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“Building the Kingdom?”


If you are true to Scripture, following the contours of its teachings past the neat and tidy doctrinal and moral packages that have become convenient substitutes for actually having to look at the Bible for ourselves, then you will eventually bump into what the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther called the Bible’s “furious opposites.” The Bible teaches all of its most important truths by way of paradox: God is one and three; Christ is fully God and fully Human; we are saved by faith without works, but saving faith always includes works; the Bible is the Word of God and the words of human beings.  A paradox is a statement that consists of ideas which on the surface appear to be logical contradictions but which are nevertheless mutually true, and the Bible is chock full of them, which is why no single Biblical verse is ever sufficient to establish a moral or theological position.  The word “canon” refers to standard measurement or collection.  The “canon” of Scripture says that the value of any Biblical book, Biblical text, or Biblical idea is not in what it says all by itself alone, but by what it contributes to the larger conversation of faith.

baseballI once heard the “canon” of Scripture compared to the lines on a baseball field. Balls that fall within those lines are “fair” and in play, while balls that fall outside those lines are “foul” and out of play, and it is only by knowing everything that’s in the Bible on any given topic that we will know where those lines are. And the fact is that the Bible’s “furious opposites” creates an enormous playing field.  There’s lots of room to roam between its lines.

I was reminded of this last week as I was preparing to preach on “Thy Kingdom Come” as part of a summer sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer.  The paradoxical ways of the Bible hit me full force once again as I thought about all of the “furious opposites” that are at work in what the Bible has to say about the Kingdom of God.

It’s “already” and “not yet.”
It’s spiritual and social.
It’s got something to do with the church,
and something to do with the world.
It’s personal and political.
It’s God’s doing and our responsibility.

As I was chasing after the complexity of the Biblical witness about the Kingdom of God this week for my sermon, I came across a letter that the Swiss theologian Karl Barth wrote to one of his students –

karlDear N.N., Many thanks for your kind letter. But what an obstinate fellow you are! You write that you were very impressed with what I told you last week in the Theological School. And now you manage to put down on paper all that nonsense about the kingdom of God that we must build. Dear N.N., in so doing you do not contradict merely one ‘insight’ but the whole message of the Bible. If you persist in this idea I can only advise you to take up any other career than that of a pastor.

Karl Barth, from a letter to a theological student in Basel
Karl Barth: Letters: 1961-1968 (1981), p. 283.


That would certainly have left a mark, but in all fairness, this was an idea that cut pretty close to Dr. Barth’s theological quick. He was a well-known critic of the overly optimistic view of human nature and potential that was so characteristic of the church in his day, and that made him, in turn, thoroughly skeptical of the widespread belief about the inevitable progress of human society. The World Wars in Europe had disabused Karl Barth of any lingering illusions that he might have been harboring from his classically liberal theological training about the perfectibility of this world by human strength and ingenuity alone. He saw precious little evidence of things getting better and better every day and in every way. His reading of the Scriptures – and especially Paul’s Epistle to the Romans – convinced him that humanity was completely incapable of saving itself. He understood that it was going to take nothing less than God Himself breaking in from the outside to rescue us. And so we do not “build the Kingdom” Karl Barth insisted, the Kingdom can only come to us, and clearly this is part of the Biblical witness about the Kingdom. In fact, I would argue that it is the part of the Biblical witness that is most noticeably absent from most of the conversations that I hearing in my part of the church these days. Karl Barth’s perspective is certainly not all that there is to the Biblical witness about the Kingdom, but it is nevertheless an important part of it. And as such, we should expect it to have its own “furious opposite,” and it was John Killinger who gave the most eloquent voice to its paradoxical Biblical counter-point in my experience –

breadThere is something about prayer, about letting the mind be still and waiting upon God, that sensitizes us to the world around us – to the glory of sunsets and the beauty of tears. …As Isaiah in the Temple (6:1-7) became aware of the need for a spokesperson for God, and said, “Here I am, send me,” [when you pray] you find yourself ready to help with the kingdom. …You want to redesign the world in such a way that people are made to suffer less. You want the hungry to be fed and the infirm to walk. You want the blind to see and the deaf to hear.   You want parents to love their children and children to grow up happy and morally committed to the right things. You yourself become committed to the kingdom that human beings have always dreamed of. (Bread for the Wilderness 115)

In my own life of faith, it was Karl Barth who drew the line on one side of the field where the meaning of the Kingdom of God was in play, while it was John Killinger who drew the line on its other side. To be sure, I’m more comfortable on Karl Barth’s side of the field, this is my more natural position spiritually. And so, just like Barth in that rather mean letter that he wrote to a student of his, my initial reflex is to kick, and to kick hard, when I hear somebody glibly talking about what it is that we must do as Christians to bring about or to build the Kingdom of God as if this was something that we are capable of doing as human beings! And then John Killinger yells a sharp “head up” at me from the other side of the field as he fires a fast ball straight at my head… and heart.

Even if building the Kingdom of God is well above my pay grade, John Killinger reminds me, in no uncertain terms, this doesn’t excuse me from doing whatever it is that I can do to personally and socially inhabit the coming Kingdom’s values that have been previewed for us so clearly in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

  • When Christ fed the hungry it was to foreshadow that coming day when there will be no more hunger, and to call us as His disciples to do whatever it is that we can do right now to feed hungry people no matter how incomplete and insufficient that work will be until the Kingdom finally and fully comes.
  • When Christ healed the sick it was to foreshadow the coming day when there will be no more sickness, and to call us as His disciples to do whatever it is that we can do right now to heal sick people no matter how incomplete and insufficient that work will be until the Kingdom finally and fully comes.
  • When Christ set the captives free it was to foreshadow the coming day when there will be no more bondage, and to call us as His disciples to do whatever it is that we can do right now to liberate people no matter how incomplete and insufficient that work will be until the Kingdom finally and fully comes.

francisIt was something that Francis Schaeffer wrote about in his book Pollution and the Death of Man (Tyndale House – 1970) that put in place for me the category that I have operated with ever since about what it is that Christians can reasonably be expected to do about the world’s wounds even though they know that they will not be finally and fully healed short of the in-breaking of the Kingdom at the close of the age when Christ returns.

pollSo there are these multiple divisions (Theological – our division from God; Psychological – our division from ourselves; Sociological – our division from others; Ecological – our division from nature), and one day, when Christ comes back, there is going to be a complete healing of all of them, on the basis of the “blood of the lamb.” But Christians who believe the Bible are not simply called to say that “one day” there will be healing, but that by God’s grace substantially, upon the basis of the work of Christ, substantial healing can be a reality here and now… In all of the areas of our division (Theological, Psychological, Sociological, Ecological) we should expect to see substantial healing. I took a long time to settle on that word “substantial,” but it is, I think, the right word. It conveys the idea of a healing that is not perfect, but that is real, evident, and substantial. (67-68)

Karl Barth said that God is not just humanity speaking “with a loud voice.” What he meant by this was that it’s going to take more than just smart people, and more than just strong people, and more than just sincere people, and more than just busy people to save the world. It’s going to take God. But God goes missing pretty quickly in many of the most urgent appeals to build the Kingdom that I hear sounded. It all gets put on us – on our efforts, on our ingenuity, and on our abilities alone as human beings to fix things.

Karl Barth’s critique of the theology of his day was that it left God out of the equation as the active agent of the world’s salvation. In an essay for First Things on Karl Barth (Confusion of Humanity, Reign of God” https://www.firstthings.com – 9/22/16) Peter Leithart said that when the world spins out of control our first instincts are to rush to cockpit to take over the controls before we crash,” forgetting that this plane already has a pilot. And because of who that pilot is, we know that “confusion is not the final word… confusion will itself be confused and dispelled.” God’s got this.  This is what Karl Barth wants us to know.

But this doesn’t mean that we are just to sit on our hands as God moves history towards His own final redemptive purposes. And this is what John Killinger wants us to know. We are not reduced to just being passive spectators because the Kingdom that’s coming is God’s doing.  No, the way that we show our confidence in what it is that we believe that God is doing is by working for what Francis Schaeffer called those “substantial healings” in every area of human brokenness and division that we face in our lives and in the world today.

We don’t bring the Kingdom by doing these things, but we do bear witness to its reality, and to our certainty that it is coming, and the “furious opposites” combine.   DBS +


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“Something More”


I actually have a certificate signed by the Episcopal Bishop of Los Angeles that says I received the Holy Spirit together with His Sevenfold Gifts (Isaiah 11:1-2) when he laid his hands on me at my Confirmation in 1965 when I was 12 years old. But up to that point, and for a number of years afterwards, my experience of the Holy Spirit was just about as flat as that piece of paper.

In 1974 Catherine Marshall wrote her book Something More in which she explained that there is “a big difference between being indwelt by the Spirit and being ‘filled’ with His presence.” She explained that “for years (and sometimes for a lifetime) a Christian can keep the Spirit at a sub-basement level by the insistence on running one’s own life. Then through teaching or need – or both – that person recognizes his divine Guest’s presence, opens hitherto closed doors into crayon rooms in his being so that the Spirit can enter there too… It is not God’s attitude toward us that needs to be changed, but our attitude toward Him.  He will not give us anything new; rather we are to receive in a new and far fuller sense that which He has already given us at Pentecost… Sunlight can be kept out only by erecting barriers against it.  All we need do then, is take down our shutters and barriers and walk out into the sunlight already given” (276).  Until and unless this happens, she said, we will operate at a level well below what God intends for us spiritually, and we will experience this deficit as “an aching void in our hearts.”

It was a feeling of this kind of emptiness that brought J. Rodman Williams, a well-known and highly respected Presbyterian theologian, to the place of seeking “something more.”  In his 1972 book The Pentecostal Reality he wrote –

At the heart of much of our life and activity a deep spiritual crisis exists. Despite multiple attempts by the church at reassessment and relevance, there remains the haunting sense of something lacking or unfulfilled and a feeling of spiritual impotence… Where, many are asking, is the dynamic reality of God’s presence? In an article appearing in “The Christian Century” (May 13, 1979) entitled “The Power of Pentecost: We Need it More Now Than Ever,” the author asks, “Why in every sector of Christianity today… [is] there so little evidence of spiritual power…?” “I am haunted,” he continues, “by the memory of Pentecost and its power surging into the hearts of the disciples long, long ago.  Where is that power today?  Can it come among us again?”  Then, finally, he adds, “It is time we took Pentecost seriously and eagerly received a new infusion of the Holy Spirit.”

I believe that it is this awareness of “something missing” that prepares us for the “something more” that the experience of the fullness of the Holy Spirit brings into our spiritual lives.  It’s when we hunger and thirst for the reality of the things that we believe are true that we will start to ask, and knock, and seek, and that’s when Jesus said that the fullness of the Holy Spirit will be given to us (Luke 11:13).

My spiritual awakening happened in 1965.  That’s when I was “born again,” and I believe that it was at that time that I was forgiven and given the gift of the Holy Spirit.  The indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit is just “part of the package” of Christian conversion Biblically.  You can’t be a Christian and not have the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:37-38; Romans 8:9; I Corinthians 12:3; Galatians 3:1-5). But in my experience it wouldn’t be for another six years that I would “receive” or “make welcome” the Holy Spirit who indwelt me when I first believed.  For six long years the Holy Spirit had been living in the house of my life, but I wasn’t aware of His presence or consciously plugged into His power.  This happens because, as the Reformed Biblical Theologian Geerhardus Vos (1862-1949) explained –

In (the) great redeeming process two stages are to be distinguished. First come those acts of God which have a universal and objective significance, being aimed at the production of an organic center for the new order of things. After this had been accomplished, there follows a second stage during which this objective redemption is subjectively applied to individuals.

I’d believed the objective work of God in Christ to save me, but I’d not had a conscious experience of this saving work of God in Christ subjectively applied to me. I see this dynamic at work in the great “Apostolic Benediction” of 2 Corinthians 13:14 –

“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God,
and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.”

Salvation is the work of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It originates in the love of the Father.  It is accomplished by the grace of the Son in the finished work of His atoning death, burial and resurrection.   And it is applied by the communion of the Holy Spirit, by the way that the Holy Spirit communicates God’s grace in Christ to us and facilitates our sharing in it.  When we resist (Acts 7:51), quench (1 Thessalonians 5:19), and grieve the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30), we close the door on the Spirit’s indwelling and empowering presence in our lives, and miss the conscious experience of the adequate spiritual dynamic for the living of the Christian life that God in Christ intends for us.

Jeffrey Simmons was an Episcopal Priest who was irritated when some members of his parish kept urging him to go to a certain conference where he could “get the Spirit.”   He finally wound up going, but resolved that he wasn’t going to let anybody pray for him while he was there.  Dodging offers to be prayed over at every turn, and becoming increasingly irritated by the whole idea, he finally retreated to a quiet garden where he could hide.

Sitting with my back against the trunk of a tree, I tried to sort out my feelings. I felt trapped (someone else had driven and I didn’t have a car.)  I felt pressured and manipulated… But as the sunlight sparkling through the cool green leaves started to calm me, I became aware that I (also) felt curious and a little ashamed of myself for not being more adventurous.  The theme of the conference, boiled down to the essentials, was nothing more than, “God wants to have a closer and more productive relationship with you, if you will just open yourself to receive it.”  I couldn’t argue with that… so I sat under that tree fir an hour and a half praying the hardest I had ever prayed in my life, “Dear God, if you have something for me that I don’t have, I’ll take it.”

Several decades later, I still look back at that time of prayer with gratitude. I was not aware, when I emerged from under the tree, that anything had changed.  It was not an emotional experience at all.  The changes happened gradually over the next six months.  Prayer became a hunger, and the sense of God’s presence far more intense.  The amount of money I spent on Christian books increased dramatically. The biggest change, however, was what happened when I read the Bible.  Passages I had read fifty times took on a vividness and urgency that were almost disorienting.  All I had said was, “God, if you have something for me that I don’t have, I’ll take it.” …It simply says, as I think Christians should always say, that God always has more for me, and I am standing before him with empty, receptive hands.

Biblically, I believe that the normal Christian life consists of both being “born again” (John 3:3) and of being “Spirit-filled” (Ephesians 5:18). Jesus Christ as the Savior came to do both.  He is the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), and He is the “One who baptizes in the Holy Spirit” (John 1:33).  But my spiritual life had been artificially truncated because nobody ever told me this, or showed me in Scripture how this was so.  As the disciples of John the Baptist told Paul outside of Ephesus in Acts 19:2 – I hadn’t even been told “that there was a Holy Spirit!”  And then, everything changed for me when at a prayer meeting when I was encouraged to “receive” or “make welcome” the Holy Spirit.  I did, and what I had known for a long long time was true suddenly became just as real to me, in me, and that’s the promise that Pentecost holds for each one of us.  “Come Holy Spirit, Come!DBS +





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O Root of Jesse…

O Root of Jesse, you stand for a sign to the peoples;
before you kings are silent, and Gentiles pray with longing:


Come now and set us free!


The third “O” Antiphon that the church prays as part of her spiritual preparation for the coming of Christ at Christmastime is rooted in the Messianic Promise that God made in His Covenant with David found in 2 Samuel chapter 7 –

Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: “Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth… 12 When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom… 16 Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.”

In the days of the Prophet Isaiah when the Davidic Kingdom faltered during the Babylonian Conquest, and the continuing validity of this Divine promise that David’s “house and kingdom shall be made sure forever before the Lord,” and that David’s “throne shall be established forever” seemed in doubt, the Covenantal promise of 2 Samuel 7 was prophetically reasserted in what we as Christians now read as a Messianic Prophecy (Isaiah 11) fulfilled in Jesus –

roots1 A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,     the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.  His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.   He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

The Gospel of Matthew – the “gateway” from the Hebrew Scriptures into the Christian Scriptures – comes right out of the chute making the argument that Jesus is the fulfillment of these promises made to David.  The Gospel of Matthew opens with a genealogy that establishes Jesus to be the Christ, the “Son of David” traced through the royal line. After His birth, Matthew tells us about the Magi who came from the east seeking the One who had been born “the King of the Jews,” setting in motion a tale of brutal violence committed by the reigning King of the Jews – Herod (Matthew 2).  Large swaths of Christ’s teachings in the Gospel of Matthew concern the “Kingdom of heaven.”  He rides into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday at the start of Holy Week triumphantly welcomed as a king (Matthew 21).  When Jesus was crucified it was with a placard nailed to the cross above His head that read: “This is Jesus the King of the Jews” (27:37). And the very last thing that Jesus says in the Gospel of Matthew, the “Great Commission,” begins, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth…” (Matthew 28:18).  It is very clear that the Gospel of Matthew wants us to view Jesus Christ as the promised King from the house of David who has come to inaugurate his eternal reign.  In fact, the Gospel of Matthew teaches us to pray for it.


Every Sunday morning we pray the Lord’s Prayer together in worship at church, and one of its petitions is for the Kingdom to Come. In fact, we pray for the Kingdom to come as the very first petition of the prayer and then we turn around and close the prayer with its affirmation in the words – “For Thine is the Kingdom, and the Power, and the Glory forever.” So, what are you praying for and affirming when you say these words?  When I pray them I am praying for something existential, something evangelistic, something ethical, and something eschatological.

“Thy Kingdom Come” – Something Existential

When I pray “Thy Kingdom Come” its first reference is to my heart where Jesus Christ has promised to come and set up shop as Lord (John 14:23).  I think that this is what Jesus meant when He said the Kingdom is “within” us (John 17:21 KJV).  This existential experience of Christ’s indwelling presence is instrumental to my whole understanding of Christianity.

“Thy Kingdom Come” – Something Evangelistic

I believe that the Gospel invitation that we have been commissioned to extend to others consists of this existential experience of Christ’s indwelling and empowering presence. And so when I pray “Thy Kingdom Come” I also understand it to be an expression of the church’s evangelistic mandate to preach the Gospel and make disciples.

“Thy Kingdom Come” – Something Ethical

And when I pray “Thy Kingdom Come” an equally compelling dimension of its meaning for me is ethical.   I believe that by the Word and the Spirit we who are Christians have access to the Mind of Christ.  Not comprehensively, mind you, but substantially nonetheless.  We know what it is that Christ wants, and what it is that He is moving all creation towards.  He wants a world of justice, peace, freedom, dignity, wholeness, sufficiency and righteousness for all.  He wants human beings to flourish and thrive, and He calls us to cooperate with Him in bringing this about.

“Thy Kingdom Come” – Something Eschatological.

The Kingdom that we pray to come is personal and social. It’s spiritual and material. And it’s already here, and it has not yet fully arrived.  And so when I pray “Thy Kingdom Come” it is always with the final consummation in mind.   The Gospel promises will forever be unfulfilled and the work of Christ’s salvation will forever be incomplete apart from Christ’s personal, visible, glorious return at the close of the age. Maranatha… Even so, come quickly, Lord Jesus.

And all of this is involved in the annual spiritual run-up to Christmas when I pray with the whole church the third “O” Antiphon –

O Root of Jesse, you stand for a sign to the peoples;
before you kings are silent, and Gentiles pray with longing:
Come now and set us free!


                                                                                                                  DBS +


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“What is lost by Letting Go of the “Happenedness” of the Gospel?”

A Conversation across Time with Marcus Borg – Part 3


The Bottom Line:  “The Power of God for Salvation”


bwA man cannot pray to Dr. Alfred North Whitehead’s “Principle of Concretion” or to Dr. Henry Nelson Wieman’s “Integrating Factor in Experience.”  The fact does not impugn the value of these philosophies.  They give light and leading, and serve particularly well our present age.  But the fact remains that we can hold no comradeship with an abstract noun.  We cannot talk to “The Life Essence” or “The Power Not Ourselves That Makes for Righteousness,” or even to “The Good, the Beautiful, and the True.”  Some may claim that they pray in vaguest understanding to “The All” or to the “World-Ground,” and the claim is sincere.  But, since it is not in human nature to discuss life with a wall, or to plead earnestly with a fog, these agnostic souls must assume, however dimly, a “Spirit” in “The All” – a “Spirit” which however unlike their own, has some kinship with them.

George Arthur Buttrick – Prayer (Abingdon – 1942) [65-66]


I have sometimes said, half-jokingly, that Mary Lynn, my wife of 40 years now, loves the thought of me; it’s my reality that proves challenging to her from time to time.  And Hanan Schlesinger, our Rabbi friend, more than once in our Faiths in Conversation programs through the years has explained that he doesn’t love his wife in abstraction; he loves his wife concretely by “taking out the garbage.”  All of which is to say that we don’t live our lives in the world of ideas.

We are not beings of pure spirit who exist by entertaining big thoughts and inhabiting the realm of noble ideals.  We are people of flesh and blood who need to eat and sleep, who feel pleasure and pain, who get hungry, cold and sick.  As the late F. Forrester Church, the insightful Unitarian Universalist Minister, in an essay for Phillip Berman’s the book The Search for Meaning (Ballantine – 1990), explained –

I’m not sure I became a minister until I presided over my first funeral.  My own definition of religion comes out of those experiences, with people who are dying, with families who are struggling.  My own definition of religion is that it’s our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die.  And following that definition, I believe each of us is a religious being.  We probably are the religious animal.  We are the one animal who knows that we are going to die and therefore have to make some sense of who we are, why we live, what the purpose of life is, where we come from, and where we are going.  Birth and death are the two hinges upon which life turns. (388)

And this brings me to the bottom line in this series of “Borg Blogs” that I have been posting in recent weeks about what I think gets lost when we let go of the “Happenedness” of the Gospel.   You see, my fundamental problem as a human being is not primarily that I am ignorant.  Oh, ignorant I certainly am, it’s just that this is not my core issue.  More and better information, while obviously useful, is never going to be the solution to what ails me most deeply, spiritually and morally.

My very first professor of theology in seminary startled us one day when he said that Jesus Christ was not a particularly “novel” teacher.  In fact, he told us that virtually everything Jesus Christ ever said as reported in the Gospels had been taught by the Hebrew prophets and sages long before Him.  As Paul put it, the Law is “holy, righteous and good” (Romans 7:12).  In other words, long before Jesus came we already had a more than adequate expression of what it was that God expected of us as human beings morally and spiritually.  The Law has been written on both tablets of stone and on the contours of our hearts.  If all it takes for us to get “right” and then to stay “right” with God is information, then by Exodus 20 we should have been set.  We got all the content we ever needed on Sinai.  But my core issue is not intellectual.  Salvation is not a sudden flash of insight, or the discovery of some cosmic truth that organizes my thinking and forever clarifies my understanding.  I’ve got bigger problems than that, much bigger.

I’ve never forgotten how Nathaniel Hawthorne began his “great American novel,” The Scarlet Letter

The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.

And that gets us much closer to my core issue as a human being – I’m a sinner and I’m going to die.  That jail house and grave yard is for me.  As the prayer of confession that I cut my spiritual teeth on in church growing up put it –

We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep.  We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.  We have offended against thy holy laws.  We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done; and there is no health in us.

My problem is not that I don’t know what God expects of me or wants for the world.  My problem is not with my definitions of justice or mercy, or with my conceptions of righteousness and peace.  No, my problem is with being consistently just and merciful, with conscientiously pursuing righteousness and peace with all of my heart, mind, soul and strength.  Oh, I know what I’m supposed to do and how I’m supposed to be.  And frankly, that’s what condemns me.  The gap between what I ought to be and do and what I actually am and do is painfully wide.  Romans 7:14-24 is the near perfect description of my spiritual dilemma. I know what’s good and right. I even want to do what’s good and right, honestly I do!  But somehow, I always wind up not doing the good quite as completely as goodness demands or the right quite as thoroughly as rightness deserves.  Fortunately for me, and for people like me, “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1), for it was while we were “yet sinners,” that God “proved” His love for us in the death of Christ on the cross (Romans 5:8).  And this is where my faith finally comes down with its full weight – not on the nobility of the things that Jesus Christ said, but on the sufficiency of the things that Jesus Christ did.

cupI don’t go the Lord’s Table every Sunday morning and read the Sermon on the Mount to my gathered congregation, or direct their attention to some other “red letter” teaching of Jesus Christ from the Gospels, important and true as I believe it all to be.  Unlike Buddhism, Christianity doesn’t have “Four Noble Truths” that constitute the essence of what it is that we believe.  What Christianity has is a cross and a Savior.  The bread is broken in remembrance of His body broken for us on the cross.  The cup is shared in remembrance of His blood shed for us on the cross.  Jesus didn’t die as a martyr for His teachings.  Jesus died as a sacrifice for our sins. I am not saved by ideas, no matter how true and noble those ideas may be.   I am saved by what God did for me, and for you, and for all, in Jesus Christ.

What saves me is what happened on Christmas morning when Christ was born, on Good Friday afternoon when Christ died, on Easter Sunday morning when Christ was raised, on Ascension Thursday when Christ was glorified, on Pentecost Sunday when the indwelling and empowering Spirit was poured out and on what will happen on that day in the future when Christ will come again in glory to finally and fully establish His kingdom that will have no end.  These are what British theologian Alister McGrath calls the Gospel’s “hard historical facts” (What was God Doing on the Cross – Zondervan – 1992 – p. 37), explaining that “If these events did not happen, then the credentials of Christianity are destroyed.”

ManchenIn his “Introduction” to the reprint J. Gresham Machen’s classic defense of the claims of historic Christianity – Christianity & Liberalism (1923) – Carl Trueman explained that the issue that was at stake in the Modernist/Fundamentalist controversy in the first few decades of the 20th century from Machen’s perspective was the way that the “scientific objections” of his day to “the particularities of the Christian Religion,” namely “the doctrines of the person of Christ (Fully Human/Fully Divine) and of redemption through His death and resurrection,” had led some to conclude that such ideas were no longer acceptable to the modern mind and that if Christianity didn’t change then it would die.   In their minds, in order to salvage Christianity, the Gospel’s particularities (the Incarnation, Christ’s Atoning death and His Resurrection from the dead on the third day) all had to be reworked from being the actual events of salvation history as the New Testament reports and the church had proclaimed and believed them to be into “general principles of religion” of which these “particularities” were but the “symbols” (5).  Machen saw this shift as seismic.  He regarded it as the beginning of an entirely different religion from the Christianity that had been believed and taught by previous generations of Christians.  And while that might have been an overstatement born more of the heat than the light of the moment, this is the watershed that still separates people of faith like Marcus Borg, now of blessed memory, from people of faith like me.

The “happenedness” of the Christ event is assumed by all of the New Testament documents.  The New Testament reads as the eyewitness reports of people who had “a historical experience of the great event of salvation” (Rudolf Schnackenburg).  And while these claims have been challenged by critical scholarship, other equally capable scholars have credibly defended the New Testament’s claims about the “happenedness” of the Christ event.  At best, scholarship winds up in a draw.  Probability and not certainty is the most that either side can claim, and the fact is that they both claim it.  And so, the tipping point for what one finally believes is going to have to be lodged somewhere else.

In his book Humble Apologetics (Oxford University Press – 2002), theologian John Stackhouse concluded with a story about a lunch that he was having one day with a friend who was involved in campus ministry.  Knowing that any claim he made for Christ would always be challenged by the brightest students and the best professors at the Universities he visited, this guy wanted John to give him the “silver bullet” arguments that would decisively and definitively seal the deal for Christian faith.  And what John told him was that there were no such arguments apart from knowing the difference that having Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior has made in your own life and for your world.   Quoting Rodney Clapp, John told his friend that all we can do is “propose rather than impose Christ” (166).  With genuine conviction we can offer what we have, “what we know from what we have experienced, thought about and lived” because it has changed our lives and seems to us to be “overwhelmingly true, good and beautiful” (166).

This is the difference between “knowing Christianity to be true” and “showing Christianity to be true” that William Lane Craig makes in his book Reasonable Faith (Crossway – 2008 – p.43).  Only the heart “knows” that Christianity is true.  This is the assurance that only the Holy Spirit can give. But Christianity can nevertheless be “shown” to be true in ways that are credible to the head.  There are good and sufficient grounds for believing what the New Testament tells us about who Jesus Christ is and what Jesus Christ has done.  But faith cannot be compelled by these arguments or by that evidence.  Finally it is the experience of the Gospel in my life and the world that persuades me to have confidence in what the New Testament says.

For all that was excessive, conditioned and limited in J. Gresham Machen’s argument of 100 years ago (Christianity & Liberalism – 1923), as far as I am concerned this much still stands –

The basis of salvation [is] the redeeming work of Christ… Jesus is our Savior, not because He has inspired us to live the same kind of life that He lived, but because He took upon Himself the dreadful guilt of our sins and bore it instead of us on the cross (99).… [And this means] that Christianity does depend on something that happened… for “gospel” means “good news,” tidings, information about something that has happened.  A gospel independent of history is a contradiction of terms (102).… The reality of an atonement for sin depends altogether upon the New Testament presentation of the Person of Christ (107).… Where shall true Christian experience be found if not in the blessed peace which comes from Calvary? (109)

For a Christian whose whole life and faith centers on the Lord’s Supper and the saving work of God in Jesus Christ to which the broken bread and poured cup unswervingly points, the “happenedness” of the Gospel looms large in importance.  I believe that the Gospel is the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes (Romans 1:16), and that the Gospel that saves us if we believe it consists of three facts that the New Testament reports as having actually happened – “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (I Corinthians 15:3-4).  If these things didn’t happen as the New Testament says that they did, then what the New Testament says that they mean begins to unravel and we are left trapped in our sins and dead in our graves (I Corinthians 15:17-18).  And every time I set the Lord’s Table and invite people to the feast of God’s grace made known to us in what Jesus Christ did on Calvary’s cross, I am guilty of misrepresenting God and of being willfully stupid (I Corinthians 15:14-15; 19). No, all things considered, I choose instead to be unashamed of the Gospel as the New Testament tells us it happened and confident about what the New Testament tells us it means because I know its power in my heart and I see its power in the world.  DBS+

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“What is lost by letting go of the ‘Happenedness’ of the Gospel?”

A Conversation across Time with Marcus Borg

marcusMarcus Borg died on Wednesday, January 21, 2015.  Since his death, the social media postings of many of my cyber-friends and acquaintances, both people I know “in the flesh,” as well as people I only know electronically, have written heartfelt tributes about how Marcus Borg was the scholar who saved their Christianity.   And while I certainly honor their journeys and the cherished role that Dr. Borg played in them, this has not been my journey and this was certainly not the role that Dr. Borg  played in mine.  As I explained last week in my blog, Dr. Borg was one of the “house” critics whom I intentionally invited into my faith to help keep things honest.  He didn’t “save” my faith.  If anything, he challenged it. And while he helped me to see a number of things in the Gospels that I might have otherwise overlooked, where I found myself most at odds with him was at the point of our presuppositions.  I directed folks in my blog last week to take a good look at Dr. Borg’s essay: “Has Christmas Been Swallowed by the Miraculous?” – December 11, 2014 – http://www.patheos.com to better understand his basic point of view.  He didn’t think that the miraculous details of the Gospel narratives actually happened, but that they nevertheless mattered as symbols of significance – not “factual” but still “true.”  And then he challenged people like myself who believe that they actually happened, and that it matters that they did, to explain ourselves.  He ended that essay with a string of questions – “What is lost by letting go of that?” “Is anything gained by thinking of these elements in the stories as affirmations of the significance of Jesus?” “Does the truth of Christmas (and Christianity for that matter) depend upon the ‘happenedness’ of the miraculous?”  “Is its truth more-than-factual?” 

Although my relationship with Marcus Borg was very different from that of so many of my colleagues and peers, he was nevertheless a highly valued and deeply respected conversation partner in my faith’s formation and expression. My “festschrift” of him is therefore going to be an attempt to answer his questions just as clearly and honestly as I can.  Because there is, at least to my way of thinking, way too much theological “taunting” these days  – progressives mocking the imagined stupidity of people of traditional faith like me, and people of traditional faith like mine making the room reservations and bunk assignments for progressives in hell – I will not write argumentatively but confessionally.  I will tell you what I think and believe in these postings, and try to explain why.  I kept Marcus Borg around my faith as I did because he was always such a respectful guest.  He challenged me, but I never felt demeaned by him.  He pushed me, and at times he pushed me hard, but I never felt abused by him.  Despite our disagreements, at several points “foundational” differences, I nevertheless felt like Marcus Borg always treated me with spiritual and intellectual respect as a fellow member of the household of faith (Galatians 6:10; Ephesians 2:19).  And the best way for me to honor his memory and value his contributions to my faith is to take up the challenge of his questions in that same spirit. 

Theologian Karl Barth thought that the theology of Friedrich Schleiermacher was an example of everything that had gone wrong with Christianity in his day.   And yet, in his introduction to the German edition to his volume on Protestant Thought (1959), Karl Barth wrote –

“I believe one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.”  And if I seriously intend to listen to a theologian of the past – whether it be Schleiermacher or Ritschl or anyone else – then I must mean this “I believe” seriously, unless I have been released from this obligation by private inspiration!   That is, regardless of my myriad opinions I must include these people in the Christian Church.  And in view of the fact that I myself, together with my theological work, belong to the Christian Church solely on the basis of forgiveness, I have no right to deny or even to doubt that they were as fundamentally concerned as I am about the Christian faith.

I strongly disagreed with Marcus Borg about the “happenedness” of the Gospel narratives.  I think that some important things are lost when this is given away.  But I never doubted that Marcus Borg was as “fundamentally concerned as I am about the Christian faith.”  And when this series is finished, my deepest hope is that even though you might very well disagree with me, that at least you will acknowledge that it is a considered position and admit that we who hold it, or something like it, are as “fundamentally concerned about the Christian faith” as you are.  I think this approach would please and best honors Dr. Borg whose faith has now become sight (2 Corinthians 5:7) and who “knows just as fully as he is known” (I Corinthians 13:12).  DBS+


 First Things First:  Establishing the Claim of the “Happenedness” of the Gospel
“What we have seen with our eyes, what we beheld and our hands handled…”


Every Wednesday at noon at the church I serve we have a Bible study.  Thirty to forty folks gather each week with a sack lunch and their Bibles in hand, and we take an hour to work through a New Testament book, chapter by chapter, verse by verse.  After more than 2 years in Romans, last week we started I John.  We took the first three verses in a single bite –

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life–  this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us–  we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.

The people in the room for this Bible Study are all smart and sophisticated people. They are doctors and accountants, businesspeople and attorneys, bankers and financial managers, real estate agents and retired teachers.  And after reading these first few verses of I John, had you asked any of them what they thought the author was telling them, to a person they would have told you that what they thought they were looking at was an eyewitness account of something that had really happened.

Robert W. Yarbrough in his Commentary on I, 2 & 3 John (Baker Academic 2008) summarizes the argument of these verses under the heading of “Eyewitness Privilege and Proclamation,” and develops the argument in five points (32) –

1. The fact of the Incarnation (1:1)
2. The validity of eyewitness testimony (1:1-3)
3. What the Incarnation manifested (1:1-2)
4. The truth and import of the Incarnation (1:1-3)
5. The goal of the proclamation (1:3)

Quoting the conclusion of the Catholic New Testament scholar Rudolf Schnackenburg about these verses at the beginning of I John, Yarbrough wrote: “the wording of the verses backs the claim that the viewpoint is one of ‘people who have had a historical experience of the great event of salvation’” (35). In other words, these trained New Testament scholars read I John 1:1-3 in pretty much the same way that the people in my noon Bible Study on Wednesdays read them.

Of course, we could all be wrong.

This claim by the author of I John to have been an eyewitness to the historical happenings of the Christ Event could have all been made up, a complete fabrication with either innocent or malevolent intent.  Somebody might have just been trying to be creative, you know, trying to gild the rose, or deceptive, deliberately trying to lead us astray.  Or it could have been an illusion, the ravings of a madman who thought that he saw something when nothing was actually there.  We will have to think and talk about these possibilities later in this blog series.  But for right now, all I want to point out is that on the surface, the author of I John purports to be an eyewitness reporter of the Christ event.  I John begins with its author telling us that he had really seen something, or, in this case, somebody, with his own two eyes, and heard Him with his own two ears, and touched Him with his own two hands, and that he wanted us to know all about what he had seen, heard and touched in order that we might enter into his experience with Him as well.  And this claim is not unique to I John.

In Acts 26, in his appearance before King Agrippa, after telling the story of his arrest for preaching the Gospel of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection, Paul, when accused of being crazy for believing and teaching such things (26:24), responded: “I am not out of mind… but I utter words of sober truth… for the king knows about these matters, and I speak to him with confidence, since I am persuaded that none of these things escape his notice; for this has not been done in a corner” (26:25-26).  In other words, Paul believed that the Christianity he preached was based on something that really happened, on something that happened outwardly on the stage of public history where people could see it, touch it and hear it.  In other words, he was not making this stuff up; it had been observed, it could be checked out, verified.

Carl Trueman in his foreword to the new edition of J. Gresham Machen’s 1923 Christianity & Liberalism (Eerdmans) observed-

If any simple Christian of one hundred years ago, or even today, were asked what would become of his religion if history should prove indubitably that no man called Jesus ever lived and died in the first century of our era, he would undoubtedly answer that his religion would fall away. (4)

And this sounds to me like an echo of Paul’s own conclusion in I Corinthians 15 that if Christ had not been not been raised from the dead, which he had just taken great pains to establish as being both the heart of the Gospel message (15:1-4) and an actual event   that people had seen and could verify (15:5-11), then both our preaching and our faith are “vain” (15:14), we are “false witnesses” of God (15:15), we are dead in our sins and our graves (15:17-18), and we are gullible fools (15:19).

Machen’s argument back in 1923 was that our spiritual experience as Christians today, what he described as the Gospel’s subjective “effects” in our hearts, were rooted and grounded in something that actually happened in history.   It’s the baptismal argument of Romans 6 all over again.  We have been raised to walk in newness of life – our present spiritual experience (6:4) through our personal identification with and participation in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ by faith – the saving act of God in Jesus Christ that played out on the stage of history (6:3-5).

Dr. Borg was representative of many who have separated these two things in their minds and heart.  Finding the “happenedness” of the saving act of God in Jesus Christ on the stage of history to be historically improbable and scientifically incredible, they have cast the claims made by the New Testament authors about Jesus Christ to be creative inventions that were designed to convey spiritual truths and foster spiritual experiences without being in any sense a reliable account of history, a trustworthy report of anything that ever actually happened anywhere outside the human heart and in the religious imagination.  Again, we will have to come back around to this divide, to this “ugly ditch” between the claim of the “happenedness” of the Gospel and the validity of its spiritual effects in the lives of believers.  We will have to explore further the reasons why some find it impossible to take the New Testament’s claims of God’s saving work in Jesus Christ (Incarnation, Atonement, Resurrection, and Ascension) to be historical, and why others of us find it credible, but for now, the only point I am trying to make is that it is a completely natural and reasonable way to read the New Testament documents as the accounts of “people who have had a historical experience of the great event of salvation.”  They purport to be the eyewitness accounts of people who think that they saw something that really happened, and that they want us to know about because if it did, it changes everything.

In closing, I want to share something that Stephen T. Davis, a professor of Philosophy at Claremont McKenna College, wrote in the introduction of his book Risen Indeed: Making Sense of the Resurrection (Eerdmans 1993).  He speaks for all of us who hold the event of the Gospel, its “happenedness,” together with the effects of the Gospel, its spiritual impact on our lives and in our world.

…Let me separate two questions about the resurrection of Jesus.  The first is: “Did it really happen? (or “What really happened?).  The second is: “What does it or should it mean to us?”  A surprising number of Christian scholars believe that the second question is more important than the first.  Some argue that the first question is a modern question quite alien to the New Testament texts.   Hans Kung says, “All questions about the historicity of the empty tomb and the Easter experience cease to count beside the question of the significance of the resurrection message.   After discussing what he takes to be the theological significance of the resurrection of Jesus in the synoptic Gospels, Norman Perrin says, “These are the meanings of the resurrection so far as the evangelists are concerned, and as such they are more important than the question of “What actually happened” in terms of appearance stories and empty tomb traditions.

For myself, I would not know how to judge which of the two question is more important.  I am not even sure that such a judgment would mean anything that could be coherently expressed.  But I am convinced that the resurrection means little unless it really happened.  If the resurrection of Jesus turns out to have been a fraud or a pious myth or even somehow an honest mistake, then there is little reason (for me) to think about it or find meaning in it.   Perhaps it would provide some lessons about courageously facing death, but that would be about all.  Furthermore, it is not true that the first question is unbiblical.   I agree that the New Testament authors were interested in proclaiming the resurrection faith and that their writings ought not primarily to be classified as examples of scientific history or philosophical theology. But I am quite sure that they were deeply interested in convincing people that Jesus really rose from the dead.   And I am not sure how you go about convincing people that “X” rise from the dead without having to talk about “what really happened to “X” after “X’s” death. (viii-ix)

And to be perfectly honest, neither am I. DBS+



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“Be Born in Us Today”


A Christmas Pentecost

Christmas, by itself as the birthday of Jesus, could lend itself to a great deal of sentimentality, which is most welcome in winter time…  In the light of Pentecost, however, we are not left to ourselves in our effort to cheer up a cold world torn apart by human strife and suspicion.  The child Jesus, born in Bethlehem, grew up to be a man.  He died and rose again.  He has come back in the Spirit who was given on Pentecost… [and this] Christ must be born in us.  This is the decision before which Christmas places us… we are asked to make up our minds whether we will continue in our own spirit or in the Spirit of the Christ child.

Evangelism and Contemporary Theology (98)

                                                                                      Pieter De Jong – Tidings – 1962


Back in 2009 I read a fascinating blog written by a United Methodist minister (“Christmas Christians, Easter Christians, and Pentecost Christians” – Rev. Dan Dick – “United Methodeviations” @ http://doroteos2.com/about/).  He identified “Christmas Christians, Easter Christians, and Pentecost Christians” not by when they show up in church for worship, but by the distinctive emphases of their particular version of Christianity. He summarized them this way –

cradleChristmas Christians form a deep relationship with Jesus, wanting to know Jesus personally, follow Jesus’ teachings exactly, and live life in a way they believe is pleasing to God.  Right belief is a driving force for Christmas Christians.

grassEaster Christians seek to understand the risen Christ, to live lives that reflect the power and presence of Jesus the Christ in the world today.  Behavior pleasing to God in the form of mercy, grace, justice, and love shape this worldview.


orangePentecost Christians seek to be the incarnate body of Christ in the world, guided and empowered by the Holy Spirit.  Shunning legalism and exclusion, this worldview embraces a future grounded in the vision of the realm of God, and refuses to be bound by the past.

David Bosch in his book Transforming Mission (Eerdmans/Orbis 1991) expanded the categories by naming the six “salvific events” of Christ’s life and the corresponding kinds of Christians that each one of these saving acts produces – (1) Christmas Christians who emphasize the Incarnation of Christ; (2) Good Friday Christians who emphasize the Atonement of Christ; (3) Easter Christians who emphasize the Resurrection of Christ; (4) Ascension Christians who emphasize the Lordship of Christ; (5) Pentecost Christians who emphasize the continuing indwelling and empowering Presence of Christ; and (6) “Parousia,” or Second “Coming” Christians who emphasize Christ’s return in Glory and the establishment of His Kingdom that will have no end.  With Rev. Dick, Dr. Bosch agreed that the saving work of God in Jesus Christ is more than just one thing that solves more than just one problem, and that different Christians, by emphasizing one or another of these saving aspects of the work of Christ, have different “flavors.”  But none of this should be taken as the endorsement of one dimension of Christ’s saving work over some other aspect of His saving work.

Just because we tend to pick and choose doesn’t mean that we’re supposed to.  In fact, by approaching Christianity like the cakeserving line at Luby’s Cafeteria, it’s real easy to wind up with an unbalanced meal of nothing but desserts. Some of my Pentecostal friends used to call themselves “full Gospel” Christians, and I really liked that language, only I’d take it even further than they did.  To them being “full Gospel” meant that Pentecost needed to be added to their Christmas/Good Friday/Easter Christianity. I’d use “full Gospel” to refer to a Christianity that embraced all six salvific Christ events.  It seems to me that to be a Biblically balanced Christian you need to have a Biblically comprehensive faith, and so to the question, “Are you a Christmas Christian, an Easter Christian or a Pentecost Christian?” I’d answer “Yes, I am,” and then I would quickly add, “And I am a Good Friday Christian, an Ascension Christian and a Parousia Christian too.”  It is only by embracing the fullness of Christ’s saving work that I receive the fullness of its benefit.  Only when taken altogether, the “full Gospel” touches my head and my heart.  In the objective events of salvation history that are true resides the potential for subjective experiences of faith made real.  In his 1907 book – The Heart of the Gospel – James M. Campbell explained –

The ground of salvation is in the historical Christ. His death for human sin is an accomplished fact, an objective reality, standing out on the canvas of history. In gospel preaching the objective side of things must be explained, for it is from the objective truth that the subjective experience comes. If the outward revelation is discarded, inward experience withers and dies… Those who… have tried to rise to a position in which they would become independent of the outward revelation, have in kicking away the ladder by which they have risen cut themselves off from connection with the solid facts upon which all experience must ultimately rest. The Christian grows in grace by growing in the knowledge of His Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. He gathers strength by transmuting objective knowledge into subjective power.  Before the saving work of Christ can attain its end, the objective gospel must produce certain subjective effects, and its historical facts become spiritual forces. The work which Christ has done for us must have as its counterpart a work that He does in us.

We need this power of a subjective experience of the objective Gospel.  The truth of who Jesus Christ is and what Jesus Christ has done for us needs to become real in our lives and in our world, and for this to happen we need the “full Gospel,” especially what Pentecost brings to the party.  This has been driven home to me with particular force this Christmas season.  Reading through the Gospels again as part of the Advent spiritual discipline to which we were called as a church, I began to become aware of the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit in a new way.  And then an article by the folks at the Calvin Institute for Worship at Calvin College up in Michigan brought things into forceful focus for me –

Our Christmas cards, crèches, and storybooks are filled with the characters of the Christmas drama: Elizabeth, fire.jpgZechariah, Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, angels, shepherds, magi, even Simeon and Anna. But the biblical account of Jesus’ birth in the opening chapters of Matthew and Luke refers repeatedly to another participant in the Christmas drama, the Holy Spirit. Though often unnoticed and uncelebrated, it is the Holy Spirit who comes upon Mary, Elizabeth, Zechariah, and Simeon. Similarly, the Old Testament prophecies that foretell the in-breaking of God’s kingdom frequently speak of the coming of the Spirit of the Lord, though these texts are strikingly underrepresented in most Advent worship services. The Holy Spirit is the forgotten participant in the Christmas drama.  This omission is seen not only in the Christmas card selection at Hallmark, but also in music for the season. There are dozens of shepherd carols, magi carols, angel carols, and Mary and Joseph carols, but precious few that acknowledge the work of the Spirit. http://worship.calvin.edu/resources/resource-library/a-pentecostal-christmas-lessons-and-carols-2002


One of the most beloved carols that we sing each Christmas includes the petition: “Cast out our sin, and enter in; be born in us today.”  This is a reference to what the church has traditionally called the “Middle Coming” of Christ.  The season of Advent is when the church focuses on the coming of Christ.  And historically the church has talked about not just one coming of Christ, but three: the first Coming of Christ in humility at Christmastime, the Second Coming of Christ in glory at the close of the age, and the Middle Coming of Christ into the hearts of the faithful, initially at conversion (John 14:23; Acts 2:38), and then repeatedly throughout the life of discipleship, our “long obedience in the same direction” (Ephesians 5:18).   And it is the indwelling and empowering presence of the Holy Spirit that facilitates this “Middle Coming” of Christ. It is the Holy Spirit’s assignment in the economy of our salvation to take the objective finished work of Christ, His death, Burial and Resurrection, and to subjectively apply it to each one of our hearts individually. Or, to put it another way, Christ could be born in a thousand Bethlehem’s, but until and unless He is born in our hearts, it really doesn’t matter that much to us.  And so this Christmastide pray for a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit in your heart, our church and this world.  This is something for which Jesus Christ specifically told us to pray. God gives the fullness of the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him for it (Luke 11:13).  A good prayer to start with, to “prime the pump,” is a prayer that anyone who has ever been on a Walk to Emmaus knows by heart –

christmasCome Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created, and You shall renew the face of the earth.

O, God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit, did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant that by the same Holy Spirit we may be truly wise and ever enjoy His consolations, Through Christ Our Lord, Amen.



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The Obstetrics of Salvation


Jesus had a mother.  This is what Christmas is all about, how the Word that was with God, the Word that was God, became flesh and dwelt among us so that we might behold His glory, the glory of the only begotten of the Father.  If there was ever any doubt or confusion about this, then the annual celebration of Christmas will set things straight.

Consider the songs we sing –

Silent Night, Holy Night, all is calm, all is bright,
Round yon virgin, mother and child…

For Christ is born of Mary and gathered all above
while mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love.

When Mary birthed Jesus, ’twas in a cow’s stall
with wise men and farmers and shepherds and all…

What child is this, who laid to rest, on Mary’s lap is sleeping?
…Haste, haste to bring him laud, the Babe, the Son of Mary.

It’s been called the “obstetrics of salvation,” God’s plan right from the very start to rescue us by the birth of a baby who was going to come into the world in the usual way.

cubeWe are first introduced to this thought in Genesis 3:15, in a verse that the church calls the “Protoevangelion” in Latin – the “first Gospel.”   The Lord God says to the serpent: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise him on the heel.”  This is why statues of Mary holding the baby Jesus in her arms that you see in Catholic churches often have her standing on a snake.  It’s because her seed, Jesus, will “bruise” the serpent’s head. When the Apostle Paul told his young protégé in ministry Timothy that women would be saved or “preserved” through childbearing (I Timothy 2:15), many interpreters see a reference to this Genesis 3:15 promise at work, how “in the fullness of time, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman” (Galatians 4:4).

Mary as the Second Eve reverses the trajectory of disobedience, despair and death that we find ourselves on as human beings.  And if taken seriously, then this means that Biblically Mary had a pretty important role to play in unfolding of God’s plan for our salvation, something that we who are Protestant Christians have been generally reluctant to admit.  Biblically, we just “haven’t given Mary her due” a Protestant of the stature of Billy Graham once said!  And a good place for us to recover a Biblical estimation of Mary are in the greetings that she received in the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke.

angelFirst there was the greeting of the angel Gabriel –

The angel came in unto her, and said, “Hail, thou that art highly favored, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women…Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favor with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus” (Luke 1:28-31)

And then there was the greeting of Mary’s cousin Elizabeth –ang

And Mary arose in those days, and went into the hill country with haste, into a city of Judah; And entered into the house of Zacharias, and saluted Elisabeth. And it came to pass, that, when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost: And she spake out with a loud voice, and said, “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:39-43)

Except for the very last petition, the Biblical “building blocks” of the traditional Catholic devotional ascription, the “Hail Mary,” are all here.

Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with thee (Luke 1:28).
Blessed art thou among women (Luke 1:42),
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus (Luke 1:31).
Holy Mary, Mother of God (Luke 1:43 – “the mother of my Lord”),
pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of death. Amen.

As a Biblical summary of the role that Mary played in the drama of our redemption, 80% of the “Hail Mary” is something that I imagine any Protestant Christian who is taking Scripture seriously ought to be able to affirm quite easily.  Mary is not our Savior, but she was His mother, and that’s not nothing!  The wildly popular contemporary Christmas Carol “Mary Did You Know” seems to me to strike exactly the right balance and precisely stake out the proper perspective on Mary when it asks its series of questions –

Mary did you know that your baby boy will someday walk on water?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?
That this child that you’ve delivered, will soon deliver you?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will give sight to a blind man?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will calm a storm with his hand?
Did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod?
And that when your kiss your little baby, you have kissed the face of God?
Mary did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation?
Mary did you know that your baby boy would one day rule the nations?
Did you know that your baby boy is heaven’s perfect Lamb?
That this sleeping child you’re holding is the great I am?

And I find this same approach to Mary at work in some of the standard templates for Mary in Eastern Orthodox iconography.

iconThere is a category of Mary icons known as the “Virgin of Hodegetria” icons. Some of the oldest and most famous icons of Mary that we have are of this type. “Hodegetria” is a Greek word that means “The Guide” or “She who points the way.”  In “Hodegetria” icons Mary is shown holding her infant Son in the crook of her left arm while with her right hand gesturing in His direction while looking us straight in the eye as if to say “Here He is.”  Our attention in this icon is not drawn to Mary but to her Son.   As John the Baptist explained of Jesus, “I must decrease, He must increase” (John 3:30), so this icon of Mary presents her making the same point.  It’s not about her; it’s about her Son.

iconsAnother standard category of Mary icons in Orthodoxy are known as the “Virgin of Eleousa” icons.  “Eleousa” is the Greek word for “Tenderness” or “Mercy.” In “Eleousa” icons Mary holds her infant Son close to her, often cheek to cheek as an indication of intimacy and affection.   Instead of looking at us as in the “Hodegetria” icon, in the “Eleousa” icon Mary is usually looking at her Son in rapt devotion.  She has gathered Him up into her arms and holds Him in the closest of ways.  It is a sign of motherly love.  Luke tells us on more than one occasion that Mary treasured her experiences with her baby boy and “pondered” their meaning in her heart (Luke 2:19; 51), and the “Eleousa” icon is the perfect picture of this.

iconsfavMy personal favorite Mary icon is a combination of the “Hodegetria” and the “Eleousa” icons.  Known in the West as the icon of “Our Lady of Perpetual Help,” in the Eastern Church it is known as the icon of the “Theotokos of the Passion” “Theotokos” is the Greek title given to Mary based on Luke 1:43 – “the mother of the Lord.”   In this icon Jesus has been gathered up into Mary’s arms and she holds his hands while He looks back over His shoulder at angels who are holding the instruments with which He will be crucified.  Their appearance has so startled Him that one of the sandals on his feet has come undone in His haste to get to His mother’s arms.  And as she comforts Him, she looks at us just to make sure that we understand the importance of what’s taking place, her Son will die for you.

Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer, in one of his Christmas sermons advised his listeners to observe the birth of Christ just as we see it happening in mothers with their babies all around us!  By portraying experiences and emotions that mothers everywhere have with their babies – tenderness, pride, concern and care – the Orthodox icons of Mary provide us with access into the great mystery of the Incarnation that Christmas proclaims.  Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, the Son of God, had a fetalmother, and because we do too, His identification with us is complete.  When you strip away all of the bright decorations; when you get behind all of the lovely traditions; when you discard all that is shallow and artificial about the season; what is left of Christmas is a little baby gathered up in his mother’s arms, and “nowhere is it more clearly visible than in Christ’s humble birth in that stable… that we have a God who is for us, a God who is really on our side” (Hans Kung). He is “Emmanuel,” the “God who is with us.”  DBS+

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