TWICE DAMNED?

The big hitters, the power-brokers, the Tiberiuses of the world need no help, ask for no help, demonstrate their self-sufficiency by their unstoppable legions and especially by their shrewd handling of social structures that shape powerless people, that make them dependent and content and submissive or resentful and bitter but hopeless and controlled. World-makers they are, these emperors who will say things like this to gathered ambassadors and representatives of little fretful nations:
“Here—here’s plenty of bread, here are good roads, here’s a political voice, here’s military assurance of protection against invaders and domestic subversives. Satisfied? Good, now fall down and worship me, the provider of all you care about and all you know you need.  The only sin you can commit that I take any notice of is the sin of rejecting me as your god. Do that and I’ll bury you.
“Do that and I will send my ruthless and unstoppable legions against you. They’ll come like a horde of locusts, countless and devouring, covering your land as they have done with so many lands and nations that thought they could resist us. We’ll sanction you until you beg for mercy while your leaders dine and sleep in luxury. There is nothing we cannot do; our power is limitless. We hold the power of life and death.”
That’s how a Roman emperor would speak—the world’s most powerful man! Meanwhile, as the crow flies, something like 1450 miles away in a little village a young man is speaking to a worried group of men and he says, “Fear not little flock. For it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

And on the outskirts of Bethany He says to a grieving girl whose brother lies rotting in a cave just outside the town:
I…am…resurrection!
I…am…life!
How familiar the words!
He’s a young man, hardly yet in his prime.
What’s He saying? He’s saying: “I am the cure of death!
I’m the destroyer of death.
I frighten Death.
Death trembles at My name for My name is: RESURRECTION.

“Yes, yes, yes. All very pious. The kind of thing that sounds plausible at religious gatherings but we’re facing real life, real terrorist threats, real collapsing economies, real calamities where homes, businesses, families, entire towns and little nations are brought to ruin.”
Indeed, the young man who never became an earthly president or king sounds like a lunatic and those who believe Him must all be idiots. And the non-believing answer is what? That the human family that created the social/economic/military and international mess can cure it? It can ensure justice for the already tormented and murdered millions and those that are dying as we read/write this?
“Well, we can’t fix everything but we are curing and fixing a lot without any help from outside.”
Oh I don’t believe we are curing or fixing anything without “help from outside, but neither would I deny that much good is being pursued and achieved by humans, including humans who choose not to believe in God and His Holy Son, Jesus Christ. I believe the Holy God sees and takes seriously the awful sorrow and wrongs of the world and that’s why we hear words like, “Fear not, for I bring you good news…Unto you is born…a Savior who is Christ the Lord. With help we cure and bring good things and in rejecting help we create havoc, terror and prolonged suffering for the countless. Yesterday, 11-30-16, the news report said that Kenya will shut down the world’s largest refugee camp—300,000 plus that live in a wilderness in the flimsiest structures. They are kept from dying by devoted people who distribute constant supplies of medicine, food and water, that are barely minimum. What is it that these wretched poor fear? They fear they will lose their place in that hell-hole and be sent home to where the butchers and torturers reign!

“Words. Words. Nothing but mere words.”

No, not mere words; the young man who spoke to Martha turns to us and looking steadily at us, out from and off the pages of the Bible, and says to all the tormented of all the ages, “Poor hurting and plundered people, you never had much, you have little or nothing now and you may never have anything in this world but know this one thing—I will right all the wrongs and I will give to you all the years that the locusts have eaten. I am not only the resurrection—I am life! You have never known justice in this life but I will see to it that you will have justice and joy and life in a new world that is coming. I could explain my Holy Father’s purpose and His way of working but right now you wouldn’t be able to bear it. Explanation isn’t what you want right now—you just want the evil and the pain to stop now, not later, and you only have My word for it that I will deal with it but if you will be brave and trust Me, a day will come when you’ll be delirious with joy, unbroken peace in righteousness and glad truth and holiness.

(Holy Father, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, even we who are blessed to believe in you through the Savior, don’t understand at all well and we too ask, “How long…?” At times we wonder how You expect anyone to believe in You. And because we too are so vulnerable to the pain and losses in life we are sometimes astonished that we can continue, sincerely to sing your praises. So we thank You for keeping and guarding us through faith and sustaining in us a living hope. But Father we’re thinking this moment of those who have not heard and will not hear of You in truth through our Lord Jesus and so they can do no other than look here, there and everywhere for help but don’t know to look to You. How can they know You? How can they hope and in that hope brave out their agony-filled lives without hope? How can they believe You have made a commitment to them? How does that commitment show, they would want to know! Must they in their ignorance be damned now by evil and unstoppable powers and then damned to eternal destruction  by ignorance? Twice damned?
Will you open our eyes to the wideness of Your love and your genuine care for those who do not and cannot know you, please! And in giving us a fuller vision of the truth about You will you urge us to tell it! Will you deliver us from our self-centered pursuit of more and more, more rights, more freedoms, more comforts while they sink deeper and deeper with less and less! Help us to show them that we really believe what we say about you by our living gallantly with our own pain until that day when all pain and sorrow will eternally end. This prayer in Jesus Christ.)

DOES IT MATTER?

I can say some things about God from a “Trinitarian” perspective but I’m not competent to say much that clears up the “mystery” or the “difficulties” associated with the doctrine. But, then again, I don’t know anyone who is competent to do that. I say that as half an excuse for not dealing with the questions that are always asked and never answered. I’d like to say something that is more descriptive than explanatory. (Since God is not a male or a female or an “it” and since I believe He is a personal being I’m going to follow the established use of “He” when speaking of Him.)

The God revealed to us in the Bible and in the New Testament in particular is presented as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

That is to say, whatever God is “made of” (so to speak)—whatever it is that makes “God” to be “God” is equally shared by the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The claim that “the Father” is God is never disputed.

The Spirit is a “personal” being (Acts 13:2 would serve for now). He is presented as distinct from the Father (John 14:16-17, 25) but is spoken of as “God’s Spirit” (Romans 8:9, 11, 14) He is not less than God because, obviously, God’s Spirit cannot be a created thing.

I wish to shelve the issue of “eternal Sonship”—that is, whether Jesus who is “The Word” and God—John 1:1-2—was eternally “the Son of God” or if He became “the Son” at the incarnation. That’s of interest but not here and now. The One we know as Jesus is the One of whom John 1:1-2 and 14 speaks. Jesus is God ­being a man. He is distinct from the Father and from the Spirit. Texts above.

This biblical revelation of the One True God speaks of God only as He has revealed Himself in relation to the human family and whatever truths that tells us about Him it doesn’t reveal anything about the essence of God or how the Persons of the Godhead together constitute one God. (Does that sound correct?)
My claim so far is the common knowledge claim of millions down the ages: There are three who constitute one God.

In the NT witness The Father does the sending. The Spirit doesn’t send the Father—He sends the Spirit and does His will through the Spirit. (Ephesians 3:14, 16; 2 Thessalonians 2:13 and texts above.)
The Son doesn’t send the Father—He sends the Son (38 times in John)! The Spirit and the Son bring people to the Father (Romans 8:15, 26; Hebrews 7:25; John 14:6, passim).

The Spirit and the Son do the will of the Father. They speak only what they hear and do not speak on their own authority and they work as the instruments of the Holy Father’s will and on His authority (texts above and elsewhere). It remains true, of course, that the Father, Son and Spirit have one purpose and one mind in the matter of creation and redemption.

Permit me to say it again, God acts in relation to creation and in redemption the one we know as the Father functions as the ultimate authority; the Spirit and the Son are subject to Him. It’s as if all three had a conference and agreed one with another and as One and each said: “I will function this way, and I in this way, and I in this way.” The way each one functions says nothing about inequality in essence. That free and glad subjecting to one another is what we see in the NT if indeed we believe in a Trinitarian understanding of God.

Taking the above to be true, we honor the one we know as Jesus when we speak of Him as subject to the Holy Father (even a casual reading of the book of John places that beyond any reasonable doubt and then there’s John 14:28). We don’t dishonor Him by speaking of Him that way—He eternally chose that as His place to function in the self-revelation of the Godhead. Philippians 2:5-11.
Again, taking the above to be true, we honor the one we know as the Holy Spirit when we speak of Him as subject to the Holy Father and the Holy Son. He Himself teaches us that He does not speak of His own authority and that He is “sent” to so work in and with Jesus so that Jesus is given the central place in the self-disclosure of God and of God’s love of humankind. He enables the Holy Son to fulfill the Father’s wishes to redeem humans and bring them to eternal glory. That self-revealing in which the Holy Spirit chooses to subject Himself makes the Incarnation of God in and as Jesus the fundamental act of God which leads to God taking up into the divine experience the experience of humanness.
If the above is essentially correct, has the “divine order” (Father, Son and Holy Spirit—1 Corinthians 3:23; 11:2; Matthew 28:19) any significance for believers? Does God’s self-revelation that speaks of subjection among equals have anything to say to humans and to the Church in particular? Or is it just an interesting topic for discussion but has no “message”? “Fancy that—all three were essentially equal but they chose to function in the arena of human creation and redemption as subject one to another. Yes, quite interesting.” That should be our response?

That foundational truth has no shaping value in our living out our faith in God before the world? Does it matter that the Holy Spirit teaches us that He is subject to the Father and the Son? Does it matter that the Holy Father is repeatedly said to be the “God…of Jesus Christ”? (Colossians 1:3; Ephesians 1:3; 2 Corinthians 1:3; 1 Peter 1:3; John 20:17, bearing in mind 20:28 and John 14:28.)
“Even Christ did not please Himself…”

(Holy One in three Persons, will we your children ever…?
Help us we pray for we have no other. This prayer in the Lord Jesus.)

IT ISN’T STRANGE

In Philippians 3 Paul took out all his prized possessions, one by one and looked them over. People ooh and aah over and sometimes wish they had such things and Paul himself thought highly of them but a time came in his life when he thought, “Still, compared with Christ and what I have in Him, these are all no better than rubbish.”

It was more than thinking of them as dispensable; he actually experienced the loss of them (3:7-8). This was the kind of loss that people understandably stagger under and sob about. Paul was no Stoic; after examining them in detail he said, “But they aren’t worthy to be compared with the glory I find in Christ Jesus and will one day experience in full.”

When Paul urged people to image him even as he imaged the Lord Jesus he wasn’t speaking as if he was close to sinless or even that he was pursuing sinlessness. That was never his point. Of course he believed that followers of Christ were to pursue holiness without which no one can “see” God but he was talking about the shape of his life as a whole. In Chapter 2 Christ thought in a certain way and consequently acted in a certain way and in chapter 3 Paul thought in a certain way and then acted in a certain way. As one member in the Body of Christ he knew he was to rehearse before the world the redeeming work of the Lord Jesus. He wanted to enter deeper and deeper into fellowship with Jesus Christ in His redeeming life, suffering and death that he might experience the fellowship of His resurrection (3:7-11 and 2:5-11).

This is one of the central ways that suffering functions in Philippians and elsewhere. In Romans 8:17-39, a section that is about the experience of suffering and how it “clashes” with the victory of Jesus and the (therefore) expected fulfillment of blessings which haven’t arrived. In 8:29 Paul insists that just as Jesus suffered and then was glorified so his People were commissioned by God to be conformed to the image of His Son. That text isn’t talking about the pursuit of moral excellence—the passage has to do with rehearsing the Story of the entire Bible which culminates with the Lord Christ and His suffering and glory.

Peter finally grasped what he once thought was “strange”. He fervently protested against the Messiah’s suffering and death (Matthew 16:16-23) and what that would have meant but in 1 Peter 1:11; 2:1-10; 3:13—4:6 he shows he “got it” and says, “Don’t think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you; but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed you may also be glad with exceeding joy…” (4:12-14).

Christians suffering! Their inheritance in Christ is heavenly, incorruptible, undefiled, unfading and glorious (1 Peter 1:3, passim) and yet they suffer in all the ways humans suffer, in all the ways that Jesus their Lord suffered. The NT witness would have us believe that Christians in suffering along with the world are rehearsing the redemptive suffering and glory of Christ. They are to do it for God, for the Church and for the world—they are to see themselves as the form the living Christ now takes in the world and by faith they are to choose it to be their destiny—suffering and glory to follow

To reduce all of Christ’s suffering to persecution is foolishness and to claim that only faith-filled endurance of suffering as persecution reflects Jesus—that’s nonsense. It robs people of the possibility of joy in faithfully enduring disease and hurt and loneliness and weariness (see Paul’s list of his troubles in 2 Corinthians 6 & 11).

Believe this: your faith-filled and God-trusting endurance of all he troubles that humans suffer is your part in the “extension” of the Incarnation of God in Christ.

This too is noteworthy. Here’s a man (Paul) who went the distance in pursuit of Christ and still confessed he couldn’t catch up to Him. We’re tempted to think if anyone has fully entered into all that union with Christ means it must have been Paul. He hurries to make clear (3:12), “I’m not suggesting I’ve arrived. Far from it! But I continue the pursuit.” This says a lot about Paul, of course, but it says a lot about Jesus Christ. How much is there to him? If someone pursues him as recklessly as Paul, without counting the cost or holding back, what treasures of joy and pain and longing and achievement must be hidden in Christ?

Hmmm, what treasures can I pull out of my experience? What precious things, what gifts from God for which I should be grateful? And what would lead me without despising them or denying their loveliness to see them as trivia in comparison with Christ and what it means to be part of Him? What would lead me to do more than point to Paul’s experience and wish it were my own? I wonder.

TREASURE IN CLAY POTS

Be patient with me, please, while I speak to this again

Yes, yes, tell me about the heresy. Tell me what made Paul boiling mad in the book of Galatians? So mad that he says, “Ah, go have yourselves castrated.” Galatians 5:12. What made him that angry? In chapter 1 he says, “If you preach some other  gospel than the one I preached to you—God curse you.” What drove him to talk like that?

(Gail O Day wouldnt like that kind of speech. It is fierce and hardly gentlemanly but maybe its a measure of the vast difference between Pauls grasp of the gospel of God and ours; its significance for an entire world and ours. Maybe its a measure of how spellbinding he found it that he raced all over creation shouting it, defending it, bending grammar and the social rules of politeness with eyes blazing while we engage in politically correct religious lecturing. But we should only tolerate his kind of talk when there is a lot at stake. We hear speech almost as savage as his coming from some mouths about issues that are barely worth talking about. A pox on that kind of thing. Walk away!)

What infuriated him was that damning, soul destroying heresy. Yes, thats true but why did the heresy make him mad?

Because it would destroy and/or blind people to the cosmic beauty, the cosmic power, the cosmic shift and uplift, the cosmic transformation that has taken place in the incarnation and redemptive work of God in and through Jesus of Nazareth who is now the Lord Jesus.

That’s what drives Paul close to unbridled emotion. Its not the heresy thats driving him there—end of story—its the gospel that’s being plundered and distorted. If there’s nothing at stake who cares about divergent opinions and philosophies and much less who’s going to be filled with rage?

Paul is enraged because, he says, “If youre right then Christ died for nothing!” Galatians 2.21. He found that simply unbearable. Tell him to calm down and prepare for an earful of fierce speech that will strip you to the bone!

But to major in exposing real or alleged heresies and minor in proclaiming and unpacking the gospel of God if it isn’t a crime in preachers/teachers it’s at least a profound blunder!

We learn things from the biblical witness about the nature and content of truth by following Paul in his treatment of the heresy but that isnt the same as getting the richness of the gospel that comes from the immediate and intentional unpacking of that gospel. Merely to outline and show how Pauls argument works against the 2,000 year old heresy and repeat that again and again and again is not the same as unpacking the gospel in the 21st century.

The same truth holds when we approach the prophets. We learn important truth about the OT gospel of God by paying careful attention to the prophetic denunciation of apostasy and wickedness and what these imply. We must listen to what the prophets actually say but we mustn’t leave it there. We must seek the underlying truths on which the prophet bases his sometimes thundering denunciations and his often wooing appeals.

One of the dangers in our studying is not that we’re too serious but that in our seriousness we spend more time getting to know the ancient heresy now a long time dead than we do to come to know and sometimes marvel at the glory and majesty of the ever-living gospel that the heresy would destroy if it could/would if we ignored it. And even in our day when one heresy or another is alive and well we need to remember that it’s only the glory of the gospel that makes the heresy worth talking about.

I think what I’m saying here is true and helpful but it isn’t gospeling. It talks about what we should do and don’t do what I believe we should consistently do—unpack the gospel.

I think what I’m saying is important because it is part of how we get to what is the source of eternal life—the gospel of God (Romans 1:1). I don’t wish to minimize the importance of that but I want to make the point that it’s the gospel we’re after and that all our digging and our research is supposed to help us to hear the God of the gospel speak to us!

There are some scholars who can do this marvelously well. They dive deep and don’t come up until they surface with treasure that enriches us all. We’re not all capable that way and so we need such people to be God’s instrument of blessing but though we ourselves can’t dive that deep we can often tell the difference between junk or the barely interesting and the thrilling, the enriching and the sustaining proclamation of the Lord of the gospel. And if we do we need to hold our teachers accountable. I don’t mean “hold them accountable” in that hard and flinty way the phrase often suggests. There’s more than one way to call one another “upward”—up to more effort, to more focus. We ought to pray to the Holy Father to bless our teachers but prayer was never meant to be a substitute for our speaking gently but plainly to one another when the need arises.

I do recognize that this can be difficult and sometimes even painful and that, sometimes, I might even have to find courage to engage in it. It’s worth it—sometimes our teachers aren’t aware that we need more than they’re offering. Communication requires at least two and the listener has as much to contribute as the speaker so while we who listen might feel we have something to say to the speaker to help him or her “speak up” I’m sure Someone from time to time will be saying to us listeners “listen up!” At this moment I’m in need of those who teach me to go deeper in the right places and come up with some serious treasure.

(Holy Father, help us we pray. Deliver us from the religious and moral lecturing that so often is offered as a substitute for gospeling. We ask this because we feel the need of it. Do be generous still to your People that we, as your Holy Nation, might have that treasure in clay jars to make known to our world. This prayer in Jesus our Lord.)

 

“HOLINESS, YOU SAY?”

So the Holy One on the cross, streaked with sweat and blood and spit, showered with insults from a surging crowd led by those who were to be His shepherds and protectors; insulted by those whose sick He healed, whose hungry He fed and whose troubles He came to share—that Holy One looks steadily at any seeking sinner whose entire demeanor is that of a crawler, that Holy One looks at him and asks, “Do I look as if I wish you to grovel and crawl and go on and on begging for forgiveness?”
Whatever we think holiness is and whatever we say  holiness is we’re not to forget that scene!
This is the place where divine holiness exposes Sin for what it truly is; this is also the place where divine holiness deals with Sin, where Sin is measured, where Sin is exposed and crucified (Galatians 6:14; 1 Peter 2:24).
At that place Sin isn’t only talked about, isn’t only avoided, isn’t only stripped of its fine perfumed clothing so the crawling vermin are seen; there Sin is dealt with definitively and forever. There grace trumps human sin.
In this particular setting holiness is the Holy Father acting to deliver. The Holy God acts against the corrupt and oppressive powers on behalf of the sinful oppressed. And when the Holy Son cries out, “Father, forgive them, they’d don’t what they’re doing,” He wasn’t informing the Holy Father. The cry was more for the sinners to hear than for His Holy Father for no one knew better than the Holy One on the cross that the heart that beat within Him was the heart of the One He spoke to—the Holy One who was working in the Holy Son to accomplish just what the Holy Son cried out!
We want to know what holiness is? We should look at the Tree.
We wish to know what holiness is? We should look at the life and teaching of the Holy Son who, when the “holy preachers” who avoided the unholy rank and file protested, He said, “They’re awfully sick and I am the only doctor!”

Holiness doesn’t make light of Sin or sins and Matthew 23 makes that crystal clear! Is there a more scathing and sustained piece of literature in the NT? And look you, it’s addressed to the well-off, the leaders, the ones with the influence, those that had plenty and demanded more and more and more! Snakes! Hypocrites! Hell-bound blind fools, plunderers and parasites that fed on the defenseless!

But even that chapter ended with a tearful lament; ended with the image of a mother hen knowing the approach of death and destruction and begs her little mother’s heart out to tiny chicks that pay no attention.

So what is holiness? I mean the holiness that is like His holiness?

(Father, then, what is the difference between Your relentless love and Your  redeeming holiness? Is there none?)

TO BURN OR NOT TO BURN

The English politician and poet, Winthrop Mackworth Praed (1802-1839) said this in one of his poems about everyday characters: The Vicar.

And when religious sects ran mad,
He held, in spite of all his learning,
That if a man’s belief is bad,
It will not be improved by burning.

We’re so tolerant now, especially about the religious views people hold, that the days of burning people at the stake for their views are long gone. They may never return. (I said we’re so tolerant about the religious views of people these days but that’s not true of everyone and as you are well aware it’s not true in some quarters if you happen to be devoutly Christian.)

But you can’t help liking Praed’s vicar for his cheerful common sense view of things. It’s seems patently clear that a man’s convictions aren’t going to be bettered by burning him. But isn’t that so obvious that it isn’t worth saying? I’m not so sure. Haven’t I heard such savage speech from the mouths of preachers that I was sure that if burning were still allowed they’d burn their opponents?

Aren’t there those who smack their lips in relish at the thought that some of us will burn eternally in hell? I was part of a group that an enraged preacher in the next room prayed about; his “prayer” almost commanded God to “Stamp hell on their (our) eyeballs.” What I just said is true!

Others, less colorful in speech and not as candid as others, merely lash their hearers with scorn and occasionally slander. (It’s very often the case that the tongue-lashing is leveled at those who are not there to hear it). They do it in “love” of course but the Scottish author, John Watson, without taking a census, ventured the view that no man is more heartily detested than a sarcastic preacher. If a man’s convictions aren’t made better by burning his body with fire should we pretend they’re made better by roasting his heart with verbal abuse? I myself must take to heart what I’m writing here.

How about this as an example of heartless abuse (abuse that included slander but had no intention of limiting itself to that).

“I believe, right worshipful, that you are not ignorant of what has been determined concerning me [by the Council of Brabent]; therefore I entreat your lordship and that by the Lord Jesus, that if I am to remain here during the winter, you will request the Procureur to be kind enough to send me from my goods which he has in his possession, a warmer cap, for I suffer extremely from cold in the head, being afflicted with a perpetual catarrh, which is considerably increased in this cell. A warmer coat also, for that which I have is very thin: also a piece of cloth to patch my leggings: my overcoat is worn out; my shirts are also worn out. He has a woolen shirt of mine, if he will be kind enough to send it. I have also with him leggings of thicker cloth for putting on above; he also has warmer caps for wearing at night. I wish also to have his permission to have a lamp in the evening, for it is wearisome to sit alone in the dark. But above all, I entreat and beseech your clemency to be urgent with the Procureur that he may kindly permit me to have my Hebrew Bible, Hebrew Grammar, and Hebrew Dictionary, that I may spend my time with that study. And in return, may you obtain your dearest wish, provided always it be consistent with the salvation of your soul. But if, before the end of the winter, a different decision be reached concerning me, I shall be patient abiding the will of God, to the glory of the grace of my Lord Jesus Christ, whose Spirit, I pray, may ever direct your heart. Amen. W. Tindale”

William Tindale (or Tyndale), the English translator and reformer, said that when he sat imprisoned in the state prison at castle Vilvorde in the long cheerless nights of the winter of 1535. They strangled him and burned his body on (Foxe says) the 6th of October the next year after a lengthy trial. Police raids on his printing work, the treachery of people he trusted, the relentless hounding he endured from the Archbishop of Canterbury and Thomas More, a long imprisonment and trial before being strangled for heresy at a bit over forty years of age makes absorbing reading. Well, it’s a bit more than “absorbing”.

Some time ago a correspondent invited me to comment on our tendency to whine and complain despite our many comforts and freedoms (is it not true that many of us have that tendency?). I thought to remark on it and include Tindale’s plea. I think instead I’ll let the above letter speak for itself.

God bless us all with what we need the most whether or not it pleases us.