just who the Babylonians are in this story.

In light of Jesus use of role reversal (“the first shall be last”) the answer is predictable.

Role reversal, by the way, is a very common theme in Matthews’s gospel and once you are aware of it, you see it everywhere. It is especially the case in the text at hand for after the “rich and famous” are thrown out of the temple, who does Jesus then receive but the blind and lame, just as the revolutionaries who were turning the house of praise into a den of robbers are replaced by children singing Hosanna to Christ. Jesus then quotes Psalm 8 in justification as the cries of the children still the objections of the enemy and avenger.

So again, we find an idea that keeps on repeating itself in the gospel. Setting things right (that which Jesus has been doing) involves putting the “top rail on the bottom and the bottom rail on the top” or as Luke relates in Acts “turning the world upside down”.

That is exactly what the Gospel is about, the proclamation that sinners can be justified, the dead raised to life and the rich and famous left out in the cold.

Good stuff, don’t you think?

Homiletics

You may have heard it said, “Prayer changes things, and sometimes the thing it changes is you”. This is a true saying and one most can relate to personally, for it is often the case that the thing that needs changing most is our perspective. Now interestingly this (the need for a change in perspective) is a principle that has border applications as well.

Let me illustrate what I am saying by means of a sort of rhetorical question: What do we expect from a sermon? Admittedly, this is a broad question and one with many possible answers. However, I think that most of us, if we are honest, expect one thing (or one group of things) from a sermon: things to do. I have heard it from time to time and I know colleagues of mine have heard it as well “great exposition of the text pastor but a little shallow on application”. In other words, “I want something to do”.

From a certain point of view, the whole thing seems a bit problematic. Narratives rarely contain explicit ethical demands and those that try to find them run the risk of completely obscuring the meaning of text and turn David’s defeat of Goliath into an example of how God enables us to deal with really big problems. On the other hand some texts do contain things for us to do, and so it is the job of the preacher to put those forward. However, we must be careful of what Charles Hodge described as “the ghost of semi-Pelagius” as being behind the desire “for something to do”.

So what then, are we to expect from a sermon? What then is the preacher to aim for? I would say a change in perspective. Good preaching should change our perspective; on the world, on ourselves, on grace, on any number of things. It should give us the mind of Christ, and the “being busy part’ should flow from there, and not from the end of the sermon.

Do We Have to go to Church?

I heard an interesting statistic this morning. Apparently, 80% of Americans identify themselves as Christian though only 20% attend worship services on a regular basis. This statistic led me to consider how it is that being a Christian has become separated from the worship of God. There are many clues that point towards how this has happened. Let me give one example. You have probably heard it said, “Christianity is a relationship and not a religion”. It is an interesting proposition, one with a long and heretical (Gnostic) pedigree and it is easy to see where this leads. “Having Jesus in my heart is of primary importance, things like worship, preaching and the sacraments are secondary to that, in fact they can even be dispensed with when necessary.” “Necessity” of course being almost completely ambiguous.
Yet, can we say that as Christians we are more or less compelled by Scripture to attend corporate worship? Yes we can and we can go on to argue for “more” than “less”.
Recently, I have been reading G. K .Beale. One of my favorites is an academic work titled “We Become What We Worship, a biblical theology of idolatry”. In it, Beale traces the history and effects of idolatry on the nation of Israel and on the New Israel, the Israel of God, the Church. Beale is not alone in his observations. Other men such as Ricky Watts have made similar ones, but the important point is this: we become what we worship, and I would add everyone worships, like it or not.
This brings me back to my original question and its answer: yes, corporate worship is essential to the Christian life and to eternity for the Christian life is preeminently about becoming like Christ. Worship is central to that and while it may be true that you have Jesus in your heart, it may be the case that apart from engaging in the corporate worship of the Triune God of Scripture that may be another Jesus you have rattling around in your chest.
Yet someone will surely say to me OK, but I still do not need a church to worship. A point I will of course dispute and will dispute it based on 1 Corinthians chapters 10-11, where Paul appeals to the sacramental presence of Jesus in the Old Covenant as a warning against idolatry in the New. In other words, Paul’s warning to the Corinthians is a very good place to argue for the presence of Christ, the Spiritual presence of Christ, during the course of worship. This Spiritual presence forms the image of Christ in us. Of course, the reverse is also true. For there are a diversity of spirits, not all of which are from Christ, though all have the same power to conform.
Next Sunday then ask yourself “Whose image do I profess to bear?” and remember. Actions speak louder than words.

The Search for What is Sure.

I have been interacting with a friend on what it means to be a Christian. It is amazing the conundrum such questions become when they are considered apart from covenantal thinking. My buddy is no novice; in fact he is very astute but when faced with judgments such as above he has absolutely no way to tell, objectively, who a Christian is. The discussion centers on a remark he made concerning the Roman Catholic Church. While we both agree that the Roman Church has fallen into grave theological errors (and let me restate that as very grave) he would apparently go on to say that because of their errors they are not a Christian church. While this line of thinking may at first seem to be sound when questioned it becomes obvious that it is a completely subjective statement. The question is of course where do you draw the “error line”? How grave an error can one fall into before one is considered as no longer a Christian? How do we know what God considers such an error to be? Ah, some might say, the Apostle Paul anathematizes anyone that preaches another gospel. Problem is a case could be made that when one considers what Paul calls the gospel namely the birth, death, resurrection and session of Christ the Church of Rome just squeaks by. What to do?
First of all instead of trying to decide in such cases who are not Christians we need to re-ask the question as “who is” or better yet who has put on Christ? When viewed from that (biblical) perspective the answer is simple: all those who have been baptized into Christ. Trinitarian Baptism then joins one objectively to the Covenant and is the answer to the question what does it mean to be a Christian, covenantally.

Coming Clean

For several years I tutored three students in Koine Greek. In our class we read allot of the Septuagint and New Testament in Greek, but after a while we began to concentrate on learning John. We spent quite a bit of time in 1 John. Since the students had all gone through grammar and syntax we pretty much did sight reading and discussion. John’s Greek seems easy. John’s Greek, it has been noted, is deceptively simple. You really have to pay close attention to the verb tenses, which often vary.

The opening chapter of 1 John has really been on my mind lately,  specifically v.7 which reads (if loosley translated) “but, if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus Christ, His Son cleanses us from all sin”. The interesting thing about this verse is, again, the verb tenses. They are all in the Greek present tense and so may also be translated “if we keep on walking in the light, as He is in the light, we continue to have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ keeps on cleansing us from all sin.

Now that is noteworthy. There is a link between our fellowship with one another, and our cleansing from sin by Christ blood. One could say the two are closely related and that “cleansing” is dependent on “fellowship with one another”. If that is the case, and the grammar for sure suggests that it is, then we are right to ask, “What does John mean by fellowship?”

Context. Context suggests he has in mind the local church.

Think about it.. Fellowship with one another is essential. Fellowship, and it makes me wonder. Over the years I have run across folks that never, or very rarely, attend corperate worship. I have actually met folks that have told me that, as far as they are concerned, watching a church service on TV was equal to parish worship/fellowship. And I am not talking about shut-ins.

I am not suggesting that in every case folks guilty of this sort of thinking are also guilty of fatal error. Especially when we take into account the overall health of American evangelicalism.

But, what about more “mature” ones that fall into this error? That is a bit more complicated and more disturbing and what about those that do come and sit in the pew but never really enter into fellowship?

We can say this: But, if we have fellowship with one another, the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.

Popularity

A while back I preached through The Gospel according to Matthew. In doing so, I tried to be sensitive to the events and situations that lead Jesus to The Cross. While I do not think of The Cross as the most important event of the story (the resurrection is), it is obviously very important and plays a central role in its theology.

As I went along, following many others before me, I asked this: for what sorts of reasons was Jesus crucified, not theological reasons only, but cultural and other (not that those are not theological reasons, they are just not explicitly theological). As one well-known New Testament scholar puts it (more or less) if Jesus was just a teacher of timeless truths (sort of like a first century hippy) why was He crucified? People like that just did not end up o n a cross.

It is a good question and one that has, I think, multiple answers. One reason seems to be His penchant for associating with people that no else could stand. I am closing in on the 11th chapter now and the list of folks Jesus takes in, and heals and blesses is remarkable. Roman soldiers, demon possessed people, women with flows of blood, dead people; people few, if any, wanted association with. Jesus loved those that no one else loved, and this caused Him to become, increasingly, unpopular. Moreover, when the popular and powerful and the influential are ignored, they take notice, and they do not like it.

So one of the reasons Jesus ended up on a Cross was His identification with the unpopular and their identification with Him.

Now that says something to us, today. Something about what it means to follow Jesus. It says this: following Jesus means identifying you with someone that the rich, and the powerful, and the beautiful, and the well healed of every stripe hates. To identify with Jesus means identifying yourself with those He loved, and to reap from it the world’s hatred. It means membership in the social strata the bible calls the weak and foolish, and, oh yes, it also means this. If you find that you really have a problem with people with personality issues, or who don’t bathe that often, or are fat, or just not very likable guess what? You may also find out you are having a problem with Jesus too.

Creativity

On the way to work the other day I was listening to a pod cast on Anglican Radio. The host was interviewing a gentleman who had recently finished a book on creativity and the Trinity. The author’s name escapes me right now but he did get me to thinking. Some of the material below is dependent on his ideas expressed during that interview.

Humans are creative and ingenious. It’s no suprise since we are made in the image our Creator. We see this in children who are so creative that their creative instincts have to be schooled out of them. Intentional or not we tend to atrophy towards a uniform and unitarian way of thinking. In other words we find homogeny desirable.

This works itself out in some surprising ways and as the gentlemen mentioned above noted it makes us very suspicious and intolerant of anything that is or wants to be outside the norm (creative). We have to be careful though, for our God is both unified and diverse. “Always constant never the same”.

Creativity then is a good and godly thing. We should nurture it in ourselves and in children creativity should be encouraged and managed, but not squashed. After all do we really want to raise a bunch of unitarian totalitarians? Haven’t we enough of that already?

Who Baptized You?

Probably more than any other religion Christianity, and Christians, enjoy debate and argument, and often debate and argue about the basics of the faith. Take for instance the sacraments and among Protestants and even Anglicans especially one in particular: Baptism. Questions on the topic abound, but as I think about the subject most, if not all, of them really ask just one; what is baptism?

Now I could say a lot about this, but I think Scripture gives us a very good answer to the question albeit an indirect one. The answer I have in mind is in the Gospel accounts of Matthew, Luke and John and in the Acts of the Apostles. According to John the Baptist, baptism is a work of Christ by The Spirit. Really, Jesus baptizes us and does so, as we might expect, through the means of His church; via her ministers. Whatever else that we might say about the sacrament of baptism, we have to say at least this: it is an act of God.

Formalism

When talking about (or decrying) things like “religious formalism”, it is important to define what we mean by the phrase. A good place to start is by considering what we do not mean, or what we cannot mean. First, let us look at “religion”. In this essay, the words “religion” and “Christianity” are synonymous. Formalism is a little more work, and again let’s start with what it cannot mean. “Christian” or “religious” formalism cannot be decried or discussed from a negative perspective once we admit that all religion, whether we are talking about services or worship or anything else have, to a greater or lesser degree, some sort of “form”. For instance, all worship services are held on a specific day, and at a certain time. Hymns are sung from a hymnal (or from an overhead). They are not spontaneous. Even in churches where the minister does not wear a robe, some sort of liturgical garb (suit, tie, or other) is expected. We could go on but it’s clear formalism is an essential element of religion, and as such is acceptable (even desirable). Still, is there a kind of “religious formalism” that is undesirable? No doubt, there is. The kind Paul warns of when he speaks of those that have “a form of Godliness, but deny its power”. These men (or women) profess Christ (by going to church, praying, etc.) but in one way or another, by their deeds, actually oppose Him. The specific passage in mind is 2 Timothy 3.5 and if you read through the pastoral epistles you will find other passages that parallel it, and so we may surmise it was a common, and deadly, problem. Is there a cure? There is indeed but it’s one that those engaged in the kind of bad formalism mentioned above may find hard to swallow for it’s a cure that goes right to the heart of true religion. Bad religion is bad because it never goes far enough. In other words, it never gets past Sunday morning. It never becomes incarnational. It never walks and talks like Jesus, and so it is at once idolatrous and defiled. God hates bad religion; on this Scripture is clear. So what kind of religious formalism does He love? He loves the kind that comes from a Spirit filled heart, the kind that James calls “pure and undefiled”; the kind of religion that loves widows and orphans as much as it loves theology and the liturgy.

Mormons, J.W.’s, Masons and More…

On any given morning nearly anywhere in America, it is usual see Jehovah’s Witnesses canvassing the neighborhood . I often see Mormon Missionaries as well. Though both of these groups are (rightly) classified as false religions they are particularly bothersome in that they view themselves as being within the stream of historic Christianity. That is they consider themselves Christian, though their teachings are actually at odds with the truth. Other groups such as the Masons  find succor within the church, even though their doctrines and religion is decidedly not Christian.

So how did this happen? How can these admittedly very large groups who deny the fundamental doctrines and tenants of Christianity come to view themselves, and even to be viewed by others, as Christian?

It is a complicated question and any answer has many factors to take into account. Yet, for Roman Catholic apologist the answer is simple: it is the fault of the Reformation. For as one of them warned in some place or another “if you guys go on like this it won’t be long before everyman interprets scripture for himself and chaos will reign” and then point to the Mormons and JW ‘s and Oneness Pentecostals as proof. Their point is of course that without the Church to interpret Scripture, Scripture can mean anything.

Now admittedly the warning seems to have some merit. However it is a warning directed at a problem that was, in terms of Reformational Theology, a sort of “straw man” for no Magisterial Reformer, or anyone following in their footsteps, ever contemplated such a thing. In other words the Reformers did recognize tradition as a hermeneutical control, a point Keith Matheson has very ably made here .

So if not the Reformers, then who?

As I said at the start, the answer is complicated and includes many factors (The Enlightenment, rationalism, the devil etc.) but I think one place we can point to as a sort of cause for Mormons etc. is American style democracy and especially American individualism, as exemplified in congregational ecclesiology and the mindset behind it.

Let me illustrate by way of this short anecdote. While pastoring a church in the Mid-West I became involved in a discussion about church polity and especially the polity of our church (the one I pastored). During the course of our discussion I asked this question; does the Holy Spirit speak through the will of the congregation, or to put it another way around, can we take the outcome of a congregational vote to be the leading of The Holy Spirit? And the answer was “yes”. I pointed out to the parishioner in question that the position he was holding to was not a whole lot different than that of The Roman Catholic Church, but to no avail.

So what does all of this have to do with Mormons and JW‘s and all the rest? Well, back to the Roman Catholic caveat. For, at the end of the day they were correct, not about the Reformers, but about the danger. Moreover, while it cannot be said that the Reformers were guilty of such individualism it can be said to be so of most of American Evangelicalism, who hold not to the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura but to”Solo” and so indeed, it is every man, or congregation, for him or themselves.

It is a very bad and ironic sort of situation. One that puts a large segment of American Protestants in a position from where it is really hard to see (at least logically) why there should be any problem at all with JW’s, Mormons, T.D. Jakes or any other heretic one might like to mention.

Now admittedly the above is a bit of a simplistic sketch of the problem and at the end of the day we have to also understand that Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Oneness Pentecostals, Masons and the rest are all victims of satanic deception and so are the work of the devil. Yet, the entrenchment of individualism and individual rights so basic to the American psyche has proved to be a very convenient handle for him. One that only a return to a proper (dare I suggest “catholic”) understanding of individualism, hermeneutics and the church can remove.