Common Ground

Nein! That was the essence and title of Karl Barth’s reply in 1934 to an essay by Emil Brunner entitled Natural Theology. Barth and Brunner broke a long-standing friendship over the issue of whether there is any “natural” knowledge of God apart from the biblical revelation in Jesus Christ. Brunner maintained that there is a natural, created capacity in human beings to perceive something of who and what God is, apart from supernatural revelation. It is a “contact point” between the message of the Gospel and natural human knowledge.

Barth’s emphatic Nein! (“No!”) to Brunner’s case for natural theology arose partly out of Barth’s observation of how the church in Germany was becoming complicit with rising National Socialism (the Nazi party). German Christians were accepting that political movement and its social manifestations as a source of revelation alongside Scripture. In other words, much of the German church saw God at work in the ascendant political powers of their day and, in contemporary Christian terms, heard God speaking to them in the Nazi party. That episode in both church and world history should resound with a dire warning for Americans today.

Yet the necessity of Karl Barth’s resounding “No!” to German Christianity’s subversion by the Nazi’s and our own present need to say a resounding “No!” to similar forces of hate and political subversion of Christianity in America, should not drive us to Barth’s total rejection of a contact point between sinful humanity and the Gospel. Our text for this Sunday, Acts 17:16-34, shows clearly that Scripture itself allows for and values a presentation of the Gospel which makes contact with whatever knowledge, no matter how sparse, humans have of God prior to experiencing His direct revelation in Jesus.

In the heart of Greek culture and intellectual life in the city of Athens, Paul joined in the philosophical discussions happening in the market place. He was brought to the Areopagus (“Mars Hill”) to offer further explanation of the view he was teaching. His speech, which begins in verse 22 and which today adorns a bronze plaque on the side of the hill, begins by establishing a point of contact with existing pagan religious practice in Athens, suggesting that their acknowledgement of “an unknown god,” was actually a seminal recognition of the one true God, creator of heaven and earth.

From that contact point, Paul went on to declare that God is the God of all nations (verse 26) and that they have a common ancestry as human beings. He then quotes approvingly in verse 28 two Greek poets to the effect that all people have their being from God and are His children. He then explains in verses 29-31 that the significance of that common origin in God’s creative work implies a common moral accountability before the Creator. He finally points to hope in spite of a coming judgment because of a man God raised from the dead. The close of the text in verse 34 shows us some of Paul’s listeners becoming believers.

Thus there is definitely room for a natural theology supported by Scripture itself (see also Psalm 19 and Romans 1 and 2). And Paul’s speech shows us that natural revelation itself has at least some answer to Karl Barth’s worries about a perverse natural theology which sets itself up as equal and contrary to the Word of God. Those Greek poets’ understanding of all people as children of God is enough to allow a vehement and unqualified “No!” to Nazis, white supremacists, the alt-right and racism of all sorts. Natural theology and biblical theology are totally in harmony on that point.

Which means that we Christians may have an opportunity now to accept a point of contact with non-believers who are decrying and protesting the new rise and visibility of hate groups in our time. We can show them that their abhorrence of racism, prejudice and terror is in perfect harmony with the Christian revelation which has always taught that all people are loved by God. There’s never been a better time to proclaim Jesus our Lord who died and rose again to demonstrate God’s love for the whole world.

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Noble Minds

Modern Veria (Veroia) in Greece, the site of ancient Berea (Beroea), was the home of one of the oldest continuously existing Jewish communities until the Nazi’s deported all the Jewish quarter residents during World War II. An old stone 17th century synagogue remains as a reminder of the Jewish population and synagogue which were there when Paul visited sometime around A.D. 50 in our text for this week, Acts 17:1-15.

After suffering persecution by the Jewish community in Thessalonica, Paul finds the Jewish people of Berea more “noble” (to use a frequent translation) in verse 11. The word is literally “well-born,” signifying a good character. The NRSV’s “more receptive” doesn’t quite capture the thought, although it was certainly true. The Berean Jews were more willing to listen to and carefully examine the message Paul brought them rather than rejecting it out of hand.

The rest of verse 11 explains why so many modern Christians would like to identify with the Bereans. They “examined the scriptures every day to see whether these things were so.” It’s a picture of careful study of God’s Word to determine the truth of what is being proposed. Of course the “scripture” in the hands of the Bereans were only what we call the Old Testament, and their study was aimed particularly at determining whether the claim that Jesus was the Messiah was true.

All in all, the Bereans portray an intellectual character that does bear imitation by Christians today, not just in their Bible study, but in their admirable combination of openness of mind with critical examination of the claims before them. Either of those two qualities alone often produce deplorable results. Mere open-mindedness by itself makes one a sucker for whatever new viewpoint or fake news comes along. On the other hand, critical thinking operating alone makes one an eternal skeptic, never willing to accept any truth no matter how well established.

As G. K. Chesterton said in his autobiography, “Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.” Which is exactly what the Bereans did. Their open-minded reception of the Gospel of Jesus Christ led them to finally close their minds and believe it wholeheartedly.

Contemporary Christians could very much stand to learn this combination of receptiveness and critical thinking centered around Scripture. Innovative doctrinal and ethical claims need to be shown the same gentle-spirited willingness to listen in combination with a tough-minded subjection of those claims to a careful and reasonable reading of the Bible.

The history of Berea witnesses to the success of such an approach. Modern Veria remains a testimony to minds firmly committed to and closed on the Gospel. At least seventy churches were built there in Byzantine times and forty-eight of them still exist, maintained even through the Ottoman Muslim occupation of the town. As I pointed out two weeks ago, a beautiful mosaic portraying Paul’s Macedonian mission stands in the modern town square. It’s a small city that received Christ thoughtfully and carefully and then consistently stood firm in faith down through ages.

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Jailer Goes Free

This picture is from our family’s visit to ancient Philippi 15 years ago. It is of a crypt, probably a water cistern, mistakenly identified in the fifth century as the jail cell where Paul and Silas were held. It became a place of worship and frescoes were painted on the back walls. Now, though it is not the actual prison, it is an apt reminder of the story and of the practice of incarceration down through the ages.

One of the blights on the face of American society is the surge in private, for-profit prisons that began in the 1980s. The fact there is money to be made by filling prison beds has likely contributed to a growing rate of incarceration. America now has the highest incarceration rate in the world. While the U.S. is home to about 4 or 5 percent of the world’s population, our nation’s prisons and jails hold over 20 percent of the world’s prisoners. Private prisons negotiate contracts that require states and communities to fill 90 percent of prison beds or pay penalties for the empty beds. The profits made are used to expand prison facilities even further.

All that privatization costs the taxpayer, with levies and taxes for prisons being supported as making society safer and getting tough on criminals. Yet as we lock up more and more people, we ourselves are being locked into a system that is costly, inefficient and unjust. We lose our freedom as we take away the freedom of others.

Paradoxes like that are at the heart of our text for this week in Acts 16:16-40. But the paradoxes are also reversals. A slave girl is in bondage to an evil spirit, but after she is set free in verse 18, we see in verse 19 that it is her owners who are truly in prison, the prison of their own greed for the money the girl made them as a fortune-teller. So the slave goes free and it is her owners who are actually enslaved to sin.

Likewise when Paul and Silas are thrown into prison, their good spirits and singing in verse 25 demonstrate their inner freedom. It is the jailer who is so captive to the system that, when the prisoners are freed by an earthquake, he almost kills himself in verse 27, despairing at the loss of his position and at the punishment he will receive when prisoners escape.

The ultimate reversal is when the jailer realizes that he too needs to be set free in verse 30 and cries out, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” What follows is a sweet story of he and his family receiving true freedom in Christ.

Lessons abound for us about recognizing our own incarcerations in sin, prejudice, desire and greed. If we imagine we are free when we are doing what is wrong, that is when our imprisonment is deepest and most dire. Thanks be to God for Christ who gives freedom to all, especially to prisoners sitting waiting for Him in the dark.

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Saving Invasion

Fifteen years ago my family saw this mosaic standing in the middle of the modern city of Verea in Greece (that’s Berea in the New Testament). It recalls the first episode from this week’s text in Acts 16:6-15. In verse 9 Paul has a  vision of a “man of Macedonia” pleading for Paul and his companions to “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”

Paul and Silas eventually get to Berea in chapter 17, but their first step in that journey was in verse 11, to set sail from Troas in what is now modern Turkey for a landing at Neapolis, effectively the first Christian visit to Europe. From their landing on the beach at Neapolis, they walked north to Philippi, where the first European convert to Christianity was the woman Lydia.

The face of Europe and all world history changed when Paul and Silas landed there at its furthest eastern region. The message they brought would over the next few centuries spread and transform life and culture across the area we think of as the heart of western civilization. Europe became Christian.

Of course, neither Paul nor Lydia could foresee the events that would unfold from their decisions and actions. Paul would have been surprised that modern Berea would one day be filled with churches and that an image of himself would stand there. Neither of them could have ever guessed at the great Christian monastic movements or the Christian establishment of the first universities or the great cathedrals which would rise across the European landscape. They had no inkling of the great missionary movements outward from Europe that would take the good news of Christ to places they didn’t even know existed. They just joined in conversation about Jesus in a little place for prayer alongside the river outside the city.

One lesson here is that none of can really know the extent of what will come from what we do here and now. A little kindness or a word or two about Jesus to a stranger might make a vast difference in how history unfolds beyond our own lives. Or it might just mean the healing and transformation of a single life or family. In either case, God can accomplish huge things through us if we are only faithful and attentive to His direction. As Ephesians 3:20 says, He “is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think…”

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Partings and Partners

As I consider this week’s text for the next episode of Acts in our summer study of that book, Acts 15:36 – 16:5, it occurs to me that one might account for the dispute between Barnabas and Paul in terms of personality types. Barnabas was the feeler while Paul was the thinker or Paul was a leader who sought good order and results while Barnabas was after healthy relationships and personal growth. But, honestly, who knows? It’s always a bit sketchy to try and determine the psychological makeup of biblical figures (or of any historical figure for that matter).

What we do know is that the separation of the first two Christian missionaries had good results in the end, as painful as it must have been in the moment. Paul and his new partner Silas went back to Asia Minor and found a new young protege in Lystra, Timothy, who became a significant missionary in his own right, leading and organizing the new churches in Crete. And Paul’s relationship with Mark (John Mark) seems to have mended well, to the extent that Paul much later specifically asks in II Timothy 4:10 for Mark to come and be with him while he is in prison.

Many lessons could be and have been drawn for what the parting of Barnabas and Paul teaches us about our own relationships with other Christians in the church. It’s been seen as an example relevant to disagreement of all sorts, including a theological “agreeing to disagree.” I hesitate, though, to be too sure about all that. In my experience, a call to agree to disagree often masks an unwillingness to admit error or bad judgment on at least one side and it seldom constitutes a long-term solution to serious differences.

Instead, we might take this event in the lives of early Christian leaders simply as evidence that even among the best of us, things may not work out well enough for us to work together. In pastoral work I’ve had a couple of experiences where well-meaning church leadership thought that parties to a disagreement ought to be able, simply because they were both Christians, to find a way to work together. Paul and Barnabas show us God working in spite of human weakness that divides us from one another.

None of that is to excuse our divisions, but simply to recognize that they do and will continue to exist, this side of the fulfillment of the Kingdom. And the reconciliation of Paul and Mark, evidenced in Paul’s mention of Mark in three of his epistles, is a sign that there is relational healing to be had from God even in the present age. The end of Acts 15 simply shows us that it may not be immediate and may not take the form we might wish at the time.

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Gravity or Grace?

“So I saw in my dream, that just as Christian came up with the cross, his burden loosed from off his shoulders, and fell off his back, and began to tumble, and so continued to do till it came to the mouth of the sepulchre, where it fell in, and I saw it no more.” That is the beautiful image with which John Bunyan pictures a person’s release from sin in Pilgrim’s Progress. He goes on, “Then was Christian glad and lightsome, and said with a merry heart, “He hath given me rest by His sorrow, and life by His death.”

One of the great themes and issues of the New Testament, especially in Paul’s writings, is the call for Christians who have been released from their burdens by the grace of Jesus Christ not to fall once again under that weight. As we reflected on freedom last week, we recalled Galatians 5:1, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”

As the context of Galatians 5:1 shows and our text for this week, Acts 15:1-21, illustrates pragmatically, part of the burden from which we are freed in Christ is the weight of attempting to justify ourselves by the keeping of rules and regulations. As Christian discovers earlier in Pilgrim’s Progress, the way to the releasing of his burden at “Mr. Legality’s” house is impossibly steep and precarious. Freedom by the route of rule-keeping is impossible.

In focus in our text were the peculiarly Jewish rules about circumcision (verses 1 and 5) and the rest of the Mosaic law (verse 5). The issue for some Jewish believers in the first church there in Jerusalem was a fear that allowing Gentiles to experience new life in Christ without submitting to Jewish regulations would lead to a reduced and faulty relationship with God. Circumcision, dietary laws and other rules had been a part of genuine spiritual life for long generations, as James says in verse 21. That spiritual history and experience cannot simply be dispensed with and ignored.

On the other hand, as Peter points out in verse 10, those same regulations by which Jewish people had lived and encountered God had been “a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear.” It seems to be a choice between gravity and grace. Will the fledgling movement that is enjoying new life in Jesus Christ acknowledge past spiritual practice with proper seriousness or will it cast aside all restraint and engage in total license by the freeing gift of grace?

Ultimately, the church discovers through leadership of James and later on through Paul’s own writings that moral gravity and redeeming grace are not exclusive, not an either/or. While Christians are free by the grace of Jesus, they are set free from the bondage of sin so that they may take genuine moral law with proper gravity. The gracious gift of freedom from sin is an actual transformation of our souls so that we may more freely and naturally do what God expects of us.

Simple either/or answers about moral gravity and saving grace have boggled the church and believers down through the ages. Bunyan’s Christian was temporarily deceived on one side of that disjunction, as have many others, seeking salvation in moral gravity. Yet history and contemporary life also shows Christians deceived in the other direction, imagining that grace means no further attention need be paid to right living. The only healthy and sound approaches take on the complexity of blending gravity and grace as does James counsel to the new Gentile believers, setting them free by grace but enjoining some respect for fundamental pieces of the law and regulations which affect fellowship with Jewish believers. Our own answers to the dilemma must also be as thoughtful and complex.

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Gods among Us

Paul and Barnabas experienced an honor that political leaders of their time coveted and which some politicians might still like to have today. In Lystra, they were hailed as gods after they healed a lame man. Barnabas, perhaps the bigger of the two, was identified as Zeus, while Paul the dominant speaker was called Hermes, the messenger God.

In our text for this Sunday, Acts 14:8-28, the two apostles were quick to disavow this mistaken homage, but their experience is a reminder to us all that we can be tempted to accept honor which properly only belongs to God. And we can be misled in assigning that divine honor and God’s priority in our lives to other human beings.

Perhaps the desolation of ruins in the Lystra area can help remind us that human beings and our accomplishments fall far short of divine status. Only what God does lasts and we are not gods.

This Sunday we want to remember to imitate Paul and Barnabas in letting go of glory for ourselves and giving it all to God. At the end of the text, in verse 27, the apostles’ report back to the church in Antioch was about “all that God had done through them.” May the report of our own lives and life together as a church move in that same direction.

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As our nation gets ready once again to celebrate political liberty with fried chicken and fireworks on the 4th of July, the epistle reading for this Sunday, Romans 6:12-23, reminds us that the great liberty of the Christian is not political but spiritual, a freedom from the power of sin.

One great but painful achievement of our country was the elimination of slavery as a legal institution. Yet low-paying and oppressive forms of employment still constitute a kind of virtual slavery for many people in America and around the world. See for instance a recent USA Today article about the plight of port truckers in Southern California. Paul uses that kind of enslaving oppression as a picture of the force of sin in our lives. It is a master, a form of life, from which we find it impossible to escape.

Paul’s great proclamation is that Jesus has set us free. It’s not the freedom we ordinarily celebrate as Americans, freedom to make choices like for whom to vote or whether to put chicken or burgers on the barbecue next Tuesday, but freedom to enter into a wholly other kind of servitude, service to Jesus Christ. Galatians 5:1 says, “For freedom Christ has set us free.” That freedom is found in deliverance from sin and following the way of Jesus.

So as the 4th arrives next week, I will be thankful for some of the liberties I enjoy as an American. But I will be even more thankful for the liberty I enjoy as a Christian, freedom from sin and its oppressive wages, which as verse 23 says, is death. What I am thankful for is the gift verse 23 celebrates, the free gift of God which is “eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

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Into Community

We sent the new boy over to the next camp to borrow a “bacon stretcher.” That was a typical “initiation” prank for our Boy Scout troop in my early teens. Happily, we had excellent adult leaders who prevented most of the mean-spirited hazing which passes for initiation in some scout troops, sports teams and various schools and colleges. There was a little embarrassment and kidding about being fooled by the trick, but then a new scout was quickly accepted as one of the bunch.

Initiations of various sorts appear to me to be an ancient and ubiquitous human practice. Later this month the Hispanic congregation that rents our building will hold a Quincienera party for a young woman turning 15, a coming-of-age/becoming-a-woman celebration somewhat akin to our Anglo traditional marking of 16th birthdays.

The Christian Church’s primary rite of initiation is of course baptism. As we observe Trinity Sunday this week, the Gospel text is the very familiar passage which ordains baptism as the way people enter the Christian fold, Matthew 28:16-20. It’s also a key text for Trinity Sunday because baptism is therein linked to the three persons of God, “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

What I’d like us to notice this Sunday is that baptism is not only initiation into the Christian community, but in its very inception and command to be performed in the three-fold name of God it is also an initiation into the divine community, into the life of God’s own self.

I don’t know how much it will figure into Sunday’s sermon, but I’ve been reading about and becoming more and more convinced that what is now known as “social trinitarianism” is the correct view of the Trinity. This is the view often associated with the eastern wing of Christianity that the three persons of God are just that, three personal centers of will and intellect and emotion, interacting with each other in love within the one being of God. It is perhaps well represented by this famous icon which associates the Trinity with the three angelic visitors to Abraham.

The alternative is more familiar in the west, “Latin trinitarianism,” and is perhaps best represented by the second image I’m posting here, that God has a single will, intellect and emotional center which is eternally expressed in three forms. Augustine famously said that Father and Son love each other, while the Holy Spirit is the love which binds them together. Thus the Spirit especially is not exactly a “person” in its own right. I think that misses the personal activity of all three persons of God in Scripture.

Put simply, the east has emphasized the threeness of God, while the west has emphasized His oneness. The east does not affirm three gods, while the west does not deny that God is a trinity. So both perspectives are orthodox and true to passages like our Gospel reading from Matthew 28. It’s just that the eastern perspective helps us see how human community, especially the church, is modeled on and comes from the very real and eternal divine community of three distinct and different persons.

So baptism in the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit is an initiation into a community of persons at whose core is the eternal community of the divine persons. Understanding that puts to rest all notions of an individualized Christian experience, a “me and Jesus” attitude which imagines that Christian faith is all about my own salvation or a “personal” meaning “private” relationship with Jesus. No, baptism in its very performance in the name of the divine community brings us out of our own individual selves and into eternal relationship with each other and with Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

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On Us All

I was always jealous of Bobby. His father owned the hobby shop in our town. In junior high, Bobby always had the coolest stuff: model rockets, a remote controlled airplane, ham radio gear, even a huge, wonderful, sparking Tesla coil that his father helped him build for a science fair. It seemed like everything wonderful had been poured out on that kid, and not on me.

I’ve chosen the Old Testament text for this Pentecost Sunday, Numbers 11:24-30, about the Spirit being given to two Israelites, Eldad and Medad. They received the Spirit and prophesied out of turn and out of place, apart from where the main manifestation of the Spirit and prophecy took place among seventy elders gathered around the tent of the Tabernacle.

Joshua, in a kind of righteous jealousy, wants to rebuke and stop the two extra-curricular prophets. But Moses rebukes Joshua’s jealousy on his behalf, and says, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them.” That wish of Moses was fulfilled on Pentecost, as the Spirit came down upon all the disciples and from them was passed on to the whole church.

We live now in that same Holy Spirit whose gifts and blessings are to be sought for everyone, not just for ourselves. What we have is to be freely shared, and what others have of the Spirit need not be envied, because He is poured out on everyone who will receive Him.

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