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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Stepped On

One might describe much of the political ferment in our country and the world as an expression of the desire not to get “stepped on.” Whether it is poor whites enraged over declining wages and employment opportunities or people of color voicing fury about centuries of oppression, many people are struggling not to be held down and dominated by others. In other countries people fight and struggle to be free of tyrannical leaders and rulers. No one likes being stepped on.

So we might want to pause and reflect on an image used in our sermon text for Ascension Sunday, Ephesians 1:15-23. Overall the text celebrates the fact that Jesus risen from the dead is currently seated at God’s right hand, ruling over the universe. It’s the ongoing result of the act of Jesus ascending in the Gospel reading, Luke 24:50-53 and in Acts 1:1-11. Then in verse 22 Paul chooses an image for Jesus’ rule which sounds exactly like the kind of oppression people today which to escape. “And he has put all things under his (Jesus’) feet…”

I was surprised to find none of the commentaries on Ephesian bothering to unpack or give some background to that expression about everything under Jesus’ feet. It clearly seems to be based in ancient expressions of rule and victory, kings triumphing over enemies in battle, as in Joshua 10:24 when Joshua calls the victorious commanders of Israel to put their feet on the necks of enemy kings they had defeated.

On one hand, I believe, that image of Jesus stepping on all other “rule and authority and power and dominion” (verse 21) is reassuring to us when we are fearful of oppression and defeat by forces much greater than ourselves. Whether it’s terrorism or our own government that feels threatening, we have the promise and hope of Jesus’ victory over every evil power. That’s some great comfort in troubled times, especially for those who are being dominated by forces beyond their control.

On the other hand, however, it’s worth considering that the image place our own selves beneath Jesus’ feet. Jesus is on top of it all, including us, hence verses 22 and 23 going on to develop another image, not of Jesus as stomping feet, but of Jesus as head over His body, which is the church.

That picture of ourselves beneath the feet of Jesus may have its own comfort. Luke’s image of Mary of Bethany sitting at Jesus’ feet to hear His teaching (Luke 10:39) was taken up and appreciated in the old hymn, “Sitting at the Feet of Jesus.” And many pet owners might appreciate how comfortable and secure their animal companions seem to feel at or even under their masters’ feet.

So that image of the all the powers of the universe subject to Jesus and stepped on by His feet should not tempt us toward any vainglory of our own, imagining that, at least at present, we can share in that domination of such powers. Instead, we may abide in peace at the thought that Jesus rules over every authority, including our own, but as loving Head of it all, “for the church,” as verse 22 says.

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Truth and Love

Aristotle’s definition of truth (and falsity) is famous: “To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true” Aristotle’s perspective has typically been called the “correspondence theory” of truth. What is said is true when it corresponds with reality.

If that correspondence theory of truth strikes you as an exercise in the obvious, then hallelujah. You are not far from the kingdom of God, as Jesus said to the scribe. That simple, obvious understanding of the truth as speech and expression which connects to what is real has been distorted and confused in modern times. Perhaps the primary contender to the correspondence theory is a “pragmatic theory” of truth which claims that what is true is what works or is successful and thus changes according to what one desires to accomplish.

Scripture, particularly the writing of John, speaks much about truth, but offers no definitions or theories of truth. John in particular, though, shows us that truth is to be firmly grounded in what is real. Since the height of reality for the Christian believer is God’s love demonstrated to us in the person of Jesus Christ, truth and love are inextricably bound together and both are firmly connected to the facts about Jesus.

As I turn to II John this coming Sunday, which in the American secular calendar is Mother’s Day, we look at what John has to say to “an elect lady and her children.” While, as in the case of III John, the letter could be addressed to an actual individual, it is generally accepted that John is writing to a church, personified as a mother and her children. And John’s primary concern for that church, as is obvious in the first 4 verses, is its adherence to the truth.

Yet right alongside that concern for the truth is the note which John strikes over and over in what he writes, that truth belongs together with love, as we can see in the surprising ending to a greeting in verse 4 that otherwise sounds much like Paul’s greetings in his letters. The explanation for this constant conjunction can be found in I John 4:8 which says, “God is love.” If the ultimate reality, on which everything else is grounded, is love, then truth firmly based in reality must remain connected to love.

Later in the letter, verses 7-11 may suggest that John is really about something other than love as he asks the “lady,” i.e., that church, to refuse welcome to those who teach something other than the truth. That sounds harsh and inhospitable and contrary to a casual understanding of love. But the reason is that love must remain grounded in truth just as much as truth is grounded in love.

Falsehood must be confronted with truth as well as love, especially when the falsehood is about Jesus, as verse 7 indicates. If Jesus is not the God who demonstrated the highest love by genuinely taking on human flesh and dying for us, then we will be unable to discern either truth or love in reality. It’s only as we meet truth and love in Jesus Christ that we are able to see the world and ourselves for what they really are. But that means some sort of separation from falsehood which denies the truth about Jesus.

As I said last week, one way to deny the truth about Jesus is to behave in a manner inconsistent with His own love and care for others. But His truth is also denied when we reduce His life and work, His actual death and resurrection, to some sort of spiritual lesson or symbol extraneous to the physical world in which we find ourselves. The only way to keep truth and love firmly connected is for them both to be embodied in the world and that embodiment begins with Jesus. By His grace we then participate in His truth in love when we follow Him and “walk in” them, as John says.

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It’s hard to know where to begin with two of the shortest pieces in all Scripture. To my knowledge, I’ve never heard a sermon on II or III John, and again to my knowledge, I’ve never preached one. So a few months ago I committed to that task, planning to do II John this coming Sunday and III John the week after, on Mother’s Day. As I began to unpack that preaching task this week, I found myself somewhat dismayed and in sympathy with all those preachers who never tackle these small books.

After some reflection, I’ve decided to switch the order, starting with III John this Sunday. One reason is that the reverse order leaves the “elect lady and her children” in II John for Mother’s Day, which is a connection and preaching hook to which I will humbly stoop.

So here I am now with the “beloved Gaius” and his hospitality (III John 2-8), which stands in stark contrast to the inhospitable and unfriendly ways of one Diotrephes (verses 9-10).

As can be seen on the national stage, lack of hospitality seems connected to pride and arrogance. “Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority.” John contrasts not only Diotrephes and Gaius in this respect, but adds another good example, Demetrius in verse 12, in contrast to the prideful, inhospitable and evil leadership of Diotrephes.

I was put in mind of a Harvard Business Review article my wife Beth passed on to me recently, “If Humble People Make the Best Leaders, Why Do We Fall for Charismatic Narcissists?” One answer the article offers is “High levels of anxiety make us hungry for charisma.” In other words, uncertainty and fear in regard to the future make us willing to put assertive and grandiose people in charge, hoping they can address the causes of our fears and wanting to believe they can save us. One easy scapegoat for such leadership is people who are different from our own selves. And one easy strategy is denying hospitality to those who are different.

The Scriptures regularly call us away from trust in such over-reaching and inhumane leadership and toward leadership that is humble and other-regarding. Jesus Christ is the supreme example of such leadership. The very people to whom Gaius showed hospitality are said in verse 7 to have begun “their journey for the sake of Christ [literally ‘the Name’].” Thus their purpose was not their own benefit or glory but instead the glory of Jesus.

Following narcissistic examples like Diotrephes will indeed make us inhospitable. We will be focused our own concerns and well-being rather than on others. If we think about Jesus it will be in terms of how He benefits us rather than in regard to how we can follow His example of concern for those who are in need.

So the heart of III John is verse 11, “Beloved, do not imitate what is evil but imitate what is good.” As simple as it sounds, the surrounding context about conflicting examples in early church leadership shows us that there is much to consider about our choice of examples and leaders.

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Some of my best memories involve walks. I vividly recall hiking with the Scouts in the Sierras, meandering around the twin lakes at Notre Dame with my wife-to-be, and watching my daughters take their first tottering steps. For most people (and may God be very near to those who are not able), moving along on two legs is a fundamental human experience. And it is often a metaphor for other aspects of life.

We find that happening with our text this Sunday from Luke 24:13-35. That meeting of Jesus with two disciples on the road to Emmaus and their subsequent walk together is both an actual historical physical event involving three human bodies in motion and a symbol of what Christian life is meant to be.

One of the key features of that Emmaus road stroll is the instruction which the two walkers with Jesus received upon the way. I can’t count the times I’ve heard someone express the wish to have been in on what verse 27 depicts, “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” The thought is often how much better we might ourselves understand those Scriptures if we had only been able to walk along and hear Jesus explain them.

The truth of it is that what we have in the New Testament is the fruit of that conversation and many others that Jesus must have had with His followers. What the Hebrew Scriptures say about Jesus is interpreted for us in what the New Testament writers set down for we who’ve come after them. Though our own sandals may not be covered in the dust of Palestine, we are blessed to walk with Jesus and be instructed whenever we take up and read what was written by those who did literally step alongside Him.

Walking also involves choosing a direction. Walking with Jesus means going where He is going. For some that may mean a long journey, either literally or metaphorically. But like the two on that Easter evening, I think we find the destination Jesus has in mind is actually our own home, the place in which we already live. Jesus wants to come with us there and make Himself known to us in all the ordinary and usual walks of our lives. Let us meet Him there, on the road home.

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