Monthly Archives: November 2016

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.)