Tag Archives: Scriptures

“Churches Change the World” ~ But How?

Church

Churches change the world” is the theme for the Pentecost Offering of my denomination this year. This is the special offering that is directed to the support of new church development, and that’s an easy ministry for most of us to support.  Who doesn’t believe that churches are supposed to be spiritually and morally transformative. The only real question, it seems to me, is how?  How does the church actually go about changing the world?

The promotional materials for my denomination’s special offering for new church development this year names the importance of the church speaking to the world about her own faith’s values and convictions as one of the ways that the church goes about changing the world. In fact, this is how being “prophetic” is generally, if not singularly, understood by us “Disciples” these days.  We want to speak our truth to its power.  And so we have gotten pretty good at passing resolutions, and making public statements, and marching for social justice.  And while I certainly don’t discount the necessity or efficacy of the church’s public witness, it seems to me, that an equally important way for the church to go about trying to change the world is by the church speaking its truth to the church!  In fact I would argue that I would argue that this should probably come first.

Michael Horton, the Reformed theologian, has criticized the American Church’s historic failure to condemn slavery before and during the Civil War. And he is very clear that the “the racisms that still haunt our society” — “the New Jim Crow, broken window policing, and discrimination in every way imaginable” (Derrick Holmes) — are all the poisonous fruit from the tree of this historic moral and spiritual failure by the American church.  And at the heart of this failure, he argues, was not just the church’s refusal to speak out clearly against slavery to the State, it was also the result of the church’s refusal to speak out clearly against slavery to the church!  The evil of slavery persisted, he argues, not because the church wouldn’t address it publicly as a political matter, but rather because the church wouldn’t address it with its own members as a faith matter.   He notes, “the church itself was segregated – often more so than society at large.” And he wonders about how this might have been different had the church preached “the whole counsel of God, including his wrath against the sin of slavery” to its own membership?  What would have happened had the church spoken prophetically to the church?

Wouldn’t the members (of that church) been shaped by God’s Word and Spirit to oppose such a horrific evil?   And wouldn’t they do so not only in their extended families but in their towns and cities?  Wouldn’t they carry their convictions to the voting booth as loyal citizens?  Some would even do so as judges, legislators, and generals.  What if the church that nurtured R. L. Dabney (a major American theologian of that era) had denounced slavery with one voice, with all of the spiritual authority in heaven behind it?  Would he have become a notorious defender of racist religion as he preached, wrote, and served as chief of staff to Stonewall Jackson? (https://www.whitehorseinn.org/2013/09/two-kingdoms-and-slavery/)

It’s easy to think that the prophetic work of the church is what happens in the streets on days of protest, but I find that most of the prophetic work that I do as a local church pastor happens in the pews when I preach and preside at the Lord’s Table on Sunday mornings, and in the classrooms where I teach the Faith, and at the dinner tables and in the coffee shops where I talk about our beliefs and their consequences with people who are just trying to be faithful.

In a recent contribution to the “Rhetoric, Race and Religion Blog” at the “Patheos” Website (4/30/17), Derrick Holmes said that after he had participated in a public demonstration against social injustice at a city council meeting, another participant, grateful for his presence there, wanted to know why there weren’t other ministers with him?  And the clear implication was that if a minister wasn’t in the streets with them protesting or at a rally making a public statement, then he or she wasn’t really doing anything “prophetic” for the cause (http://www.patheos.com).

“Where are the pastors?” that essay asked, and my initial response was that where they really need to be is in their churches doing the slow steady work of the moral formation and the spiritual transformation of the people who are entrusted to their care. In my experience there is nothing more “prophetic” than the church preaching the message of God’s inclusive love in Jesus Christ, and then inviting “whosoever” would come to the Table of Remembrance of God’s sacrificial act of redemption and reconciliation in Christ each week  A church that is being consistently and consciously shaped by the Gospel’s word of God’s welcome and the sign of His saving inclusion will be a church that unhesitatingly speaks to the world about the worth of all people and that unambiguously speaks against the sins of prejudice and discrimination.

I understand that the single most transformative thing that I can do as a pastor is to get the people who are in my spiritual care to “to see what the Scripture says” about the big social and moral questions of the day with which we are wrestling, as Scott Cormode of Fuller Theological Seminary puts it  (https://fullerstudio.fuller.edu/one-basic-idea-get-people-see-scripture-says/). He says that for those of us with a high view of Scripture, the task is not to tell our people what we think, but to help them see how the Bible thinks. He explains –

I think it is easier to preach on uncomfortable topics in an evangelical congregation than it is in other kinds of churches. In a liberal congregation, everyone is entitled to an opinion and the preacher’s is just one voice among many. But in a conservative church, we have agreed on a standard. We all appeal to Scripture. In the evangelical churches I have known, we have all agreed that we should change our behavior to conform to Scripture. We may argue about what the Bible means (and, boy, can we argue), but we all come with a common commitment to obeying the voice of God as conveyed in Scripture.

And so the task is to get them to engage with the Scriptures. A Christian with a high view of Scripture who doesn’t know what’s in the Scriptures – like many in the American Church were before and during the Civil War on Slavery – is a menace and a contradiction. And they’re still around today.

In the June 2017 issue of Christianity Today, Mark Galli, its Editor in Chief, wrote about the criticism that white evangelicals are receiving these days for their reported widespread anti-Muslim, anti-refugee, and anti-others-in-dire-straits public attitudes. “You would think that a people steeped in the Bible,” Mark wrote, “would find closing the door to the world’s neediest people repulsive.” But he says that the research clearly shows that white evangelicals, “more than any other religious group, say that illegal immigrants should be identified and summarily deported.” “What’s wrong with these white evangelicals?” Mark Galli asks. “Who’s teaching them these unmerciful attitudes?” he wonders.  And he thinks he’s found the answer, and it’s not the church!

All those surveys that show white evangelicals to be anti-Muslim and anti-refugee also show that those who take these positions tend to be the white evangelicals who do not go to church. When asked by pollsters if they are “born again” and find the Bible to be true and authoritative in what it teaches, they say “yes.”  But when they are asked if they actually go to church, they often say “no.”  And Mark Galli wonders if there is a connection between the “mercy-shaped vacuum within them,” and the fact that they are not hearing “Scripture read and the Word preached, and sharing in the ‘breaking of bread’ and ‘prayer’ (Acts 2:42) – together in church.”   As Mark puts it –

This has been from the beginning the divinely commanded means that enables us to grow into the full stature of Christ (Ephesians 4:13), so that we might become a people who act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8).

Churches change the world. But the kid of churches that change the world are the kind of churches that have first been changed themselves by the very truths that they want to speak to power, and this means that the first place where “prophetic” ministers need to be are in their churches with their people consistently and conscientiously preaching the Word, administering the sacraments, and fueling the vision of God’s coming Kingdom where His will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

DBS +

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The Leap of Faith

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In a sermon at church I recently quoted something that Hendrikus Berkhof (1914 – 1995) wrote.  Berkhof was an important Dutch Reformed theologian from the last generation, and in one of his books he described that what he found in the Bible – in both the Old Testament and the New – as being a matter of “faith-religion.” He explained what this meant by saying that the Bible asks us to “reach beyond (our own personal) experience, (to) hold on against the evidence, (it’s) a trust which at times can become totally blind, (it’s something that) always has the undertone of the ‘not yet’ in it, (it’s all about) living by a promise” (Christian Faith – 16).

  • God asked Abraham to leave everyone who was familiar and everything that was secure to venture out to the place where God would lead him.  “Trust me,” God asked Abraham.
  • God asked Moses to go back to Egypt where he was a wanted man in order to set His people free.  “Trust me,” God asked Moses.
  • God asked David to become a King when he was just a boy and while Saul still raged from the throne. “Trust me,” God asked David.
  • God asked Jesus to go to Jerusalem where He would be betrayed by His friends and killed by the powerful.  “Trust me,” the Father asked the Son.
  • And God asks us to believe that He is there, that He knows all about our needs, and that He loves us in spite of ourselves.  “Trust me,” God asks us.

boatIt was Soren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855), the Danish Philosopher, who said that faith is like a leap in the dark.  He said that it’s sort of like being asked to step out of a boat knowing that there is nothing but 10,000 fathoms of water beneath your feet!  And he was right — sometimes faith does feel like this, and that’s what I think Hendrikus Berkhof was trying to tell us.  Thinking and talking like this takes me back to my days as a youth minister in Southeastern Idaho.

One of the staples in my bag of tricks back then was something called a “faith walk.”  I would pair up all of the kids in the youth group, blindfold one of them in each pair, and then send them off on a kind of obstacle course.  There would always be trees to avoid, creeks to be crossed, fences to be gotten over, or around, and other people on the course to be dodged.  And because one of the pair was always blindfolded, unable to see a thing, he or she had to rely entirely on the directions given by his or her partner — hence the name for this little exercise: a “faith” or “trust” walk.

grassNaturally, there was always that one kid in the youth group who delighted in deliberately walking his or her partner into walls and off of cliffs, but generally speaking, this group building exercise always taught the kids something important about what it means to have to trust somebody else.  Of course, it never hurt to let the kids know that just as soon as the one who had been blindfolded had gotten through the course that the roles would immediately be reversed and it would become the other person in the pair’s turn to have to wear the blindfold. I always wanted my kids to learn to trust each other, and this exercise helped in that process.  But more than that, I wanted them to learn how to trust God.

I’ve heard it said that “when we come to the end of all the light that we possess, and all we can see in front of us is darkness, to take another step means that we’ve got to believe that one of two things will happen next — either there will be something solid there for us to strand on, or else God will teach us how to fly.”  And I think that this is right.  I agree with the Dutch theologian Hendrikus Berkhof: the Bible is a “faith-religion.” And I agree with the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard: there comes a moment for each one of us when we’ve actually got to step out of the boat, take the leap of faith.  But what could possibly convince us to do this?   Is this just a desperate, irrational choice, or is there more to it than that?

The late Evangelical theologian Francis Schaeffer used to tell this story –

Suppose we are climbing in the Alps and are very high on the bare rock, when suddenly the fog rolls in. The guide turns to us and says that the ice is forming and that there is no hope; before morning we will all freeze to death here on the shoulder of the mountain. Simply to keep warm the guide keeps us moving in the dense fog further and further out on the shoulder until none of us have any idea where we are. After an hour or so, someone says to the guide, “Suppose I dropped and hit a ledge ten feet down in the fog. What would happen then?” The guide would say that you might make it until the morning and thus live. So, with absolutely no knowledge or any reason to support his action, one of the group hangs and drops into the fog. This would be one kind of a leap of faith.

But suppose, however, that after we have worked out on the shoulder in the midst of the fog and the growing ice on the rock, we had stopped and we heard a voice which said, “You cannot see me, but I know exactly where you are from your voices.  I am on another ridge. I have lived in these mountains, man and boy, for over sixty years and I know every foot of them. I assure you that ten feet below you there is a ledge. If you hang and drop, you can make it through the night and I will get you in the morning.  Would you?

And Francis Schaeffer explained –

I would not hang and drop at once, but would ask questions to try to ascertain if the man knew what he was talking about.  In the Alps, for example, I would ask him his name. If the name he gave me was the name of a family from that part of the mountains, it would count a great deal to me. In the Swiss Alps there are certain family names that indicate mountain families of that area. In my desperate situation, even though time would be running out, I would ask him what to me would be the adequate and sufficient questions, and only when I became convinced by his answers, then I would hang and drop. [He is There & He Is Not Silent – Appendix #2 – “Faith” Versus Faith – 99-100]

Just like that blindfolded kid on a faith walk during youth group in Pocatello, Idaho, 40 years ago, or that climber stranded on the side of a mountain in Switzerland, we’ve each got to decide for ourselves whether or not we’re going to move out believing what we’re being told when we can’t see what’s in front of us.  And more often than not, it seems to me, that what finally determines whether we do or we don’t is the credibility of the one who is extending the invitation, the reliability of the one who’s asking us to trust him.  Alexander Campbell, one of the founders of my own spiritual tradition, argued that – “Faith is the simple belief of testimony.’’ He said that saving faith is nothing more and nothing less than having confidence in what we are being told because we trust the one who is doing the telling.  And this explains my relationship with Scripture.

John 17:20 says that we now believe in Christ “through the word” of the Apostles. Ephesians 2:20 says that our faith is built on the foundation of the Apostles. I John opens with its author asking us to believe what he has to say about Jesus Christ because he had seen Him with his own two eyes, heard Him with his own two ears and touched Him with his own two hands (1:1-4).  2 Peter urges us not to “follow cleverly devised tales,” but to believe instead in what he had to say about Jesus Christ because he himself had been there with Him as an “eyewitness” (2 Peter 1:16).  And in the Gospel of John, right after Thomas reached out and touched the wounds in Jesus’ hands and side a week after Easter, persuading him that Christ was indeed risen from the dead, Jesus said, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (John 20:29).  But instead of this being the invitation to a completely “blind faith” as it is usually explained, I recognize that my capacity to believe even though I have not seen rests to a significant degree on the fact that Thomas did see, and that his doubt was turned to faith as a result, and that I know that this happened because it is in the New Testament.  This is how I believe “through their word,” and it is the basis of my Biblical Christianity.

The believers’ “beatitude” is I Peter 1:8 – “Though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, obtaining as the outcome of your faith the salvation of your souls.” And I find that the only way this works for me is when I have a Bible in my hands, head, and heart. DBS+

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“And I was a Stranger”

A Little Believing Thinking

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Our most recent “Faiths in Conversation” session was on what our respective faith traditions (Judaism, Christianity & Islam) have to say about the “other,” the “stranger” and “sojourner.” As I wrote about last week, our tendency on topics like these is to jump immediately into the arena of public policy and political action.  And while I would be in full agreement that not to act on our faith’s convictions is the very definition of unfaithfulness (Matthew 7:21-27; James 1:22).  But I would also argue that not to root out actions in careful Scriptural reflection is equally unfaithful.  If being “hearers of the Word” but not “doers of the Word” is spiritually dangerous, then no less dangerous is our tendency to be “doers” without first being “hearers of the Word.” And so in this Interfaith presentation I attempted to summarize the New Testament’s primary teachings about the “stranger” and the “other,” and to describe the characteristic way that we as Christians have tried to keep faith with them.  DBS+

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Faiths in Conversation
“The Other & the Stranger” – September 14, 2014 – 7 pm
A Christian Perspective   (Second Revision)

Dr. Douglas B. Skinner
Northway Christian Church
Dallas, Texas

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The theological foundation for this conversation here this evening from the Christian perspective is Creation. The Apostle Paul writing to the Ephesian church reminded them that when he got down on his knees to pray, that he was talking to the God who is “the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name” (3:14-15).  Our creation by God makes us all members of the same human family.  This is what Paul meant when in his sermon to the philosophers on Mars Hill in Athens he told them that we are all God’s “offspring” (Acts 17:28), that “He made from one blood every nation of mankind to live on the face of the earth” (17:26).

Having said this, I think I could sit down right now, and feel pretty confident that I had fulfilled my assignment here this evening of explaining the Christian perspective on “The Other and the Stranger.” Our Creation by God makes us one people, one family, and technically this means that there are no outsiders, no strangers, no “others.” “On paper,” in principle, this is absolutely true. This is the way God intended things to be; His “Creative intent.” But the fact of the matter is that things right now are not the way that God intended them to be.

Following the opening picture of shalom in the book of Genesis where everything and everybody fit together with everything and everybody else in a web of perfect harmony and well-being just like the pieces of a puzzle making a beautiful picture, the stories that follow that portrait of “original blessing” are descriptions of its gradual unraveling.  The scholars talk about the stories of Genesis chapter 1-11 as “etiological” stories, stories of origin that explain why things are the way they are.

We have an innate sense deep inside us – what some of the more poetic theologians have called an “echo of Eden” – that tell us that things are supposed to fit and work together in perfect harmony.  But our experience of life in this world is anything but this, and so the stories that the Bible tells after the stories of creation are stories that explain why it is that we feel so estranged from God spiritually, and so estranged from our own selves psychologically, and so estranged from creation ecologically and so estranged from each other socially.  While we are all one family by design, all the children of the same God, we nevertheless experience each other by the things that make us different.  We divide from each other on the basis of things like race, gender, economics, geography, culture and language.

Donald Kraybill, a Mennonite Theologian and Sociologist, describes our familiar pattern of social interaction to a checkerboard.

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Each square on the board represents a particular category of persons… Boundaries emerge to set groups apart from each other.  Members have a clear sense of whether they are “in” or “out” of a group… Social interaction is organized around the boxes and lines on the social checkerboard.  We relate primarily to persons in our own square and in nearby squares. (225)

And, we grow increasingly leery of those in squares away from our own.   This is what the story of the tower of Babel in Genesis chapter 11 is all about.  Since the separation of that scattering we have become strangers to each other.  We have lost Creation’s bond of shalom that makes us conscious of our connection with each other as members of the same family, and we have settled into different squares on the checkerboard where we become strangers and relate as “others.”

As Christians, when we talk about God’s saving work in Jesus Christ, we believe that what is being repaired is what has become unraveled; what is being restored is God’s original creative intent for us and the world, it’s about getting us back to the garden. And part of this healing is a movement away from the separation of Babel that has made us strangers, and a return to our more foundational identity as members of the same family.

The New Testament ends with a stunning vision of a new heaven and a new earth with a New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God when the work of salvation is finally complete. And the great architectural feature of this coming city of God are its four walls with four gates on each side, 12 in all, open every day and all night long so that the people of the nations can stream in bringing their glory and honor with them to lay before the throne of God (21:24-27).   And in the glimpse that John was actually given of God’s throne, it was surrounded by people of every tribe and tongue (Revelation 5:9).  In the end, by the grace of God, the human family makes its way “back to the Garden” where once again there are no strangers in God’s Shalom.

Until that day comes, we as Christians try to embody what we know about what it is that God is in the process of bringing about in Jesus Christ as best we can. We lean into that future that we believe that God is bringing about.  We who are Christians regularly pray – “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” – it’s the first part of our family prayer.  And believe me when I tell you that you can’t pray these words, and mean them, and then just sit idly by, indifferent to what it is that you know God wills for us and for the whole world. As John Killinger put it, when you pray these words –

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. (115)

And you want strangers to be treated with respect, dignity and compassion because the New Testament makes it absolutely clear that this is something that God wants.

In Matthew chapter 25, in His instructions on the kinds of things that He expected His disciples to be doing out of their devotion to Him, Jesus Christ talked about taking in the stranger (25:35; 38; 43). “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” Jesus said (25:35).   Behind this spiritual truth was the literal truth of Jesus’ own experience as a refugee.  Matthew tells us that when King Herod went on his rampage killing all the baby boys in the vicinity of Bethlehem after Christ’s birth, Joseph packed up his family and fled to Egypt where they lived as sojourners and strangers.  Somebody welcomed them there; provided for them there, and in turn, Christ expected His disciples to do this same thing for others (2:13-23).

In Romans 12:13, the Christians of the Roman church were told to practice hospitality. The word that appears in that Greek text for hospitality is “xenophilia” which literally refers to loving the stranger, the exact opposite of the word that is probably more familiar to us – “xenophobia,” the “fear” or “hatred of the stranger.” Paul understood “loving the stranger and the sojourner” to be a characteristic of someone who is being “transformed” by the person and work of Jesus Christ in their lives (12:2).  In other words, this is something Christians characteristically do.

And the author of the New Testament book of Hebrews makes this same exact point when he or she wrote: “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers” (Hebrews 13:2). “Entertain” here does not refer to inviting them to the movies, or buying them a nice meal, or singing them a happy song.  No, what it meant was opening their hands, their arms, their hearts, their homes and their churches to them.  And according to Adolf von Harnack, the important German theologian and church historian from a century ago, the impact of the church in the ancient world was in no small part due to the way that the first Christians did exactly this.

They loved people in specific and concrete ways: by giving alms to the poor, especially to widows and orphans; by caring for the sick, the infirm and the disabled; by providing for the needs of prisoners and those languishing in the mines; by taking care of the dying, the enslaved, and those devastated by natural disasters like earthquakes and floods; by finding work for the unemployed and taking care of the unemployable; and by welcoming the sojourners and making room in their lives for the strangers.

When Christianity jumped from its exclusively Jewish incubator to the whole wide world in the front room of the house of a Roman Centurion named Cornelius in Caesarea (Acts 10), Peter stated the principle that has informed Christian conscience ever since: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to Him” (10:34).  Now understand, Peter didn’t come to this conclusion quickly or easily.  The ways of Babel are strong in us; that checkerboard is tattooed on our soul.  This truth had to hit Peter like the proverbial 2×4 up the side of a Missouri mule, and then it had to grow in him gradually from the inside out.  And as a Christian, this is how I believe that it still works.  Things change for the better in ourselves and the world from the inside out.

When he was asked what the Bible was all about, Gardener Taylor, one of the great African American preachers of the last generation said, “God is out to get back what belongs to Him.” Starting where the Bible starts, Dr. Taylor saw the estrangement of humanity from God that the story of the Garden of Eden tells as the great fact of the human condition.  The expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden made them spiritual refugees from their own true native land with God, and the story that the Bible tells from Genesis through Revelation is the story of what God did to bring His people home again to Himself.

In the New Testament, this is the dominant thought when the subject turns to strangers and sojourners.   It’s first and foremost a category for a Christian’s own self-understanding.  We find it in the second chapter of the letter to the Ephesians, where the saving work of Jesus Christ gets framed as the way that Gentiles, people who had been spiritual aliens and strangers to the covenant of God, get restored to their place in His family.

Through Christ we have access by one Spirit to the Father… so that we are no longer strangers and aliens… but have become members of the household of God. (2:18-19)

In the Hebrew Scriptures the treatment of the stranger and the sojourner by God’s first covenant people was conditioned by their memory of having once been strangers and sojourners themselves (Deuteronomy 5:15). And in the same way, we who are Christians are commanded to treat strangers and sojourners in ways that are consonant with our own spiritual identity as strangers and sojourners ourselves.  A heart that has been welcomed home to the love of God in Jesus Christ is a heart in which room will be made for the other and the stranger because that’s what God wants, and that’s how God works.

Sources

Barrs, Jerram. “Francis A. Schaeffer: The Later Years Lesson 8.” Basic Bible Study Themes, III. http://www.covenantseminary.edu
Harnack, Adolf Von. “The Gospel of Love and Charity.” Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries.    http://www.ccel.org
Killinger, John.  Bread for the Wilderness, Wine for the Journey. Word Books. 1976.
Kraybill, Donald. The Upside Down Kingdom. Herald Press.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Summer in the Psalms

How are the Psalms “the Word of Christ”?

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We are spending a summer in the Psalms at church as a response to Colossians 3:16’s command to “let the Word of Christ richly dwell in you.”   This directive comes at the end of the string of descriptions of what a transformed life in Jesus Christ looks like – compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forbearance, forgiveness, love, peace and thankfulness.  Colossians 3:12-17 is the text that we have been living with since Easter.  We have been talking and thinking together about how our encounter with the Risen Christ changes us fundamentally and irrevocably. 

On Easter we looked at Romans 6:4 – “as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”  Since Easter we have been trying to understand what this “newness of life” looks like.   That’s what got us to Colossians 3.  Just like Romans 6, Colossians 3 is a baptismal text.  In Colossians 2:11 baptism gets explicitly named as the gesture that signals the fact just as Christ was raised from the dead so we too are “raised up with Him through faith in the working of God.”  This language about being “raised up with Christ” is where the argument of Colossians 3 begins (v. 1), and becomes the basis of its imperative to “put on the new self” (v 10).  The virtues that get named in Colossians 3:12-17 are the wardrobe of grace that we are to put on as God’s chosen and beloved (3:12).  And it is at the end of this list of virtues that Paul tells the Colossians that they are to “let the Word of Christ richly dwell in them”   by singing “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.”

In the parallel to this verse in Ephesians it is the fullness of the Spirit that issues in the singing of “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” (5:18-19).  This equivalency between the “Word of Christ” (Colossians) and the “fullness of the Spirit” (Ephesians) is a stunning reminder of how the Word and the Spirit are married in the work that God is doing in us.  When a Christian opens her Bible that has been inspired by the Holy Spirit, an arc is created in her heart that is the seat of the Holy Spirit’s indwelling and empowering presence in her life.  This is the experience of the “living word” that Hebrews 4:12 describes and that I started to write about in my April 2 Blog – “Let the Word of Christ Dwell in you Richly.”   This is what makes the text of Scripture “a place of transforming encounter with God” that changes us, and then through us, changes the world around us (See M. Robert Mulholland’s “Working Assumptions as to the Nature of Scripture” in The Way of Scripture – pp.16-27).  This is why it is indispensible for our spiritual vitality and effectiveness as a church to be a people who are committed to a serious and sustained engagement with Scripture.  This thing we call Christianity just doesn’t work if we are not deeply rooted and grounded in God’s love, and since “the Bible is the only record of the redeeming love of God” that we have (James Denney) this requires the Word of Christ to dwell in us richly (Ephesians 3:17/Colossians 3:16). 

Our “Summer in the Psalms” is a response to this critical need, one that takes its lead directly from Paul’s instruction that it is by “singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” that the “Word of Christ” can “richly dwell” in us.  So, just exactly how are the Psalms the “Word of Christ”?  Since they were all written long before Jesus Christ became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14), how can the Psalms be the “Word of Christ”?  The answer to this question takes us in two different directions: (1) The Psalms are the “Word of Christ” because they were words that Jesus Christ used in His very own prayer life, and for that matter, still does; and (2) The Psalms are the “Word of Christ” because they are words about Jesus Christ; there is a sense in which He is the subject of every Psalm.

The Psalms are the Words of Jesus’ Own Prayers

bI have a red-letter edition of the Bible, a Bible with all of the words of Jesus printed in red, and if it were more accurate, then the whole book of Psalms would be red.  The Psalms were the prayers that Jesus prayed everyday, both at home and in the synagogue, both when He was alone and when He was gathered with the community of faith.  As James Sire put it, “At key moments in His life on earth Jesus Christ, the very Son of God, turned to the Psalms for words to express his deepest thoughts and emotions.”  The Psalms were such a part of Jesus’ own spiritual formation that they literally saturated his own thoughts and words.  You hear echoes of them throughout the Gospels.  Jesus used the words, phrases and thoughts of the Psalms to express Himself at the pivotal moments of His life.  On the cross, in four of His seven “last words,” Jesus “chose Psalms as his voice” (Sire) –

1.    “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachatni,” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34 and Matthew 27:46, quoting Psalm   22:1).
2.   “I am thirsty” (John 19:28, quoting Psalm 69:21, cf. 22:15).
3.   “It is finished” (John 19:30, quoting Psalm 22:31).
4.   “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46, alluding to Psalm 31:5).

The book of Psalms was the prayer book of Jesus Christ.  These were the words that Jesus Christ prayed when He was on earth, and for that matter, still does. This was the insight of theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, what he called the “secret of the Psalter.” The New Testament is quite clear that the Risen Christ now sits at the right hand of God the Father in glory, and one of the things that He is doing there is interceding for us – pleading our case – praying for us, and with us (Romans 8:34; Hebrews 7:25; 9:24; I John 2:1).  And according to Bonhoeffer, it is the Psalms that Jesus prayed while He was on earth that continues to be His prayer in heaven –

The Psalter is the prayer book of Jesus Christ in the truest sense of the word. He prayed the Psalter and now it has become his prayer for all time. Now do we understand how the Psalter can be prayer to God and yet God’s own Word, precisely because here we encounter the praying Christ? Jesus Christ prays through the Psalter in his congregation. His congregation prays too, the individual prays. But here he prays, in so far as Christ prays within him, not in his own name, but in the Name of Jesus Christ. He prays, not from the natural desires of his own heart; he prays out of the manhood put on by Christ; he prays on the basis of the prayer of the Man Jesus Christ. But when he so acts, his prayer falls within the promise that it will be heard. Because Christ prays the prayer of the psalms with the individual and the congregation before the heavenly throne of God, or rather because of those who pray the psalms are joining in the prayer of Jesus Christ, their prayer reaches the ears of God. Christ has become their intercessor. ( Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together)

In Romans 8:26-27 we are told one of the more obvious truths about us as human beings – “we so not know how to pray as we should” (8:26); and then we are given one of the most important prayer promises in the whole Bible –  “But the Spirit helps in our weakness… the Spirit intercedes for us… He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (8:26-27).   Whatever else this means; I believe it means that when we pray the Psalms – part of the inspired Word of God – we are making an important connection between what is going on in our hearts and what has been revealed to be the will of God for us.  This is why Jesus prayed the Psalms, and still does.

The Psalms are Words about Jesus Christ

The Psalms are the “Word of Christ” because they were and are words that Jesus Christ used and uses.  They are words that He has made His own through His own faithful use of them.  But they are also the “Word of Christ” because the Psalms are words about Jesus Christ.  At the end of the Gospel of Luke, in the days before His Ascension when the Risen Christ “presented Himself alive… to the apostles whom He had chosen… by many convincing proofs… speaking of the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:2-3), we are told that Jesus “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures,” showing them how all the things that had been written about Him “in the Law of Moses, and the Prophets, and the Psalms” had been fulfilled (Luke 24:44-45).  The Protestant Reformer Martin Luther once called the Old Testament the straw in which we find the baby Jesus, and this is what Jesus Christ Himself was telling His disciples at the end of the Gospel of Luke.  He said it again in John 5:39: “You search the Scriptures,” Jesus told His critics, “because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is these that bear witness to me.”   Take a look at Hebrews chapter 1.  After an amazing introductory affirmation of who Jesus Christ is and what Jesus Christ does (1:1-3), the author of Hebrews proceeded to make the case for what he had just affirmed by rooting and grounding his claims in things the Scriptures taught, and the Scriptures to which the author of Hebrews specifically turned to make his case for Jesus Christ was the book of Psalms.   Five different Psalms were quoted by the author of Hebrews in this chapter as having been fulfilled by Jesus Christ – Psalm 2 in verse 5; Psalm 104 in verse 7; Psalm 45 in verses 8-9; Psalm 102 in verse 10; and Psalm 103 in verse 13.  And this is not the only place that you’ll find this in the New Testament.  “Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the first Christians made the Psalms its own, applying to the Lord and to itself what was said in the Psalms about the People of God, Jerusalem, the king, the temple, the promised land, the kingdom and the covenant.”  The Psalms are among the most quoted Old Testament sources in the New Testament explanations of the person and work of Jesus Christ.   As Patrick Henry Reardon puts it in his book Christ in the Psalms: “Christ is the referential center of the Book of Psalms…the words of the psalms are the mighty name of Jesus broken down into its component parts” (xvii).  And so, to know Jesus Christ, you’ve got to know the Psalms.  They are as much about Him as anything you’ll read in the four Gospels.   DBS+

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The Welcome

The urgency of the question is matched only by the reticence of Scripture.  We want to know, we need to know, what happens to our loved ones when they die.  When someone who has been our constant companion in life and love, always at our side, is suddenly no longer there, their absence screams for an explanation.  What has become of them?  Where did they go?  Will we ever see them again?  “At this point saying that it’s all just speculation, or that we really don’t know, or the always popular but vague – ‘She’s in God’s hands now,’ just won’t do” (Scot McKnight).  We want a straight answer.  And so, as Christians, we turn to the Scriptures.  

 The Bible is our basic authority.  It’s where we go with our questions believing that it’s where the answers can be found.  But the Bible is surprisingly reserved in what it has to say about what happens to us when we die.  Oh, the big promise is unmistakably there: “I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus told us, “even though you die, yet shall you live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26).   “I go to prepare place for you,” He promised, “and I will come again for you, and receive you to myself; that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:3).  It is a pillar of Biblical faith that the Lord will be our companion “in the valley of the shadow of death,” and that when we come out of it on the other side, that we will find ourselves “in the house of the Lord” where we will abide “forever” (Psalm 23), where there will no longer be “any mourning, or crying, or pain” because “there will no longer be any death” (Revelation 21:4).

 The broad promise is clearly there.  It’s the details that are missing.  And so the Apostle Paul told the Corinthians, “eye has not seen, ear had not heard, and the heart has not imagined what God has prepared for those who love Him” (I Corinthians 2:9).  And the Apostle John put an end to all the guesswork with his declaration that “it has not yet appeared what we shall be,” but we know that “when Christ appears, we shall be like Him” (I John 3:32).  “Mystery and modesty” – those are the two words that the United Church of Christ theologian Gabriel Fackre urged us to embrace when we are asked: “Where is my father/mother/brother/sister/friend now?”  This is not to say that we don’t know some things, but it is to freely admit that we don’t know all things.  “The secret things belong to the LORD our God,” Deuteronomy 29:29 tells us, “but what has been revealed belongs to us and to our children forever.”  And so, in the wisdom of our denominational tradition, “We speak where the Scriptures speak, and we are silent where the Scriptures are silent.”  I am hesitant to speak beyond what the Scriptures say, and so what do I say when a family, with tears in their eyes and a gaping wound in their hearts turn to me as a pastor and ask the poignant question?

 Acts, chapter 7, is the first description of a Christian’s death in the New Testament, and the most detailed.  Stephen was one of the church’s first Deacons, a man filled with the Holy Spirit and wisdom who had been chosen by the Jerusalem church to serve as a leader in its ministry of service (Acts 6:1-6).  Arrested for the work that he was doing in the name of Christ, Stephen was put on trial in front of the very same council that plotted against Jesus.  In his defense, Stephen preached a wide ranging sermon about God’s plan of salvation as it played out in the history of Israel, climaxing in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

actsActs 7:54-60 is the description of the response that Stephen’s preaching generated.  They “became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen” (7:54), before grabbing him and dragging him out of the city to be stoned (7:57).  And as Stephen died, Luke tells us that he had a vision of the glory of God in heaven, “and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of the Father” (7:56).  Every other description in the New Testament of Jesus Christ in glory has Him seated at the right hand of the Father.  But here in Acts chapter 7, He stands.  The question is why?  I believe the answer can be found in verse 59: “While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’”  I believe that the Risen and glorified Christ stood up to welcome Stephen to heaven.  I think He got up to greet Stephen at the door of his new heavenly home. 

 Luke 15:11-32 is the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  Helmut Thielicke, the great German pastor and theologian of the last generation, always thought that this parable of Jesus should properly be called “The Parable of the Waiting Father” rather than “The Parable of the Prodigal Son.”  It’s more a story about how God behaves as the loving father than it is about how we behave as the prodigal son.  On verses 20-24 we are told that the father was waiting and watching for the return of his boy from the far country, and when he caught a glimpse of him on the horizon, the father got up and ran out to greet him, to welcome him home, enfolding him in his embrace and smothering him with his kisses.  When the son began his prepared remarks, hoping for nothing more than a position on the household staff, the father stopped him in midsentence, and began to lavish on him a series of gifts: a robe to cover him, a ring for his finger, some sandals for his feet and fatted calf on the BBQ pit.  Each one of these gifts was a wonderful symbol of the welcome home that the boy was being given.

  • The robe was a garment from the father’s own wardrobe, something to cover the tattered and filthy rags that the boy had been reduced to during his sojourn in the far country.  One of the ways that the Bible talks about forgiveness is as a covering.  That robe was a witness to the welcome of the father’s mercy.
  • The ring that was placed on the boy’s finger was the family’s signet, the seal they used to conduct business.  By placing it on his son’s finger, the father was giving him access to all of the family’s resources.  That ring was a witness to the welcome of the father’s restoration of that lost boy to the family circle.
  • The sandals that were put on his feet were a sign of the boy’s status as a son rather than just a servant.  In the ancient world slaves went barefoot to discourage them from running away it’s said.  Only members of the family wore shoes.  Do you remember the old Negro Spiritual: I got shoes, you got shoes, all of God’s children’s got shoes”?  Well, those shoes were the signs of dignity and freedom.  And in the story that Jesus told they were a witness to the welcome of the Father’s regard for the status of his returned boy.
  • And the fatted calf that was put on the spit in the yard was a special animal that was kept for just such an occasion.  When a guest unexpectedly showed up at the front door, ancient hospitality dictated that a feast be spread, and so an animal was always being prepared for just such a moment.  That fatted calf on the BBQ was a witness to the father’s welcome and to the community that His love creates.

 Besides the fact that Acts 7:54-60 and Luke 15:20-24 both came from the pen of Luke, you might conclude that these two texts have nothing to do with each other, but I see a connection.  In Luke 15, in the story that Jesus told about the father who waited and watched for his boy to come home, and who then got up and ran to him, lavishing him with wonderful gifts when he finally did, the father’s welcome was the whole point.  And the same thing is true in Acts chapter 7, in the very first story that we have of a Christian dying.  Jesus stood up to welcome Stephen home.   It’s all about the welcome. 

 Biblically the gift of hospitality is not just a matter of etiquette; it’s a matter of the deepest truth about God that’s been revealed to us in Jesus Christ.  As Paul told the Romans: “Welcome one another just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (15:7).   God wants to be in a relationship with us.  God wants us to feast at His table and to live in His love forever.  And so God the Father waits and watches for our return, always ready to bestow His gifts – the robe of forgiveness, the ring of belonging, the sandals of status and the fatted calf of celebration.  And as we approach the front door of eternity, Jesus Christ the Son of God, our Savior, stands up to welcome us home.    DBS+

 

 

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