Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Trouble with Grace

Introduction
There are stories in the Bible that we like, and there are stories we would prefer to skip. Today we think about two stories we would rather skip, and one passage that feels good. Exodus 32 tells about the Golden Calf, followed by an outburst of God’s Wrath. Matthew 22 contains the parable of the wedding feast, with an outburst of wrath against a poorly dressed wedding guest. Paul’s words of encouragement at the end of Philippians 4 come as a relief, more the kind of passage we enjoy hearing. We look at these three passages together and ask what they have to say to us this morning.

Exodus 22
When Moses was on the mountain receiving the Ten Words, the people became impatient, and Aaron used their gold jewelry to fashion “an idol in the shape of a calf”. God decided to destroy them and replace them with Moses’ descendants, but Moses pleaded with God to redeem them instead, for the sake of God’s name.

This passage is full of material that we don’t have time to examine. For one, why a calf? Why not a snake (which shows up later)? For another, the idea that Moses could plead with God and God could relent and extend mercy instead of judgment is puzzling. I note simply that Moses was clearly in a real relationship with God, extending to his ability to argue the matter out with God. We can take courage in our own questions about life. We do not need to be afraid of arguing with God. If we are in close relationship with God, we can bring our deepest fears and objections to God – including our objections to the very idea of God. For this morning, I focus on this basic thought: Grace implies judgment. That is the trouble with grace.

The Children of Israel are unable to wait for God, so they try to make their own form of god to follow, even as Moses receives the word from God: “Do not make any idols” (Ex 34:17) or “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Ex 20: 4-6)

No wonder that God sends Moses and Joshua back down the mountain in wrath. No wonder that Moses calls the Levites to himself to purify the people. No wonder that they range through the camp killing those who had defiled the very idea of God with the golden calf. Yet if it is not a surprise, it is still a profound difficulty for us. Have you ever read this story to a child? Did you then find yourself trying to avoid leaving the child with the impression that God is waiting to destroy us in our sleep? The wrath of God is not an easy concept for us to grasp, and most often we simply avoid it.

Philippians 4
In the verses from Philippians 4, Paul exhorts the Philippians to steadfast unity, peace in the midst of conflict, joy in the Lord, and a constant focus on whatever is good. He makes the exhortation concrete by referring specifically to Euodia and Syntyche (the meanings of these names may be “Sweet fragrance” and “Fortunate”), two women in the church whose personal conflict was hindering the life of the church. He pleads with them “to be of the same mind in the Lord” – a practical application of his general plea to the church in chapter 2: 1-4.

Paul’s words in this passage feel better to us: Rejoice in the Lord; Be gentle with each other; Pray about everything; Experience God’s peace in every area of your life. This feels good! The closing words in the passage have become a benediction for many of us: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.” Finally, Paul wishes us the peace of God in all our lives.

This passage refers to God the way that we want to think of God: caring, loving, giver of joy and peace, the one who transforms our lives as we walk in the unity and love of the Holy Spirit. We see God’s mercy and grace on display, and it is good! Then we come to the parable in Matthew 22.

Matthew 22
Matthew recounts the parable of the wedding banquet, in which the invited guests refuse to come, leading to their destruction, and new guests fill the hall. To this point in the story, the parable is roughly parallel to the same story in Luke 14: 15-24, but then Matthew adds a hard saying from Jesus. One of the new guests who did not dress up for the occasion is also destroyed.

Even in the part roughly parallel to Luke 14, the note of the king’s anger is prominent. Instead of making excuses, some of the invited guests ignore the messengers, while the rest respond with hostility, killing the king’s messengers. In response, the king sends his soldiers, who destroy the invited guests and their homes.

The next section parallels Luke 14, as the king sends out his servants to gather anyone available and bring them into the wedding feast. Here we feel we can relax: God shows grace and mercy to anyone who will come in! Then the story takes another dark turn. One guest has not dressed up for the feast, but wore his regular clothes. We don’t know who he was or what his resources were, just that he had no answer when he was charged. We know also that the king commanded his destruction.

Here God’s grace and mercy are mingled with God’s wrath in a most disturbing way. The king clearly represents God. Jesus is the messenger who is killed. The Jews are the ungrateful guests, and the Gentiles are those who are brought in. The people hearing and reflecting on the parable could make these identifications easily enough. The failure to wear wedding clothes is more puzzling: What makes sense to me is that this guest represents someone who thought he could presume on God’s grace, and instead experiences God’s judgment. So these passages ask us a difficult question: We know and love God’s grace, but what do we say about God’s wrath?
Excursus: When I was in seminary, I learned that parables have one basic point. We are to stick to that point, and not treat them as allegories. I think that Matthew must not have gone to the same seminary I did, because he does seem to move towards allegory (compare, for example, the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25). Luke had better training (more like my own background), and the parables he records are generally cleaner—showing one basic point with perhaps a few secondary points.

Synthesis: We bring these passages together to say that:
·         God’s grace is great, beyond imagining.
·         Refusing God’s grace and choosing “another god” is deadly. There is no other path to life than God’s grace extended to us.
·         Only the cross is “strong enough” to deal with the evil of our world.

The Greatness of Grace
We like the first point. God’s grace and mercy and love are wonderful! We sing and rejoice as we think of God’s love and mercy in our lives.
Wonderful grace of Jesus, Greater than all my sin;
How shall my tongue describe it, Where shall its praise begin?
Taking away my burden, Setting my spirit free;
For the wonderful grace of Jesus reaches me.
Refrain:
Wonderful the matchless grace of Jesus, Deeper than the mighty rolling sea;
Higher than the mountain, sparkling like a fountain, All-sufficient grace for even me!
Broader than the scope of my transgressions,  Greater far than all my sin and shame;
Oh, magnify the precious Name of Jesus, Praise His Name!

Contemporary Christian music celebrates God’s love and mercy, and the old hymns do the same.
The love of God is greater far/ Than tongue or pen can ever tell.
It goes beyond the highest star/ And reaches to the lowest hell.
The guilty pair, bowed down with care, God gave His Son to win;
His erring child He reconciled/ And pardoned from his sin.
Refrain:
O love of God, how rich and pure!/ How measureless and strong!
It shall forevermore endure—The saints’ and angels’ song.

Could we with ink the ocean fill,/ And were the skies of parchment made;
Were every stalk on earth a quill,/ And every man a scribe by trade;
To write the love of God above/ Would drain the ocean dry;
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,/ Though stretched from sky to sky.

God’s love is extended to everyone. A basic point of the parable in Matthew 22 is precisely the fact that the servants went out into the streets and brought everyone into the banquet, “the bad as well as the good”! Most of the guests accepted the invitation; there was just one guest who came in, but showed by his lack of respect by not dressing up for the wedding.

This truth feels good, and we like it. God loves us, and we do nothing to earn that love. All we have to do is receive God’s love and enter God’s Wedding Feast (a reference to the fullness of God’s Reign at the end of time). But the fate of the ungrateful wedding guest – and of the Israelites in Exodus 32 – is more difficult. They stand “on the other side of God’s grace.”

The Problem with Grace
We don’t like to talk about judgment or about God’s wrath—“the other side of God’s grace”. The problem with grace is that it implies also judgment. The wedding guests who refused the invitation are condemned. The ungrateful wedding guest is thrown out of God’s realm. The Israelites who worshipped the golden calf are killed with the sword. All of this is profoundly uncomfortable material, and we struggle to hear it and accept it.

We need to understand something about the nature of language. Both OT and NT were written for people that today we would call “Palestinian Jews”. They were a Semitic people, with a particular way of expressing themselves. One regular part of their communication was what we can call “Semitic overstatement”. So in the Conquest narratives we read that the Israelites destroyed everyone in the land—and then they worked out how to live with those who remained. This is a contradiction, unless we recognize the typical overstatement describing the conquest. Similarly, in Judges 9, Abimelek (Gideon’s son) killed his 70 brothers. The story goes on and tells the story of the youngest son, who escaped. But again, this is a contradiction, unless we recognize the typical overstatement in “killed his 70 brothers”.

Jesus used such hyperbole when he said that we might as well take out our eyes to keep from using them for evil. So in Luke 14:26 Jesus tells his disciples to hate their mothers and fathers if they want to be his disciples. Semitic overstatement: He means simply, “Make following more more important than anything else in your life.” In Exodus 32, I think we see this pattern in Moses’ offer of his own life for the people: “Condemn me, but forgive them.” He is simply pleading with God for the salvation of the people. Again, in Matthew 22, the condemning of all the first guests – as well as the destruction of the undressed guest – is a strong way of saying: “Rejecting God’s love and grace is dangerous. Don’t do it!”
Excursus: I read a page on the web claiming that Jesus did not use hyperbole. “Jesus meant what he said!” The author of the web page then went on a long explanation of the statement that we are to hate our father and mother when we follow Jesus and concluded that we are so single-minded in our discipleship that any other relationship is like “hating”. If the author had just admitted that Jesus used overstatement for effect, he could have saved a lot of time and energy!

Let me restate what I think our passages say in simple straightforward language. God loves everyone. God extends grace and mercy to everyone. Those who turn their back on God’s love stand on the other side of God’s grace, which is to court destruction.

Here is my definition of God’s wrath, or God’s judgment. God loves all people so much that God will do whatever it takes to destroy that which stands between us and God. When our own will, our own choice, stands between us and God, God’s love – expressed as judgment intent on destroying what stands between us and God – becomes God’s wrath towards us. God’s wrath is God’s love, intent on destroying the evil in us.

The Cross
This explanation of God’s wrath brings us to the Cross. God does not simply move through our midst with a sword, like the Levites through the Israelites. God does not simply throw us into outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Instead, God as God is lifted up on the cross, where God’s wrath acts against the evil of this world. God’s love and mercy combine with God’s wrath against all that separates us from God – on the cross.

This love is such an incredible and wonderful gift, that we may wonder why anyone would reject it and stand on the other side of God’s grace. The reason is fairly simple: self-will. As C.S. Lewis has said, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’” (The Great Divorce.) This self-will takes many forms. In Canada and the United States, most people feel self-sufficient and don’t see their need for God. They are, perhaps, like the undressed wedding guest.

Receiving God’s love and grace means that we also have to die: “I am crucified with Christ.” What does it mean that we also die? Every one of us would choose first to run our own lives, to be the ruler in our own lives. Accepting God’s love means also recognizing God as king. God is the ruler of the universe, and God rules also in our lives. This means a death to self-will, so that we can rise with Christ in the realm of God. That is what the Israelites failed to do, and that is what the first wedding guests also refused to do.

Conclusion
I have a friend whose story I have told before. A brief reminder. Her grandparents loved Jesus and taught their children to do the same, but her mother chose to reject their teaching throughout her life. She told me that she flew across the country to visit her mother about a week before she died. She reported her mother’s last words to her before she left, “I’ve wrestled with the devil, and I’ve lost.” Sometime later she was visiting home and her step-father told her what her mother’s real last words were, just before she died: “I’m going to Jehovah’s land.”

We don’t know what happened in that last week, but I have a theory. I think that when her mother said, “I’ve lost”, she stopped fighting against God. She stopped insisting on her own way. She gave up, and when she gave up, God was waiting. God had waited all her life, in infinite love and mercy and grace, and God gave her the gift of life. “I’m going to Jehovah’s land.” You see, there is nothing we can do to be among the wedding guests – nothing except to stop fighting against God in our lives and surrender. You remember another old hymn: “All to Jesus I surrender, all to him I freely give. … I surrender all.”

Now there’s a danger with this kind of story. We can turn this surrender into a highly individual experience, which doesn’t affect our lives. Remember the wedding guest who didn’t change his clothes. Repentance matters. Community matters. When we surrender to Christ, Jesus changes us and makes us part of the church, “the body of Christ.” The passage in Philippians 4 describes the joy and peace we have together, the way that we live together. We are God’s chosen people, bringing God’s peace and joy to the whole world.

The problem with grace is that God won’t force it on us. God is always there to give us love and mercy and joy, but God waits for us to give up and hold out our hands and receive his gift of life.


Grace Bible Church
15 October 2017
Texts
Exodus 32:1-14
32 When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered round Aaron and said, ‘Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.’
2 Aaron answered them, ‘Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.’ 3 So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. 4 He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.’ 5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, ‘Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord.’ 6 So the next day the people rose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented fellowship offerings. Afterwards they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.
7 Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt. 8 They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. They have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it and have said, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”
9 ‘I have seen these people,’ the Lord said to Moses, ‘and they are a stiff-necked people. 10 Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.’ 11 But Moses sought the favour of the Lord his God. ‘Lord,’ he said, ‘why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, “It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth”? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people. 13 Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self: “I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and it will be their inheritance for ever.”’ 14 Then the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.
Philippians 4:1-9
4 Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends!
2 I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. 3 Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.
4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

Matthew 22:1-14
22 Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying: 2 ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. 3 He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come.
4 ‘Then he sent some more servants and said, “Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been slaughtered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.” 5 ‘But they paid no attention and went off – one to his field, another to his business. 6 The rest seized his servants, ill-treated them and killed them. 7 The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.
8 ‘Then he said to his servants, “The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. 9 So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.” 10 So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests. 11 ‘But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. 12 He asked, “How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?” The man was speechless.
13 ‘Then the king told the attendants, “Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 14 ‘For many are invited, but few are chosen.’

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Reign of God

Introduction
You heard the Scripture Reading a moment ago. Paul is making a point to the church in Philippi. He has just pleaded with them to go deeper in their relationship with God, resulting in a closer relationship also with each other. One can see this passage as a development of the Great Commandment: Love God with your whole being, and love your neighbour as yourself.

He illustrates that closer relationship within the fellowship of believers by appealing to Christ’s example. Jesus did not use his identity as the divine Son of God to insist on his honour and glory, but rather assumed the identity of a servant.

In this section, Paul is quoting an early Christian hymn, which then turns to give glory to Jesus for his self-sacrifice:
“Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

This closing statement gives the earliest Christian confession: “Jesus Christ is Lord.” We can see the revolutionary nature of this confession in the way that early Christians died as martyrs in the arena. The Roman authorities would make a sacrifice on an altar and then command the Christian to make a public confession, “Caesar is Lord.” When Christians refused and said instead, “Jesus is Lord”, they were killed.

This confession, “Jesus is Lord”, is the centre of my faith as a follower of Jesus, and this is what I want to reflect on in terms of our semester theme: “On earth as it is in Heaven.”

My Church Background
I come from the Brethren in Christ Church. We are a branch of Anabaptists who formed their own church in Pennsylvania in 1778. We were one of those groups who tried to follow Jesus’ sayings as closely as possible. For example, we refused to swear an oath in court because Jesus said, “Let your Yes be yes, and let your No be no.” That is, keep your word!

I was reading a history of the BIC in Canada. Some of our people from Pennsylvania moved to the Niagara Peninsula about 1800, which is also when and where my family joined the BIC. The history noted how careful our people were to tell the truth. A part of that care was the way we celebrated a “Love Feast” (Feetwashing and Communion) twice a year. So that we would all be in right relationship with God before taking communion, the deacons would go around the church and ask each family, “How is it between you and the Lord?” We were called “the plain people”, and the history quoted the customs officers at the Peace Bridge between the US and Canada. They said, “We don’t worry about the plain people. We know that if anyone has brought something from New York State without paying the customs toll on it, twice a year they will come and confess to us and pay the dues!” So we took being faithful to God’s teaching seriously! A basic part of that understanding was the affirmation, “Jesus is Lord!”

Case One
When I turned 18, I was living in Pennsylvania, during the Vietnam War. I was drafted to serve in Vietnam. Because I enrolled in college, I received a four-year deferment from the draft, so that my draft call took effect in 1972. I registered with my local draft board as Conscientious Objector (CO), which the draft board granted. As a result, I went to Zimbabwe and served three years of alternative service with my church, instead of going to war with any classmates who served in Vietnam.

I didn’t understand my pacifism at that time very well, but in the years since then I have concluded that the biggest problem in the military is not the violence, but its requirement of absolute obedience. I cannot say, “My country is Lord”, because Jesus is Lord. This belief has not been costly for me, since my country also gives me the freedom to hold my stance as a CO. My father-in-law was also a CO, and it cost him more than it did me.

Case Two
Dad Heise was drafted during World War Two. He turned 18 in 1943 (I think), and was drafted to fight in the Allied Forces. Because he was a CO, he also refused the draft. At that time he was farming with his father (Grandfather Heise), so his family appealed to the draft board to exclude him from the draft, since farming was held to be a necessary occupation, even during war. The draft board refused, saying that the family exclusion could go only to his father. Grandfather Heise was in poor health, so when Dad went into Civilian Public Service, his parents were not able to keep the farm. (CPS was used throughout the war for pacifists to serve the government in a non-combatant role.)

The loss of the farm changed my father-in-law’s life. He and my mother-in-law were already engaged. They planned to get married and take over the family farm, but when Dad came home from CPS there was no farm. So Dad went to medical school and became a family physician. Being a doctor carries some prestige in our society, but for Dad it was always second best to being a farmer. It was also the result of saying, “Jesus is Lord”, no matter what the government said. Dad also did not suffer greatly, but he knew the cost of saying “Jesus is Lord.”

Case Three
Grandfather Heise is our third case study for saying, “Jesus is Lord.” During the First World War, grandfather was drafted to fight for the US military in Europe. He also refused to put on the uniform. The American government at that time made less provision for COs, and grandfather was put in prison. His prison accommodation was not good. The cell was damp, and he was held for an extended period. The damp accommodations affected his health, which was the source of lifelong weakness.

So grandfather’s stance in World War One cost him the farm in World War Two. His basic objection to putting on the uniform was the same one I gave for myself: He could not say that his government was the ruler of his life, because he knew that Jesus is Lord.

A Problem
There is, of course, a problem with these stories I have told you. They suggest that a really faithful Christian, one who takes the Lordship of Christ seriously, will be in constant conflict with society. There is some truth to this idea. Our world wants to control our lives. Paul tells us to not allow our world to press us into its mould, but to be transformed by the mind of Christ (Romans 12). Jesus tells us that no one can serve two masters. We must choose: is Jesus Lord in our life, or is “money, sex, and power” Lord in our lives? (Matthew 6:24)

But here’s the problem. Paul quotes this great Christian hymn about Jesus the Servant, who is also the Lord of the Universe. When he quotes this hymn, he is not making the point that we are in conflict with the larger society, but rather he is emphasizing the unity that he wants to see in the church. His point is not that we are conflictual, but that we are a people of peace with each other as well as with the military.

Hear Paul’s words again:
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.  Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

The Point
We followers of Jesus are a people of peace who care for each other quite radically. In point of fact, this commitment brings us into conflict with our society at even deeper level than the military. The USA has moved away from the draft to a volunteer army, so my sons have not had to decide in the way that I did during the Vietnam War. Yet they and I alike are influenced by the larger culture as much as anyone.

The larger culture does not understand the kind of thing Paul says here. Our culture insists that we must take care of ourselves first. There is good sense in this. We cannot love others as we love ourselves, if we don’t love ourselves. There is also bad sense in this. To love ourselves – and to love others – is not primarily a feeling; it does not mean, “Feel good about yourself and others.” It means what Paul says in Philippians: “Look out for each other’s interest.”

Our culture is based on the freedom of the individual to be unique, each of us primarily responsible for ourselves. God’s reign is based on our service to God, expressed in service to each other and therefore responsible for each other.

Can You Do It?
C.S. Lewis has described this as the Christian virtue of humility. Here is what he says: “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it's thinking of yourself less.” You don’t put yourself down; rather you lift others up. Lewis continues: 
Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call “humble” nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. …. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.
(Mere Christianity, from the chapter on “The Great Sin” [Pride].)

“Your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.” God reigns in our hearts, and as a result we really care about each other. We are truly interested in each other.
·         This means dying to our own sense of self-importance.
·         This means that we “rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep”.
·         This means that actually notice each other.

Have you ever felt invisible? It is a most uncomfortable feeling. When Heaven comes close to earth, we realize that we really matter – and that all the people around us really matter.

I’m not calling you to follow the path I took towards military service. I do call you to follow Jesus as Lord, and to work out the rule of Christ in the way that you treat people around you.

This really does mean breaking with the rule of our culture. For example, we will reject the political hostility of our culture, which seeks to attack the enemy at every point. Further, we will welcome those who follow Christ. Even when they have transgressed the laws of the country (as some of my friends have), we will welcome them as brothers and sisters, calling on them to repent, and caring for them throughout their lives.

“Love each other as I have loved you”, Jesus said. When we do this, we come closer to God’s reign, and we can hear the music of Heaven singing, “At the name of Jesus every knee will bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Providence Community Chapel
11 October 2017
Philippians 2: 1-11
2 Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. 5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; 7 rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross!
9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

The Law of Reciprocity

Introduction
Thanksgiving Sunday. Each year at Thanksgiving we remember the good gifts we have received and say, “Thank you.” We thank God for the gift of life, physical and spiritual. We thank our parents for home and family. We thank those in our lives who have helped us and made our lives possible. We express our gratitude in word and in deed, thanking those who have blessed us, and seeking in turn to bless others around us in their lives.

In Canada, Thanksgiving Day celebrates what the English might call a harvest festival. The primary focus of our thanks, then, is the bounty we receive from the earth through the annual harvest. We thank God for God’s good gifts, and we receive those gifts primarily through the annual harvest of crops. Most of us do not live closely connected to the land, in the way that our forebears did when Thanksgiving Day in Canada began, but on this day at least we remember our connection to God’s good gift of the land.

Deuteronomy 8:7-18
The passage in Deuteronomy reflects this connection. Moses is speaking to the people. He says, “The Lord has given you a good land, full of all that you need. When you are prosperous, you will be inclined to think that you have earned your good fortune. Don’t believe it! God has given this to you, and you must remember God and serve God.”

One of the themes running through our passage is found in verses 14 to 16, which recognize God’s providing power in the desert. The Children of Israel knew God as God of the desert, God of the sandy dry waterless places, able to keep them in the space between Egypt and the Promised Land. But Canaan has its own gods, especially Baal, the god of the storm. Some of them may have wondered if their God, Yahweh, could take care of them once they entered the Promised Land. There was the real possibility that the people would turn to Baal rather than to God once they were established in the land. This possibility lies behind the temptation to take credit themselves for their future prosperity. God says to them, “Don’t do it!” God is God of the whole earth, and God has given them the land. They are to thank God and give their allegiance to God, not to take credit for themselves or to worship any other god.

God’s warning is serious business. Hear the verses immediately after the passage we read: “If you ever forget the Lord your God and follow other gods and worship and bow down to them, I testify against you today that you will surely be destroyed. Like the nations the Lord destroyed before you, so you will be destroyed for not obeying the Lord your God.”

I think of our own lives today. We worship the god of pleasure and power – you can call this god (in the title of a book by Richard Foster) “money, sex, and power”. We take credit ourselves for the wealth we have accumulated and the material blessings of our lives. God warns us: “Don’t do it!” All that we have comes from God. As the words of the old hymn put it, “Naught have I gotten but what I received.”

We turn to Luke 17:11-19
This is an interesting scene, and a bit puzzling. It begins with the ten lepers acting together—Jews and a Samartian, bonded together in their shared need. Aware of their need, they seek Jesus’ help. Jesus responds with the simple command to act as though they have already been healed.

The basic procedure was that the priests diagnosed leprosy, and that those so labelled had to avoid contact with those not affected. They were “unclean” and therefore separated from the larger society of those who were “clean”. We do not think in these categories today, but they are common in shame and honour cultures. To be right within society and right with God is to be clean, and any impurity is unclean. Leprosy, a disease that disfigured the skin, made one unclean, cut off from the rest of society. If one was healed and therefore cleansed, the priests again were the gatekeepers who had to ratify the change in status. The action of the priests reflects the category of clean and unclean, a religious rather than simply health-related category.

All ten responded in faith—seen in their obedience to Jesus when they went to see the priests. They presented themselves and were pronounced clean and thus restored to society, socially and religiously. Only one, the outsider Samaritan, returned to Jesus to say thank you. Jesus said that his healing came through his faith, expressed in his gratitude. The other nine were also saved by their faith, but they did not receive commendation from the Messiah. They were restored, but did not follow through in faith to relate more closely with the anointed one of God.

For us the message is simple: We receive health and life from God’s hands. All of us receive these blessings, whether we say thank you or not, but only those who turn in gratitude to God receive the further gift of spiritual life. All are restored to health, but only this one is saved.
[The word “heal” and the word “save” are the same in Greek. I am not sure that the text itself intends the difference I have suggested between “healed” and “saved”—Luke uses two different words: in verse 15 it uses iamoai (to be healed physically or spiritually), and in verse 19 he uses sozo (to heal or to save). Both words carry the double meaning of physical healing and of spiritual salvation, and I think my reading is in tune with the spirit of the passage.]

Finally, 2 Corinthians 9:6-15
We turn to Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians.

Some background: Paul was a Pharisee and the son of a Pharisee, committed to the primacy of the Law of Moses. Through his encounter with the risen Jesus on the road outside of Damascus, his primary focus changed from the Law to the gospel of God’s grace revealed in Jesus Christ. One of his most important insights was that God has opened the door to all people to enter into the realm of God, Jew and Gentile alike. That theme is basic to his letters to the Romans and to the Galatians. We are saved not by keeping the Law of Moses, but by God’s grace active in our lives through faith.

Some early Christians thought all of this meant that Paul had rejected his Jewish identity, but that was not the case. He valued his heritage, and he looked up to the Jerusalem church as the mother church. So it was that, when the Roman Province of Judea experienced famine, and the mother church was suffering from the effects of the famine, Paul undertook to collect money from the Gentile churches he had planted to take to Jerusalem to help them in their plight.

Acts 21 tells how Paul took the gift to the Jerusalem church, and then, in order to allay people’s fears that he opposed the Law of Moses, he entered the Temple to worship in full accordance with the Law. While he was there, some Jews from Asia accused him of breaking the Law, setting in motion the events that led to Paul being taken to Rome to appear before Caesar.

Our passage this morning refers to this collection for the church in Jerusalem. Paul was collecting from the Gentile churches in general, and here he appealed to the Corinthians. In summary, Paul says that there is a fundamental law of life that we receive what we give. You [Corinthians] have given generously, and so you will receive from God all that you need. God gives us grace, and we extend grace to each other. This is what I am calling the law of reciprocity (or the law of interdependence).

This passage takes us further than the first two. Not only do we express gratitude to God for God’s good gifts, we show our gratitude by being generous to others. So verse 11 (for example) states: “You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.” (Compare also verse 6.) You are blessed, so that you can bless others. This is the law of reciprocity at work in the Corinthians. This law of reciprocity is at work in our lives also.

Our Context Today
I grew up with the hymn, “Make me a blessing.”
Out in the highways and byways of life,/ Many are weary and sad; Carry the sunshine where darkness is rife, Making the sorrowing glad.
Make me a blessing, make me a blessing,/ Out of my life may Jesus shine;/ Make me a blessing, O Savior, I pray,/   Make me a blessing to someone today.

The intent of the song was to state this truth: God has blessed us, and we in turn bless others. Today this sentiment appears antiquated and out-of-date. The stronger sentiment in our culture is captured in the phrase, “Look out for number one.” We hear this whenever we fly. The flight attendant tells us what to do in event of an emergency and then says something like this:
Oxygen and the air pressure are always being monitored. In the event of a decompression, an oxygen mask will automatically appear in front of you. To start the flow of oxygen, pull the mask towards you. Place it firmly over your nose and mouth, secure the elastic band behind your head, and breathe normally. Although the bag does not inflate, oxygen is flowing to the mask. If you are travelling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask first, and then assist the other person.
This instruction is good when you are flying: Take care of yourself first, but in our society it has turned into a kind of individualism that cares only about the self, and not about the other at all.

The fact is that the hyper-individualism of our culture has led us into chaos and threatens the breakdown of our society. Consider the mass shooting this past weekend in Las Vegas. We do not yet know why the shooter took the actions he did. We do know that he was almost cut off from the surrounding society. He was an individual, living almost in his own little bubble. He may have had a few friends somewhere; authorities refer to something almost like a double life, which we do not yet understand. But for the most part he was isolated from community.

Someone who is genuinely in community would have found it much harder to take such an action. You may have heard the African proverb, popularized by Bishop Desmond Tutu, “A person is a person in and through community.” This means that we become fully human through relationships with other people in our community. The isolated unrelated individual becomes less human and more susceptible to the evil that lies within each of us.

Healing our modern condition comes through relationships, through community, through having other people mediate God’s presence to us, and then mediating God’s presence to others in our turn. Reciprocity is a law of life. We give and we receive. We receive as we give.

At the beginning of the school year at Providence, our President, David Johnson, played a TED talk to us. The talk was by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks of the United Kingdom, entitled, “Facing the future without fear, together,” dated April 25, 2017. His basic theme was that we need to stand together, rather than fight with each other, in order to face the future without fear.

In making his basic point, he closed with an exhortation to go through the software of our minds and do a search and replace. Wherever we find the word “self”, he said, replace with “other”. It’s a good idea! Consider the following:
·         “Take care of yourself” becomes “Take care of each other.”
·         “Look out for number one” becomes “Look out for your neighbour.”
·         “Self-help” becomes “other-help”, and “Self-esteem” becomes “other-esteem”.

Rabbi Sacks is an Orthodox Jew. He is not trying to present Christian teaching, but he echoes the teaching of Jesus and of Paul quite precisely in Philippians 2: 1 to 4.
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

“Not looking to your own interests, but each of you to the interests of the others.” Wow! This cuts against our larger society as directly as possible. The old hymn, “Make me a blessing to someone today”, is not out-of-date. It is as contemporary as possible. It is exactly what God wants us to do here and now.

Conclusion
Today is Thanksgiving Sunday. We celebrate Thanksgiving by practicing the law of reciprocity. We bless as we are blessed. But what does it mean to bless each other as God has blessed us? What is a blessing? Let me give you a closing word study on “bless”, using a little bit of the Ndebele language from Zimbabwe. In Ndebele (or Zulu), the verb is a simple word like hamba. If I say ngiyahamba”, it means “I am going”. “Hamba” means  “go” or “walk”. (Those who have sung “Siyahamba ekukhanyeni kwenkosi” have used this word before.) When you add the suffix –isa to a verb, you change it to what we call a causative. So “hamba” means “go, and “hambisa” means “cause to go”, that is, “send”.

This rule works with the word for bless also. Consider the root of the word “bless” in Ndebele. The root word is “busa”. Once again many of us here have heard this word. Remember “The Lion King”? In the closing song the animals all sing, “Busa Simba!” That means, “Rule, Simba!” Simba is now the king, so Simba will rule: iyabusa. Now take “busa” and add the suffix –isa: Busisa. “Busisa” means “bless”, so I can say to you, “Nkosi likubusise” (“May the Lord bless you”).

Do you see what has happened? In Ndebele, to bless means “to cause to rule”. When we say that God blesses us, that means that God has caused us to rule in our lives, that is, God has given us self-control, the internal safety of self-control even in the storm. There is profound truth here: Being out of control is one of our society’s greatest fears. We are lost, adrift in a chaotic and dangerous world. When Jesus rules in our lives, he makes us part of the realm of God. We become ‘slaves of righteousness”, in Paul’s language. When Jesus rules in our lives, he gives us the gift of ruling ourselves. Remember that “self-control” is the final element listed in the fruit of the Spirit (Ephesians 5).

Similarly, to bless others is to help them take control of their own lives. Being blessed does not mean being wealthy, or strong, or more fortunate than others. It means simply, being in control: As Paul puts it, “I have learned in whatever state I am to be content.” Blessing others then means that we do not try to control them. We may provide various kinds of physical and mental help, but more importantly we walk with them as they also discover the resources to be in control of their lives. The gift of self-control comes only through the presence of God’s Spirit, so we introduce them to Jesus and seek God’s presence together. When Jesus reigns in us and in them, we are blessed indeed.


Grace Bible Church
8 Oct 2017, Thanksgiving Sunday

Texts (the links are to biblegateway.com, using the NIV-UK version)
          Deuteronomy8: 7 to 18
          Luke17: 11 to 19

          2 Corinthians9: 6 to 15

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Rethinking Evangelicalism

In “Rethinking Life” I intentionally did not discuss my understanding of being an Evangelical. Here is a brief effort to remedy that omission. In response to one of the Facebook responses to “Rethinking Life”, I noted the National Association of Evangelicals’ web page, in which the NAE uses Bebbington’s summary of Evangelical distinctives:
·         Conversionism: the belief that lives need to be transformed through a “born-again” experience and a life long process of following Jesus.
·         Activism: the expression and demonstration of the gospel in missionary and social reform efforts.
·         Biblicism: a high regard for and obedience to the Bible as the ultimate authority.
·         Crucicentrism: a stress on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as making possible the redemption of humanity.

I like this shortlist, although one can debate its adequacy. I see two basic streams to the Evangelical movement. One is represented by the Gospel Coalition and such figures as John Piper and Don Carson. On the web the first sentence of their “foundation documents” reads: “We are a fellowship of evangelical churches in the Reformed tradition deeply committed to renewing our faith in the gospel of Christ and to reforming our ministry practices to conform fully to the Scriptures.”

One sees in their self-definition a sense that to be Evangelical is to be Reformed. One sees also the immediate reference to Scripture, with a strong commitment to “conform fully” to Scripture. My own sense is that the Reformed stream emphasizes doctrine over experience. The testimony of someone like Millard Erickson (a prominent theologian within the Reformed Evangelical stream) reinforces my impression. There is much good in this stream. The pastoral work of Tim Keller in New York City shows how good it can be, as does John Piper’s ministry in Minneapolis-Saint Paul.

The second stream comes from the Wesleyan-Holiness movement, and prioritizes the personal experience of God’s presence. We can see this priority in the way that the Methodist movement grew in the United States in the latter part of the 19th Century, and in the way that the great Pentecostal Revival of 1906 spread from Azusa Street, Los Angeles.

The Wesleyan stream is less organized than the Reformed stream. The Brethren in Christ (my church family) has been part of the Christian Holiness Association, which was an expression of this stream, but the association appears to be dormant. Wesleyanism is best represented by organizations such as Asbury Theological Seminary (where I did my mission studies).

I can summarize the difference between the two streams by using Bebbington’s four markers. Wesleyans emphasize the first two: conversion (that is, experience) and activism (that is, living out one’s faith in concrete ways). Reformed Evangelicals emphasize the latter two: Biblicism (a strong commitment to the authority of Scripture) and crucicentrism (the centrality of the cross).

One can easily overstate the difference. Wesleyans embrace the cross and rely fully on Scripture; the Reformed movement believes in conversion and discipleship. One should think, then, of a difference in emphasis, not of two visions in conflict. The difference in emphasis is, however, important. Reformed Evangelicals are more likely to insist on stating things the right way. Wesleyan Evangelicals are more likely to start with a personal testimony. I am a Wesleyan!

Experience and Doctrine: Subjective and Objective
One of those who commented on “Rethinking life” made an important point that holds both sides together, He said, “While I think that ‘stressing relationship with God over doctrine about God’ sounds good... unless we have a good understanding of who this God is (doctrine about God) we may all end up having a relationship with different gods. Just to say that both are rather important to the Christian mindset.”

He is, of course, right. In response I add that the danger of a subjective perception that misidentifies God exists for both streams. The God defined by those who focus on doctrine can be as subjective as the God defined by those who say, “The Spirit told me.” We interpret Scripture from our socially constructed lives, which leads to what missiologists call “local theologies”. Everyone constructs there theology like this. Africans responding to the fear of witchcraft construct a local theology; Americans worrying about the influence of secularism construct a local theology. We have to do the hard work of hearing the Scripture speak for itself in order to hear God’s supracultural gospel (to use Charles Kraft’s phrase).

Similarly, people who have a spiritual experience may think that God is at work, when in fact the source of the experience is not God. I remember a Pentecostal friend in Zimbabwe who critiqued the Toronto Airport Church for me. He said, “You Americans are funny. You see someone roar like a lion or engage in holy laughter, and you think it must be the Spirit of God. We have seen these things in Zimbabwe too, and we know that it is not always God’s Spirit.” What protects us from our own subjective experience is the objective reality of God. When one gives oneself fully to the “God who is there”, God takes care of bringing objective reality into our experience.

So both streams need to heed my friend’s warning. We rely on Scripture and we give our lives to Christ. We seek to understand and to experience the cross. We live out our lives fully in light of our commitments to Christ as we meet him in the Bible.

The Centre and Boundaries
A second observation about Bebbington’s four marks of the Evangelical movement. The emphasis on doctrine tends to focus on boundary issues, so those in the Reformed stream are more likely to draw lines that others cannot cross if they wish to stay in the movement. I prefer to emphasize the centre and to use these four marks—experience, activism, Scripture, and the cross—as the common core that Evangelicals share. This emphasis fits better with my Wesleyan orientation.

The problem with drawing lines that others cannot cross is that it moves boundary issues to the centre of the Evangelical paradigm. For example, those in the Reformed stream tend to make complementarian thinking a line one cannot cross: Women cannot serve in church leadership. In the Wesleyan Holiness movement women have been leaders for more than one hundred years. General William Booth’s daughter, for example, became the fourth leader (General) of the Salvation Army in 1934. Wesleyans tend to be egalitarian on the issue of women in ministry. Now using the four marks of Evangelicalism looks like a set of core issues that we can use at the centre of our identity. The role of women in ministry is a boundary issue—more marginal, and not necessary for an Evangelical identity.

Another example: Those in the Reformed stream insist on Penal Substitutionary Atonement as the model Evangelicals must use to understand the saving work of Christ on the Cross. But surely the precise model is a marginal issue. Perhaps it can serve as a fuzzy boundary between two branches of the Christian faith (for example, Roman Catholics, who refer to the Satisfaction Theory [of which PSA is a subset] and the Eastern Orthodox, who I think refer to Regeneration or something like that). But we are saved by Christ’s work on the cross; elevating a theory of how that works to a line that cannot be crossed moves PSA from the margin to the centre. I don’t think it’s a helpful way to move forward.

To be clear, I think that the PSA makes sense and is worth using in our understanding of the atonement, but I don’t think it is nearly as important as is experiencing the presence of Christ in one’s life. A friend of mine has observed that N.T. Wright, the English theologian, has been in significant conflict with the Gospel Coalition over this issue, because they want to make PSA normative for all Evangelicals. I’d rather be a Wesleyan!

Some random wanderings by a decidedly amateur theologian. I beg the forbearance of those who know this whole field better than I do and welcome correction as leading to my own better understanding of what I’m talking about.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Rethinking Life as an Evangelical Christian

Recently a friend of ours sent an email in which, among other things, he said the following: 
I have recently been thinking about some very fundamental ways that my religious beliefs have changed (or are changing, as I'm not sure quite where I will end up on some things) in recent years.  … Some of the areas in which my beliefs are shifting, that I would not have foreseen a few years ago, include
·         my view of scripture
·         existence of hell
·         importance of a conversion experience
·         substitutionary atonement
·         beliefs about homosexuality

The questions he raises are questions for many people today, and especially for those of us who grew up within what is sometimes called Evangelicalism. [Defining “Evangelical” is another blog, and has been worked in detail by good Evangelical scholars; I won’t say more about it here.] Although I do not sense a radical shift in these areas in my own thinking, I also have thought a lot about these questions. This brief essay is an effort to suggest what I have been thinking. Obviously this is not the space for an in-depth consideration: These are beginning thoughts.

1. Scripture. Within the Brethren in Christ Church inerrancy-infallibility has never been part of our official statement of belief. Many of our people subscribe to some form of such language, but I have never found it helpful. Clark Pinnock’s book, The Scripture Principle, stated well what I thought 30 years ago, and what I still believe. I accept Scripture as my final written authority in matters of faith and life.

Here is a brief summary of why I hold the view I do.
·         We need some authority outside of ourselves in order to evaluate what is true. If that outside authority is only societal norms, they are as subjective as my own personal opinions; I need something with deeper grounding than “the spirit of the age.”
·         Scripture (OT and NT) has a clear general validity so far as ancient documents are concerned. F.F. Bruce’s The NT Documents: Are They Reliable is an older statement of this validity within the NT, and I find it persuasive. Good arguments do not become false because we keep questioning them! [A current example is the tendency of some to think that climate change will go away if they can resist the findings of climate scientists long enough. They are wrong; the findings of the experts stand, whether we question them or not.] The Bible’s general truthfulness does not prove its authority, but it does mean we can rely on what it says about the life and death of Jesus, for example. Which leads to the next point.
·         The importance of Scripture in our lives today rests on what it teaches about Jesus. The NT tells us that Jesus taught his disciples [most people today like what they know of his teaching]. The NT also tells us that Jesus claimed a unique union with God—that he was one with God. Among the Jews such a claim could only lead to his death for blasphemy. The NT says that he was duly executed, and that he rose from the dead. In Surprised by Joy C.S. Lewis tells how an atheist history tutor at Oxford helped lead to Lewi’s conversion to follow Jesus. In an after-dinner conversation, the tutor commented on the NT along the following lines: “Rum thing, Lewis,” he said, “It looks like that resurrection thing really happened.” Speaking as an historian, he found the documents credible. The tutor remained an atheist, but Lewis saw the force of the statement and recognized that Jesus must be more than human.

Such an abbreviated argument for the reliability of Scripture does not deal with weaknesses in the argument or with objections to it. I am doing no more than sketching the way that I conclude that the Bible is true and that it leads us to God. This line of thinking leads me to search for Scripture to find how God—the Creator of all—reveals God’s self to us—human, finite creatures. The problems that people raise within Scripture are of less interest to me than this search for what God reveals about God through the self-revelation of Jesus.

Infallibility-Inerrancy gets bogged down in other questions: Seven days of creation [which Genesis 1 has no interest in teaching]; Jonah and the big fish [an acted out parable not intended to tell us about marine biology]; the extra day from thee time that Joshua told the sun to stand still [really? We’re chasing ancient calendars to find God?] The language of Inerrancy superimposes our scientific categories on people from two to three thousand years ago. If Scripture had been written to answer our modern questions of science, it would have been incomprehensible to the people for whom it is written.

Hard passages of Scripture (such as the apparent calls to genocide in the OT) must be understood through the lens of the language and culture and literature of the people for whom they were written. We wrestle with these passages because we read them as moderns (and sometimes as post-moderns) who don’t know the categories and thought patterns of the ancients. Here is a link for a sermon in which I try to understand one such passage. And here is a sequel.

My summary statement is that my faith rests on Jesus, forged through my relationship with Jesus, the Son of God. Scripture is the only written witness we have to meet God in God’s self-revelation. I read the Bible to know Jesus and God better. Those passages that stump me become paradoxical problems that stimulate further reflection and continued searching. In most areas of learning, unresolved problems lead to new discoveries. When one decides to set aside a paradoxical problem and go around it, one loses the chance to penetrate further into the mysteries of life as God’s creatures in this world.

2. Heaven and Hell. My friend wonders then, is Hell there? The question of Hell is one that theologians wrestle with. Jerry Walls is an example of a philosopher who has researched in this area (Hell: The Logic of Damnation). My friend Terrrance Tiessen is an example of a theologian who has thought deeply about such questions (“Thoughts Theological”). Here are a couple of my own thoughts.

·         It seems to me that it is primarily Christians in prosperous relatively stable countries who want to do away with Hell. Christians in Zimbabwe may pray for Mugabe and desire his conversion, but they can understand the logic or need for Hell. [I have a good Zimbabwean friend who believes that all people, including Mugabe, will finally be with God, so my statement is not universally true.] My sense, however, is that our desire to do away with Hell takes the reality of evil in our world too lightly.
·         I do not see a particular need for what some Evangelicals call “eternal conscious torment” as part of our understanding of Hell. Scripture is remarkably sparing in descriptions of Hell, spending more time talking about the rewards and joys of Heaven. Jesus speaks more about Hell than anyone else in the NT, so we must take it seriously, but he does so in picture language that does not lend itself to systematic description. Jesus also tells us to not be afraid of those who can kill our bodies, but to fear [live in awe and respect towards] the one who can destroy both soul and body. Those who consider “annihilationism” refer to such passages as part of their belief.
·         I affirm the reality of Hell, defined as a final and eternal separation from God, but see no benefit in describing Hell more precisely than that. I do not see Hell as necessary to serve God’s wrath, but rather as a logical extension of the dignity of free will that God has conferred on those of God’s creatures made in and as “the image of God”. God has given us the dignity of choice, and God respects our choice to be with God—or not—so much as to make that choice last forever.

3. Conversion. The importance of conversion lies simply in the need to choose and state the centre of our lives. Everyone has something or someone at the centre of his/her life. If our centre is not Jesus it will be something else. An emphasis on conversion derives from recognizing that God is the centre of life.

I don’t know in what way my friend was questioning conversion. This question may have to do with a related issue: Must one insist that only those who have a specific conversion experience are going to Heaven. That is a big question! I have found help in John Sanders (No Other Name!) and Terry Tiessen (Who Can Be Saved?). My short answer to the question is that Jesus is the only way to God, but we try to know more than we can know if we try to work out precisely what that means in each person’s life.

For my part I prefer to state core confessions without trying to harmonize them into the classical positions (exclusivism-inclusivism-universalism-pluralism). So I can say, “Jesus is the Only Way.” I can say that all who are with God in eternity are saved through the blood of Jesus on the cross. I do not need to decide what happens to each individual, but can affirm with C.S. Lewis and John Wesley (and others) that all who truly seek God will find God.

4. Atonement. This is a subject that I am thinking through in more depth at the moment. In a recent sermon I dealt with the topic briefly. Here it is enough to say that I think that those who insist on one model for atonement have gone astray.
·         Some (often mainline Christians) hold up the moral theory (or imitation theory) [that we seek to live like Christ] as the essential model. But the ability to follow Christ is part of the new life described as “you must be born again”. We take up our cross (imitation), and God works in us to give us new life.
·         Some (often Evangelicals and Roman Catholics) insist that penal substitution is the necessary model [in Jesus’ death “the wrath of God was satisfied”]. But this version of the satisfaction theory is only one way to describe what is happening in the atonement.

I could go through other models or theories in the same way. For now just these comments: 1) Any image of the atonement we use must be derived from Scripture. When we as finite creatures try to comprehend and describe the ways of God, who is Creator and infinite, we will fall short. So we use images from God’s self-revelation in Scripture. 2) We use those images that speak most clearly to us and help us draw closer to God in Christ. 3) We do not forbid others the use of other images of atonement, nor do we insist that our way is the only way we can understand what God is doing.

Many turn away from substitutionary atonement because they think it demeans God, who is Love. I would rather continue to use the biblical images, which include substitution. At some level, the idea of substitution is found in all of the images of atonement that the church has used. Jesus in some way beyond understanding did for us what we could not do, whether or not we can understand it. As John puts it, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” Jesus laid down his life for us, and there can be no greater demonstration of the truth that God is Love.

5. Homosexuality. Well look at the time! I must run! We’ll have to leave this question for another time!

Seriously, I won’t try to state my own position here and now. I will make a couple of observations. How we respond as the church to issue of same sex relationships is a great opportunity, one that for the most part the church has not taken. “Traditionalists” note that the story arc of Scripture is based on male and female as God’s image in the world. Embracing same sex relationships as marriage cuts against that story arc. “Progressives” note that another story arc in Scripture involves the way that God (and God’s people) includes those whom society has marginalized. Embracing same sex relationships as marriage is one way to include those whom we have too often rejected.

I have been part of difficult conversations about this subject, in which progressives make it clear that traditionalists are homophobic and unfaithful to the gospel. Such judgments do not help us move forward. In the same conversations I have heard traditionalists make it clear that progressives are “false prophets” and sinners. Such judgments do not help us move forward.

The societal shift that has taken place in my lifetime is so massive that it requires careful exegesis of our social setting as well as careful exegesis of Scripture to discover what God wants us to do now. I have more questions than answers. Question: What changed in our society to lead to where we are now? Question: Are these changes all good? Do we embrace them all? Question; What themes in Scripture speak to these issues? I am not particularly interested in proof texts, individual verses or brief sections of Scripture, but rather in the overall themes that shine through all of Scripture. Then I want to bring those themes together with what our culture teaches and look for how God speaks to us today.

Society is fickle and demanding. Same sex issues and transgender issues and many others are brought together with an absolute commitment to the rights of the individual, including those based entirely on their feelings. We insist too quickly on affirming one side of the argument or the other. I would rather take the time to listen and reflect and work at discovering what is truly good and right in a radically new situation.

I doubt that these brief thoughts are an adequate response to my friend’s probing thoughts and questions, but they are a beginning. It is important to keep thinking together, and not to submerge these issues. We do better when we think and talk together, listening together for God’s Spirit to speak within us.

Daryl Climenhaga
29 July 2017