Thursday, December 30, 2010

Letter To Laodicea (part 68)

That said, we move to the twenty-first verse, where the facts of the matter become more glaring.  Paul writes, “For when it is time to eat, everyone proceeds with his own supper.  One is hungry and another becomes drunk” (11:21).  With this, when considered along with what we know about the banqueting tables of the ancient world, it becomes quite evident that Paul is taking issue with the meal practice of the Corinthian church.  This reminds us of the common and accepted situation of banquets, in that the honored guests would eat first, and that they would also eat the best food while receiving the best wine, while the guests towards the other end of the social spectrum would have to wait to be served.  Here, we reflect on the story of Jesus turning the water into wine, and in the context of what Paul writes to this church, consider that the best wine was then going to be reserved for those that would be receiving their food and drink at the very end of the meal, contrary to all custom. 

As previously mentioned, in some cases, invited guests would receive nothing at all.  It appears that this altogether unfortunate situation was occurring within the church, at common meals.  Rather than demonstrating that they truly believed that all were one in Christ, and there was neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, and neither Jew nor Greek, there were divisions being put on display at the very meal that was supposed to be demonstrative of the messianic banquet, and to which they were apparently making reference as being the “Lord’s Supper.”  By countermanding the example that had been provided by Jesus, in the context of His announcement of the presence of the kingdom of heaven in which He reversed and flattened out the social order, this church was not being a unique and shining light to the world.  It seems that they were calling what they were doing the Lord’s Supper, and speaking of it in terms of the messianic banquet; but with what is going on there, we are made to understand why Paul tells them “you are not really eating the Lord’s Supper” (11:20b).  If one is going hungry while another becomes drunk and presumably satiated while all are sitting at the same table, how could this possibly be looked upon as the Lord’s Supper?  Where is compassion and love and preference on display in such a situation?  Most decidedly, it is not.    

Paul does not deny that the members of this church come from different segments of society.  He does not deny that there are individuals from all socio-economic levels coming together, nor does he level his critique in this direction.  He writes “Do you not have houses so that you can eat and drink?” (11:22a)  The Apostle was not concerning himself with the eating and the drinking itself.  This was not the thing with which he took issue.  What concerned him was the fact that the entrenched forces of the world, backed up from time immemorial by the kingdoms of the world and by the way that they went about gaining and maintaining power, were infiltrating that which was supposed to represent the kingdom of God---which was to model, based on Jesus’ example and insistence, an entirely different way of establishing and growing a kingdom. 

Following up on his rhetorical inquiry about private houses in which the people could eat and drink to their heart’s content, Paul asks “Or are you trying to show contempt for the church of God by shaming those who have nothing?” (11:22b)  How horrible that this had crept into the church of Christ!  By bringing the banqueting table and festal meal practices of the world into the church, and by attempting to erect and maintain, within the church, the same social divisions and boundaries that existed outside the church, they were extending the shame (in an honor and shame society) felt by those that they supposedly referred to as brothers and sisters in Christ, while referring to it as the Lord’s Supper.  It is no wonder that Paul writes “Should I praise you?  I will not praise you for this!” (11:22c), before going on to talk about the Lord’s Supper as it is meant to be. 

In the recounting of what he had received from the Lord and passed on to this church (11:23), Paul makes it clear that Jesus gave bread and the cup to all, and that none were left out.  That was not the first time that Jesus had done this, as we can see the same thing happening at the feedings of the multitudes over which Jesus presided.  With this in mind, can we even imagine engaging in a celebration, calling it the Lord’s Supper, and not allowing all to participate?  Of course not!  It seems that we do engage in such a practice in our churches, on a regular basis, actively excluding people from participation at the Lord’s Supper, and doing so based on what might very well appear to be, upon a closer, far more informed, and contextualized reading of the words of Paul regarding examination of self and judgment, a seriously flawed practice.  The exclusion of some from participation in the meal due to social custom, however, appears to be precisely what was taking place.  Standard meal practice, in which inequality was rampant, was in effect, and it was being referred to as the Lord’s Supper.  This could not possibly be that for which Jesus had gone to the cross as part of the inauguration of the kingdom of God on earth, so it is little wonder that Paul was angry with this church.    

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Letter To Laodicea (part 67)

If Paul provides “instructions,” “warnings,” and “correctives” during the course of his treatment of communion, common sense would tell us that he did so in the context of dealing with a significant problem in the congregation to which he was writing.  This is a legitimate conclusion to reach, and it is reinforced by what comes before Paul’s delving into his “passing along” of what he had “received from the Lord” (11:23a).  It is what precedes this that is so incredibly instructive for our understanding why Paul takes this route, for understanding the meal practice of the early church, for understanding the role of the communion in particular within that meal practice, for understanding the kingdom implications and the way in which the church of Jesus was charged to represent that kingdom through meal practice and communion, and ultimately, for understanding the vomit-inducing problem in the church at Laodicea. 

Something was taking place in Corinth that, for Paul, was odious in the extreme, and ran contrary to all that was represented by the example that had been provided by Jesus.  If we consider the tone that Paul is clearly taking throughout this letter, and then hear words such as “Now in giving the following instruction I do not praise you” (11:17a), it would not be much of a stretch to imagine Paul thinking something akin to “I am going to vomit you out of my mouth” (Revelation 3:16b).  In effect, just as the Laodicean church was doing to Jesus, the Corinthian church, with what they were doing, was making Paul sick.  When Paul writes, “I do not praise you,” he is providing a contrast with an earlier statement in which he writes “I praise you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I passed them on to you” (11:2).  This is quite the stark contrast to Paul saying “I do not praise you,” and then going on to add “Should I praise you?  I will not praise you for this” (11:22b), before launching into “For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you” (11:23a).  It is of interest to note that in one area, this church is remembering Paul and maintaining the traditions that he passed on to them, but on the other hand, had become completely dismissive of that which Paul passed on to them as coming from Jesus Himself.

As we continue moving forward, and as we consider what is happening within this church, let us remember those strong, dividing, separating, stratifying societal forces that were mentioned in our brief analysis from the second chapter of the book of James; while also remembering that, owing to our having taken great pains to understand the importance of meals in that time, because of the language that was in use in James we were able to identify the fact that James was communicating in the context of problems centered on meal practice.  Here in this letter, Paul is doing the same.  It is with this already in mind that we hear Paul saying “I do not praise you, because you come together not for the better but for the worse.  For in the first place, when you come together as a church I hear there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it” (11:17b-18). 

Now, Paul is not speaking into a vacuum.  This church is going to know about their divisions, and they are going to know where those divisions are most clearly seen.  This letter, which would have been read out loud to the congregation in one sitting, has already made mention of “jealousy and dissension” (3:3), and beyond the eleventh chapter---quite noticeably in chapter twelve---Paul is going to address further divisions.  Because those divisions come on the heels of what he is communicating in the eleventh chapter that is going to be clearly situated within church meal practice, and because the congregation is going to hear these words in short order (no private reading and no artificial chapter and verse divisions), they actually play into the divisions that Paul is referencing in the eleventh chapter.

Returning to the nineteenth verse, we read “For there must in fact be divisions among you, so that those of you who are approved may be evident” (11:19).  This is a rhetorical exercise by Paul.  He is not saying “there must be divisions so that we can know, and know correctly, who among you is truly saved and approved by God.”  Rather, he is being critical of their divisions, and of the steps that are taken to highlight, or to make it quite evident, those who are “approved.”  Because he goes on to write “Not when you come together at the same place, you are not really eating the Lord’s Supper” (11:20a), we know that Paul is addressing divisions and those who are “approved” in the context of the meal table.  This seems to be a clear reference to the honored guests and the chief seats of the world’s banqueting tables, which opens up a whole new world of understanding. 

We cannot short our understanding of what is being said by thinking of the Lord’s Supper as simply the bread and the cup of the communion.  The Lord’s Supper must here be understood in the context of the well understood tradition of the entire meal of Jesus and His disciples, of what that meal and the specific and identifiable tool for remembrance and identification of kingdom participants that Jesus provided to His disciples at that meal, and of the messianic banquet.  We have to adjust our thinking so that when we think of the Lord’s Supper, our thinking goes beyond just the bread and the cup of communion and of those few minutes of church services that are taken up by the practice.  We must force ourselves to think of the Lord’s Supper in its larger context and against the background of common meal practice of the ancient world.            

Letter To Laodicea (part 66)

As has been said before, once we understand why the words in the letters to the churches in Revelation are being spoken, and once we come to grips with the problem to which they are directed, which can only happen as we are led by the Spirit of God to put ourselves in the shoes of the original hearers, it is then that we will be able to properly apply the words of Jesus in our churches and in our lives, and so better serve as ambassadors of the kingdom of heaven.  We can say the same thing about the communion dissertation that Paul included in this letter to the Corinthian church. 

Just as the letter to the churches in Revelation served a corrective purpose, so too did Paul’s letter to this church.  We cannot lose sight of this.  Why this is so often overlooked, and why Revelation is then treated as a writing that must be decoded as a mysterious prophetic oracle according to a subjective perusal of church and world history in order that we might somehow predict the future, is something of a mystery.  The Laodicean church had to receive and understand their letter in context and act accordingly, and so too did the Corinthian church.

If continue on from the words of warning that Paul has delivered, we are able to encounter some corrective language from Paul.  He writes, “So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another.  If anyone is hungry, let him eat at home, so that when you assemble it does not lead to judgment” (11:33-34a).  When we allow ourselves to jump right into the communion at the twenty-third verse, then the addition of these words from Paul don’t make a great deal of sense.  Along with that, if we fail to take common first century meal practice into consideration when we read these words, they are not going to make a lot of sense.  Finally, if we don’t bear in mind the vision of the messianic banquet and the personal example of Jesus at communion, that goes beyond the “Last Supper” and takes in the whole of the tradition of His meal practice that has the messianic banquet standing in its background and informs the understanding of the early church as to why they are even engaging in this practice in this way, then we are going to have difficulty making sense of what Paul is getting at it with these final corrective instructions; and we are, more than likely, going to approach and utilize the words of Paul incorrectly, missing out on the depth of the problem that is being addressed (much like the problem at the church in Laodicea is overlooked, having been sacrificed on the altar of willful ignorance, soothsaying, and preaching about the “end times”).

Obviously, Paul has more than what we generally think of as the communion in mind.  Most of us, for better or for worse, only experience the communion as a part of a church service.  Rarely, if ever, do we experience the communion as part of a meal, which was the common experience of the early church.  This, of course, kept the meal practice traditions of Jesus, while serving as a reminder that said practice was firmly ensconced within the Isaianic messianic banquet and its associated expectations and demands of the people of God.  Naturally, this more accurate duplication of the “Lord’s Supper,” as it took place within a world that had very certain and defined parameters and social constructs around its meals, while standing against those same constructs, would have created a dynamic that is all too unfamiliar for us. 

So yes, we tend to forget, or perhaps we never even truly realize that Jesus and His disciples did not simply go through a communion celebration in the way with which we are so familiar.  It must be reiterated that they were at a meal.  Paul even reminds us of this, writing “In the same way, He also took the cup after supper” (11:25a).  So we have a reminder that the basis for Christian communion sprung from an event that took place at a meal.  Not only that, but it becomes clear from Paul’s writing that the specific practice of communion in the early church was also taking place at a meal; but because the communion itself is so often referred to as the “Lord’s Supper,” the meal aspect (and therefore the messianic banquet aspect) is unfortunately screened from view.  This is a loss of understanding, with an extraordinary depth for conceptions concerning church practice and the kingdom of heaven that deserves to be recovered.  

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Letter To Laodicea (part 65)

Believe it or not, this excursion into Paul’s first Corinthian letter does have bearing on the overall subject of the letter to Laodicea.  When we have completed this portion of the analysis, having made our way through what appears to be most of the relevant material, we will be able to return to Revelation, to come to a useful conclusion full of objective and practice-informing understanding.  This will be accomplished through our having taken great pains to hear the words to the Laodicean church within their historical, social, and theological context, rather than our own. 

Unfortunately, context is quite often neglected when it comes to Paul’s treatment of communion in the letter to Corinth.  So often, when we hear the passage referenced or quoted, the reference picks up at the twenty-third verse.  There, Paul writes, “For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night in which He was betrayed took bread, and after He had given thanks He broke it and said, ‘This is My body, which is for you.  Do this in remembrance of Me.’  In the same way, He also took the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood.  Do this, every time you drink it, in remembrance of Me.’  For every time you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes” (11:23-26).  These are the words that are regularly spoken to create the familiar setting in which we partake of the elements of the table. 

When this happens, we treat the words of the Apostle as if they were some type of instruction manual on how to engage in this practice.  In a sense, that is true, but that is only a part of the story.  Do we take the time to look at what precedes the “instructions”?  Sadly, no.  Like we do in so many other situations, like that of the letter to Laodicea, we have a tendency to simply pull things out of context and use them for our own purposes, reading into the text that which we want to see there.  Such sloppy and shabby treatment of the Scriptures results in reading the letter to Laodicea as an ahistorical and entirely subjective “spiritual temperature check” (hot, cold, lukewarm), and hearing part of Jesus’ words there (I stand at the door and knock) as an offer of salvation, rather than as words of warning to a congregation that were rooted in history and which were meant to be understood objectively by the recipients in a way that would have an effect on their practice as they went about their primary responsibility of serving as ambassadors of the kingdom of God.  Making reference to the “instruction” portion of chapter eleven, without making reference to what comes before or after, has us doing the same thing here as so often happens with everything in Revelation.  We make it ahistorical and subjective, and thereby cause ourselves to miss out on the aspects of the kingdom of heaven, and on the reference to Jesus’ meal practice that was so instructive and important for the early community of believers.

Now, it must be said that what comes after is regularly incorporated into the practice of communion.  The “words of warning,” as they are generally viewed, are usually included, so as to induce introspection among potential participants.  We read “For this reason, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.  A person should examine himself first, and in this way let him eat the bread and drink of the cup.  For the one who eats and drinks without careful regard for the body eats and drinks judgment against himself.  That is why many of you are weak and sick, and quite a few are dead.  But if we examined ourselves, we would not be judged.  But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned with the world” (11:27-32). 

These “words of warning” have been appended to the “instructions” for good reason.  However, the way in which they are presented, and in which they are urged to be taken, removes them from their practical and objective context, as participants are usually asked to apply this warning individually, as related to their personal salvation, with considerations of personal and individual judgment falling if one doesn’t have the right mindset in one’s taking of the elements or the right understanding of what the bread and the cup represent.  Pretending that Paul has such things in mind is unsatisfactory, and it ignores the corrective action that Paul is taking, first and foremost, with this church, as it fails to follow the example of Jesus and fails to understand that Paul is criticizing this church for their failure to embody the kingdom of heaven.  In addition, the encouragement to come to these words individually and personally, as if the recipients of this letter were silently reading their Bible for themselves, in their studies, rather than hearing the letter read out loud to the entire congregation, has had a hand in creating an unreasonable and Scripturally insupportable expectation of some type of Christian perfectionism, and a need for confession of personal “sins” after a personal examination of the condition of one’s heart (perhaps whether one is hot, cold, or lukewarm?) before taking communion.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Letter To Laodicea (part 64)

James is not the only place where we can see issues concerning Christian meal practice, which will be inextricably linked with the communion table, coming to the fore.  It is just one of those places which seems to be quite explicit.  Now that we have begun to grasp the importance of meals in the first century and for the early church, as they were an effective means by which to communicate concepts concerning the kingdom of heaven, we can vest other mentions of meals with the proper amount of weight and meaning, and do so even if there does not appear to be any controversy or angst in the situation. 

One such place in which there does appear to be much controversy is the church at Corinth.  This angst is expressed by the Apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians, which is the place where we find the most detailed treatment of the communion table, outside of the Gospels, in the whole of the New Testament.  The words used in Paul’s presentation of the communion in the eleventh chapter has been, for centuries, the basis for the celebration of communion, shedding clear light on the practice of the early church, as Paul helpfully elaborates on the goings-on that we see in the “Last Supper” of Jesus and His disciples.  At the same time, while extraordinarily helpful, those same words have been the source of much controversy, as words like “whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty  of the body and blood of the Lord.  A person should examine himself first, and in this way let him eat the bread and drink of the cup.  For the one who eats and drinks without careful regard for the body eats and drinks judgment against himself.  That is why many of you are weak and sick, and quite a few are dead.  But if we examined ourselves, we would not be judged” (11:27-31), have been applied in a number of ways. 

Usually, there is an encouragement to apply these words in an individual and personal manner, which fits well within a notion of salvation that is predominantly individualistic and focused on an other-worldly escapism.  However, this type of application presents us with a bit of a problem, as such notions would not have been the thrust of Paul’s understanding, nor that of the early church, and certainly would not reflect the worldview in which Jesus Himself was ensconced, and in which He re-oriented the Passover celebration towards Himself.  While there is certainly a sense of individual salvation, Jewish thoughts of salvation, especially as connected with the Passover celebration, as was the communion, were oriented towards the deliverance of the people of God from exile and oppression, with the deliverance from out of Egypt as the model.  While there is an individualistic component here, that individual benefit cannot be disconnected from the community. 

Also, the escapism that is prevalent in the popular interpretation of the communion passages of chapter eleven would not have been a part of Paul’s worldview.  The guilt and judgment reference in the passage previously quoted would not be connected with the eternal destination of one’s soul, and should certainly not be used as a means of limiting participation at the communion table or of generating fear and trepidation at partaking of the elements.  As Jesus invited tax collectors and sinners, and those that would have been rightly identified by observers as being outside of the covenant, to join Him at His tables, as He did so with the messianic banquet clearly in the background, and as we, along with the early church, view the communion table in that light, it would seem ridiculous to put such onerous limitations and boundaries, productive of fearfulness and ultimately exclusion, around that which allows us to mimic Jesus’ table practice and show forth the kingdom of heaven. 

When we read these words from the Apostle Paul, and as we consider the communion table, the thoughts that must be dancing at the forefront of our mind cannot be wrapped up in a concern for a personal salvation.  Rather, those thoughts must be the kingdom of heaven, and its manifestation and advancement.  If we are going to rightly approach the communion table, we cannot be focused on ourselves, but on what the table says about the kingdom of heaven.  Based on everything that has been said to this point, it seems that this approach may be the right one, and that it is in approaching the table in this way that we can find a better interpretation and understanding of Paul’s treatment of the subject.  Not only that, but bearing in mind the kingdom of heaven, in the context of the meal practice of the early church, rather than one’s personal salvation, allows us to understand why it is that Paul even brings up the subject in the first place.      

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Letter To Laodicea (part 63)

In a way that continues to echo the example and the teachings of Jesus, as we hold on to a construct which has James envisioning the character of the meal practice of the church, James goes on to say “Listen, my dear brothers and sisters!  Did God not choose the poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that He promised to those who love Him?” (2:5)  If a banqueting table is in mind, this mention of the kingdom, along with the use of “heirs” (which provides the Abrahamic covenant context that the author, due to his mentioning of Abraham that is soon to follow) that accompanies the contrast between rich and poor, places James squarely within the Jesus tradition that served as a constant reminder of the messianic banquet and of the unexpected way in which God was going about the business of establishing His kingdom. 

As we should expect from those that are operating with a proper, first century Jewish mindset, it is the earthly manifestation of the kingdom of God and its demonstration through the meal (the prominent social event of the day in that time---this has gone effectively unchanged) that is the foremost consideration, rather than an ambiguous concept of “salvation” that relied on foreign, Greek concepts of an ethereal escape into a good-creation-denying-and-therefore-supposedly-blissful disembodied condition, with an eternal residence in some nether-regions beyond the clouds.  This concept, though familiar to Jews of the first century, was rejected.  It would also come to be rejected by Gentiles that came into contact with the Gospel claim of the Lordship of Jesus, and who, by submitting to that Lordship by the Spirit’s effectual application of the power of the Resurrection, came to be concerned with the manifestation of God’s kingdom on earth, with its intended end of the renewal and restoration of the creation and its gathering together of a people into a body that was called to live out, in advance, that soon-to-be consummated kingdom, as they celebrated the re-creation that was to come.  The Resurrection of Jesus into this world (now changed and being changed by the power of the Resurrection), with a new and transformed physical body, served as the model for their expectation.

Moving forward here in James, we do well to keep the words of Jesus concerning exaltation and humiliation, about the first being last and the last being first, about the filling of the empty seats in the parable of the great banquet, and about the prevailing mindset in His day about the messianic banquet (God’s judgment on non-covenant people, represented by the deaf, blind, and lame).  Along with that, we must bear in mind the conclusions that have been drawn through our extensive commentary, so that we may rightly hear the contextual critique that is being offered, avoiding anachronistic and improper application of terms when we read “But you have dishonored the poor!  Are not the rich oppressing you and dragging you into the courts?” (2:6)  James, with the messianic banquet as exampled by Jesus (as Messiah) in mind, and with Jesus’ criticisms of the rich (Sanhedrin, High priest, Temple authorities, scribes, etc…) that were in circulation at that time, is expressing incredulity that these same rich ones to whom they are offering the chief seats in their assemblies, are the same ones that are dragging them before courts and councils, demanding that they disavow their claims that Jesus was the Messiah.  This seems to be made clear when we read “Do they not blaspheme the good name of the one you belong to?” (2:7), and with this, we are reminded of what Jesus said to His disciples, that “they will seize you and persecute you, handing you over to the synagogues and prisons.  You will be brought before kings and governors because of My name” (Luke 21:12b).    

We must remember that these were highly charged times.  Much like Jesus, who expected His listeners to have ears to hear, James did not offer direct criticism.  Such a thing would have been unwise.  Presumably then, the “rich” must be understood, not in a general sense as those with money, but primarily as the rulers of the people, who have gained their wealth by oppression.  We see the same types of language with writers like Paul and John, as they cloaked their subversive words, whether of the authorities of Israel or Rome, in what might be considered to be obscure language.  However, what might be obscure to us would be readily understandable to those to whom the words were initially directed.  Indeed, to this end, Paul takes up much of the language of the Caesar cult, which would have been quite familiar to those that received his letters, but is heard by those of us that live at such a tremendous time and distance from the Apostle.

These early Christians, living in altogether different times, with a message that challenged the power structures of their entire world (both Jewish and Greco-Roman), had to speak and write in a way that forced the recipients of their words, whether spoken or written, to make the necessary connections and extrapolations that would convey right understanding.  It is incumbent upon us, if we desire to rightly hear and understand even the smallest portion of what is being communicated, to make our best attempt to immerse ourselves in that same world.  This most definitely must be done, quite obviously, to understand Jesus’ words to the church at Laodicea, lest we shortchange the words and intentions of our Lord and go about on our merry way of ignorant and prideful spirituality.        

Friday, December 24, 2010

Letter To Laodicea (part 62)

Was this pervasive construct of social exclusivism an issue for the church in the days and years following the death and Resurrection of Jesus?  Was the meal table really this important?  Is it a grasping at straws to continue re-focusing our attempt at a rightful understanding of the problems in Laodicea towards the table practices of the early church?  Is there a chance that we are putting too much weight on Jesus’ stated desire, within the letter to the Laodiceans, to come in to share a meal?  Not at all.  If we look carefully at the New Testament, while keeping in mind the obvious significance of Jesus’ meal practice within the oral tradition that was being passed on before the Gospels were written, we can see that we are not in uncharted territory and that this is not an isolate concept.  This is a going concern for the people of God.    

Social stratification and the recognition of distinctions was so incredibly ingrained within the culture, be it Jewish or Greco-Roman culture (with concerns about dining with only people of the covenant or with maintaining proper social boundaries at the table), that it was inevitable that this societal force, if left un-restrained and unchecked, would quickly make its way into the churches, undoing and unmaking what it is that Jesus had exampled, demanded, and defended.  The church, as a community, was marked by its table practices, which can be seen in the fact that many of the charges leveled against it, precipitating much persecution, had to do with accusations of cannibalism.  Such accusations, naturally, represented a lack of understanding about the communion.  Regardless, it shows us that there was something distinctive about Christian meal practice that drew attention.  This, of course, was an excellent follow-on to Jesus’ meal practice, as it most certainly attracted all kinds of attention. 

Any type of activity within the church of Jesus that drew distinctions between one person and another, or which treated one person or type of person as a more worthy or exalted member of the kingdom, when viewed through the lens of the Jesus tradition, would be problematic.  Distinctions could multiply quickly and become entrenched, and this would always be a risk for the church, both then and now.  Social forces are difficult to combat, but since Jesus went to a cross and urged His disciples to take up a cross as well, and now that we hear those words within the context of the shame and horror that the cross represented, we can reason that difficulties in the combat of the forces in operation within this world are not to be looked upon as a deterrent for those that confess Jesus as Lord.  They are to be expected and encountered, with love and compassion, and a willingness to suffer the greatest of indignities, if need be, in the encounter. 

Though it does not initially appear to be specifically related to a meal, we will keep in mind the importance of Christian meal practice and its prominent place in the church that was seeking to embody the kingdom ethics and principles put into operation by Jesus (which were so readily seen at His table(s) that were given context by the messianic banquet that would serve to identify God’s redeeming activity on behalf of His people), while also remembering the prevailing forces of societal stratification and division, as we encounter this problem of the drawing of distinctions within the church in the book of James.  There, immediately after elevating orphans and widows (1:27), who were among the most overlooked and ostracized groups in all of society, we can go on to read “My brothers and sisters, do not show prejudice if you possess faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ” (2:1).  James is here addressing those that confess Jesus as Lord, and therefore identify themselves as participants in His kingdom movement.  Continuing on, we read “For if someone comes into your assembly” (2:2a), which is an assembly that is, most likely, going to include a common meal, “wearing a gold ring and fine clothing, and a poor person enters in filthy clothes, do you pay attention to the one who is finely dressed and say, ‘You sit here in a good place,’ and to the poor person, ‘You stand over there,’ or ‘Sit on the floor’?” (2:2b-3) 

Though the words are not used, in this mentioning of one person being seated in a good place, with another person relegated to standing or sitting on the floor, can we not hear the language of protoklisian and eschaton?  Those in receipt of this letter, who would have been imbued with cultural understanding that made this language commonplace, would have quickly imagined the banqueting constructs that are being referenced.  Yes, by way of reminder, the most noble and esteemed would have been given the best seats at a banquet, whereas the least would have been left standing or taken their places on the floor.  The honored guests (in the eyes of those in attendance) would have received the best food and wine, and the shameful guests (again, in the eyes of the attendees) within that honor and shame society, would have received items of much lower quality, if anything at all.  What does James say about this situation?  He says, “If so, have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil motives?” (2:4)  Clearly, this type of behavior had no place within the church.              

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Letter To Laodicea (part 61)

It is very important for us to grasp that the table fellowship that Jesus put on display was not assembled without due consideration of the plan that God intended for His creation.  Quite apart from being thrown together on a whim, the tables at which Jesus participated, at which He endured criticism because of their openness, and which are summed up in the table of communion that He left with His disciples, were duly informed by Scripture.  Jesus worked out, at practical levels, that which was portended by Scripture. 

To go even further, though Jesus, through His life and ministry and in and around His meal practice, was certainly making the implication that, in one sense, the Kingdom had arrived, from the outset, there was the sense that there was to be a final fulfillment of what was being put on display in those meals and at the communion, and that one’s present response to the banquet (meals and communions) invitations at hand was going to have a role in determining, in advance, if one was going to have a place at the final banquet looked forward to by the prophets, by Jesus, and by His disciples.  Let it be said, and let it be said in the context of the goal that we have in mind in this study, which is a determination concerning Jesus’ message to His church at Laodicea, that it is precisely at the communion table (as a microcosm of the messianic banquet, an announcement of the advent of the kingdom of heaven, and a reminder of Jesus’ ministry as it is so well summed up by His own meal practice) that the past, the present, and the future become a single reality that is full of mystery and wonder. 

As we do not leave behind the Abrahamic covenant component of the communion, and its promise, reflecting God’s intentions for the redemption of His creation and of His image-bearers that would manifest itself in an acknowledging worship of Him, that all nations would be blessed by Abraham and his progeny, we see that all of God’s past promises (with their present kingdom and future kingdom implications) are being fulfilled whenever and wherever peoples of all sorts come together to celebrate the table of the Lord.  It is at that very moment, in which all stand before God, to lift the elements in recognition of the universal Lordship of Christ, and to do so in a full equality that is devoid of divisions and barriers to participation, that we are able to catch a glimpse of the glorious future that God intends to bring to pass for His world that He so loves, and for the creatures to whom He lent His image.  More than that, as we look to the example that has been provided to us by Jesus, at the meals at which He participated, the ceremony (sacrament if you like) that He instituted, and the understanding of both that were held by the early church, remembering that for both Jesus and the church that He left in His wake, their vision of the kingdom was informed by Isaiah’s beautiful vision of the messianic banquet. 

With that in mind, we are also able to rightly perceive that the all-inclusive table of Jesus---the table that announces the kingdom of heaven while also confirming our desire to participate in the outworking of that kingdom, while undoubtedly possessing a Gospel communicating power that is able to move those who participate at the table without having made a confession of Jesus as Lord, to come under the conviction of such a confession (thereby informing us that the communion table should be an open one)---becomes, among other things, a unifying force that breaks the back of racism, class division, and any and all types of social ostracism, marginalization, or oppression.  It does these things, at least partially, through a reminder that goes out to all, be it individuals, groups, or governments, that Jesus is king. 

Knowing this, and knowing it within the larger context that is being provided through this study, is it not a shame that the breaking of the strength of that which often unnecessarily divides us does not occur each and every time we gather together, as a signpost to the world that, in the kingdom of God as represented by the church, the principalities and the powers that hold an undue and illegitimate sway in the world have been stripped of their authority at the cross, and are now under a demand to submit to the Lordship of the crucified One?  If we know this, and if we are cognizant of the charge that Jesus, with the messianic banquet in mind, while preaching and embodying the power and presence of the kingdom of heaven, was frequently charged with dining with all of the wrong people (tax collectors and sinners), then how we could ever allow divisions at the table that was gifted to His disciples within what was obviously the same mindset?  On what basis can we close a table and exclude anyone from participation?  Do we dare limit our participation at the table of the Lord (which is not our table but the table of the Lord) to a certain group of people that have met a certain set of subjective requirements that we have established in what might very well be an air of unearned superiority and unheeding forgetfulness of the example of our Lord?  Based on the words on offer to the Laodiceans, is there a possibility that this is the area that has Jesus so exercised at this group?    

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Letter To Laodicea (part 60)

The communion table can be and has been looked upon in a variety of ways, many of which have value, and are practical and helpful as those who participate at the table seek to live out their faith.  The communion should not be primarily looked upon as a personal experience with God or as a place where individual needs are met, but rather, as a proclamation of His kingdom, recognizing its inauguration through Jesus.  This can be achieved by keeping it within the context of the practice of Jesus, the messianic feast, and the Passover, along with what is signaled by said practice, the messianic feast and the Passover, upon which the communion as given to us by Jesus has been founded. 

The communion table that Jesus instituted looked back to the grand vision of Isaiah’s all inclusive end-time feast.  This looking back also involved a looking forward, but the fact that it looked back, and the fact that it had a context within Israel’s history and its feasts, means that any and all interpretations of the communion that do not involve historical and eschatological considerations in relation to conceptions regarding the kingdom of God and the expectations of God’s people (past, present, and future) are going to be dangerously flawed.  Thoughts concerning the communion must take into consideration the fact that the God of Israel had made a promise to Abraham, and the final fulfillment of that promise was intended to be celebrated by all nations within God’s new world. 

The new world is that which was brought into existence at the Resurrection of Jesus---the world in which Jesus is king.  At the same time, that new world is something for which we still wait and for which the whole of the creation groans.  Jesus was and is the primary agent of that kingdom.  Jesus inaugurated and is inaugurating Isaiah’s vision in the past and in the present through miniature kingdom banquets.  This is what we see at His meals and in His parables, this is what we see taking place at the “last supper,” and this is what is taking place whenever those that claim Him as Lord take up the elements of bread and wine.  The tables that we see in the life of Jesus are enactments of the kingdom of heaven, in which all are invited to participate, and so too is the communion.  In addition, those who participate in the communion are promising to embody the kingdom principles as demonstrated by Jesus, as seen at His meals, while acknowledging that there is to be a future, earthly consummation of the kingdom of heaven to be expected. 

The communion table is an ambassadorial function, designed to prepare the world for the arrival of the King.  The Caesar would place statues and busts of himself, while also encouraging honorific ceremonies within far-flung communities that were under his dominion, as a reminder of his lordship, and so too has Jesus.  By the power of the Resurrection and through the operation of the Spirit, He has placed new creations within this old creation, along with ceremonies such as communion and baptism, to serve as vessels for the remembrance of His Lordship.  In this way, just as was the case in the days of the Caesars, the community will be suitably prepared to receive their ruler when the time for an appearance has been determined.  Yes, the communion, like so many other things associated with the message of Jesus, is subversive of the present order, and among other things, is designed to inform the world that it has a true ruler, whose name is Jesus. 

In these miniature kingdom banquets in which Jesus either participated or presided, or of which He spoke in His parables, we can see that those who had been ostracized from society and marginalized in some way are sought out and compelled to attend.  It is clear that the keepers of the covenant boundaries in His day (Pharisees, scribes, etc…) were aware that the inclusiveness that was put on display by Jesus was a critique that was directed towards them, as the long and contentious history of Israel’s dealings with the nations of the world had left them weary and wary of open relationships with Gentiles that might either jeopardize individual or corporate standing within the covenant.  The attitude of “better safe than sorry,” when it came to what it meant to be a light to the nations, which, according to what we see with Jesus and can extrapolate from His words and deeds, was not altogether pleasing to God. 

So we see that all are invited to attend, with this invitation including the marginalized alongside those who might be marginalizing them; but the repeated emphasis on the first being last and the last being first, draws our attention to the fact that there is not going to be (or at least there should not be) any discernible hierarchies or societal constructs on display at the meal that is designed to tell and to educate the world about the kingdom of heaven.  It is, most definitely, not going to be a time or a place for reprisals or counter-oppression, nor a celebration of exclusivity.  The communion, like the feasts of Israel, is a celebration of God’s rule, God’s deliverance, and human responsibility to rightly bear the divine image so as to be a light that draws praise and worship to the Creator.  

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Letter To Laodicea (part 59)

All this talk of kingdom and Abrahamic covenant and messianic banquet and meals and the church community should, quite naturally, lead one to consider the practice and the table of communion.  As has been well-demonstrated, meals and their structure were an important component of the wider world in which Jesus lived in that, in the wider culture, the outworkings of shame and honor and social standing were on ready display at tables.  To go along with that, meals were obviously a vital component of the faith (using this word in its religious context while acknowledging that there would be no separation from all components of life---economic, political, social, cultural, etc…) which Jesus held, as the life of the people of God was oriented around feasts.  This can be seen in the great Sabbaths (Trumpets, Atonement, Tabernacles, Passover, Unleavened Bread, Firstfruits, Pentecost), the weekly sabbaths, in the adoption of non-Mosaic law feasts such as Hanukah (the Maccabees & Judith) and Purim (Esther), and even in the fact that Jesus tells a number of parables that involve feasts. 

The very fact that the Gospel writers make great effort to show Jesus at numerous tables as they sought to preserve the memory of His ministry for the early church community, and even the fact that the miraculous feeding of multitudes makes its way into all four of the Gospel accounts (which shines forth as a table with no discrimination, no hierarchy, no chief seat, and no lowest place), demonstrates the tangible significance of meals.  Much more could be said about meals, of course.  Just as we could continue on through Luke and John to provide an exhaustive presentation of Jesus at meal tables, we could also make our way through the whole of the Scriptures, highlighting the record of meals and the events associated with them.  The Scriptural treatment of meals does not end with the Gospels, but continues right in to Acts and on in to the New Testament letters (all of which, with the exception of Revelation, were most likely written prior to the Gospels and therefore had a probable role in the shaping of the theologies to be found therein), and finds its way into letters within letters, as demonstrated by the mention of a meal, by Jesus, in the letter to the Laodicean church (as has been repeatedly referenced). 

With so much Scriptural weight, and with so much of the weight of Jesus’ own ministry and sense of mission (especially because of the notion of the messianic banquet) resting upon meals, we should not be overly surprised that Jesus Himself institutes a particular type of meal for His followers.  This meal, referred to by a variety of names, was a variation on already established “religious” meal practice.  As was the case with the Passover (and really all of the other Mosaic feasts), in which the exodus-ing of God’s people was to be remembered, celebrated, and expected, this meal carried specific instructions as to what should be remembered and upon what Jesus’ disciples should reflect.  Because Jesus is instituting this meal as the Messiah, the concepts surrounding the messianic banquet must be held in close association, so that a full comprehension of what was represented by this communion meal might be had. 

We dare not detach the vision of the messianic banquet from the communion, for in so doing, we lose almost all sense of what Jesus desires to communicate to His disciples, and of what He expects from His followers as they attempt to live out the kingdom that He has faithfully and forcefully announced, and that He has routinely put on display.  When and if such a detachment happens, we also lose a continuity of understanding with the earliest Christians.  This break is unfortunate, as they were far more steeped within the same culture of Jesus, be it Greco-Roman culture or that of first century Judaism, and were therefore better able to see and to communicate the socially and culturally transcendent aspects of what Jesus had instituted, keeping the communion contained within both its heavenly and earthly parameters, rather than letting this meal spin off into a decidedly spiritual and esoteric plain in which the concrete aspects that it was intended to communicate about the nature and make-up of kingdom of God on earth (the coming together of heaven---God’s sphere of reality---and earth) is lost.       

Letter To Laodicea (part 58)

With later instruction concerning their accommodations, Jesus adds “Stay in that same house, eating and drinking what they give you” (10:7a), and “Whenever you enter a town and the people welcome you, eat what is set before you.  Heal the sick in that town and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come upon you!’” (10:8-9), the missional and messianic banquet aspect take center-stage.  Looking a few lines ahead, we hear Jesus saying “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see!” (10:23b), which neatly brings in the Abrahamic covenant component, tying together the concepts of mission, messianic banquet through meal practice, and covenant together, as we should come to expect.       

Now, because those that look to Jesus as Lord are those that now occupy nearly the same position as Jesus’ disciples, the parable of the great banquet informs the church of its role, especially as Jesus is understood to be the master that is sending out servants (while the understanding of Jesus as servant still stands and informs the notion of Jesus working through His disciples by the Spirit), and when it is placed within the context of His kingdom mission which is nicely highlighted by the way in which He sends out His disciples to prepare the places that He intends to visit.  The underlying sense of preparation, whether to prepare for the arrival of the king, or to prepare to heed the invitation to the banquet, is palpable and unavoidable. 

For us, and for the church for all time (including the early church that included the Laodiceans), this means that we now find ourselves in the role of the servant carrying out the kingdom and banquet (two ways of communicating about the same thing) invitations to those that might be looked upon as the socially ostracized.  Here, we note that those that are socially ostracized can run the gamut from rich to poor, and from wealth to poverty, as afflictions like leprosy did not recognize social boundaries (think of the story of Namaan and Elisha), the shame of having no children (or perhaps simply no sons) could be applied to rich and poor alike, and it is not even entirely inconceivable that one who was legally designated as a slave might still be able to build wealth for himself and could live a relatively decent life, though he was not free.  Of course, this begs the question as to who is truly free, though this is not the time or the place for such considerations.

In the parable of the banquet, which seems to be performing a  yeoman’s duty in its service of crystallizing our thinking as it enables us to rightly divide the issues at hand in Laodicea, we cannot help but notice that it is the servant who, on multiple occasions, identifies and points out the fact that there are empty chairs.  Though it may not be worth muddying the waters, we shall do so anyway, as we can quickly point out an aspect of “sonship here,”, observing that the then-existent “son of God,” that being Israel, was not performing its duties of filling the chairs for the messianic banquet.  Therefore, the Son (Son of God, Son of Man, Son of David, etc…) makes the scene of history so as to perform this task.  This is done, whether by the servant or the Son, because it is known that the master desires a full house for his great banquet.  This then, as we receive the message from Jesus through Luke as did the early church community, should be a supreme characteristic of those that are following Jesus.  If we are not constantly cognizant of the available spaces that are still open and available within God’s kingdom and at His banquet, then we are failing in our duties. 

Does this mean that we are to be aware that the gathering places of our congregations have empty seats that need to be filled so that all and sundry are able to hear the message that Jesus is Lord?  Of course we are, but to limit ourselves to that awareness would be selling the Gospel of Jesus and the kingdom of God immensely short.  More importantly, it means that we are to be a community of people with arms held wide in embodiment of the cross, willing to enter into pain and shame on behalf of all that have been made in the image of God, in recognition of the redeeming, renewing, restoring plan of our God that is being exercised through His son, the church.  We are to be a community of people with hands outstretched, with those hands ready to be grasped in solidarity with the lowest of the low---with those whom the world counts as nothing.  We are to be willing to suffer alongside those that suffer, recognizing that suffering is not limited to those who are obviously suffering, and that we are to be available to those occupying each and every stratum of society.  By this the kingdom of God is demonstrated, the Abrahamic covenant is extended, the table is set, and Jesus is constantly enthroned.  With all of this a primary concern of Jesus, who sought to establish the kingdom of heaven on earth, as was expected by Israel and its prophets, one has to wonder if this was a primary concern of the church at Laodicea.        

Monday, December 20, 2010

Letter To Laodicea (part 57)

Another brief aside reminds us that the Temple---the place where God has reposed (rested, taken up residence)---has been the created order, the tabernacle, the Temple, Jesus, and the church, each of which can be spoken of as the Temple of God.  The church of Christ serves as ambassadors of the kingdom of God, by which God will ultimately make manifest His rule of the creation, reminding us that God intends to once again repose within His created order---now doing so through the church of Christ, and pointing out the long and quite discernible movement of God towards a final restoration and renewal of this creation. 

Returning one final time to the parable that has allowed us to break off from our trek through the Gospels in observance of Jesus’ meal-related words and deeds, and which is serving as the catalyst to our conclusions concerning the church at Laodicea, we again remember that throughout the parable, it is to be implicitly understood by those within the early church community that are receiving and presumably benefiting from Luke’s record that the servant of the master within the parable is Jesus.  However, as we saw, by the end of the parable an evolution has taken place, and Jesus comes to stand in the role of the master.  This is made poignant by the two-headed statement from the one that tells the parable, while also standing in the position of the Messiah that speaks about and lives out the messianic banquet, that “not one of those individuals who were invited will taste My banquet!” (14:24b) 

Again, in an era of expectation, and in speaking to a group that was populated by Pharisees, religious leaders, and most likely other relatively educated social elites, who would undoubtedly have had minds that operated on various levels of expectations; and who, perhaps, had consulted with each other prior to the meal as to how they were going to treat or approach Jesus at this meal to which He had been invited, the various levels of implications would have been quite clear, and they would have caught on to the fact that there are multiple levels of meaning on offer with Jesus’ closing statement.  This, of course, is supported by Luke’s record of an earlier statement from Jesus, in which He says, “The one who listens to you listens to Me, and the one who rejects you rejects Me, and the one who rejects Me rejects the One who sent Me” (10:16). 

Because Luke is offering a tightly constructed narrative in which the pieces build on each other (and maybe even turns upon this parable of the great banquet in its march to a grand climax), this statement has a new and useful light shed upon it.  Of course, we should not neglect to mention the “ears to hear” aspect of Jesus’ and Luke’s usage of words concerning “listening” as the words from the tenth chapter are artfully appended to the tale of the great banquet of the fourteenth chapter.  It is not a stretch at all, especially in a culture that is trained to listen to the telling of stories, to imagine that Luke expects those that hear his story to be able to hang the pieces of the narrative together in this way.  For our purposes, we would be doubly negligent if we failed to consider this issue of a failure to listen and subsequent rejection of both Jesus and the Father, as we listen to the words of Jesus to the church at Laodicea and get a sense of the rejection that has Jesus standing outside of this church, knocking and speaking and offering to participate in a meal with them.  As we consider the substance of the biographies of Jesus, and the importance of meals within those biographies as they are firmly ensconced within the messianic banquet tradition and expectation, does not the offer of participation in a meal suggest a route for contemplation and proper understanding by those to whom Jesus speaks?

When Jesus functions as the servant in the parable, and even when He is understood to be functioning as the master that is sending the servants, there is a sense of mission at hand.  If this is so, then it would seem to be part of the design of Luke’s construction to bring the words from the tenth chapter forward into the process of understanding Jesus’ communication in the fourteenth chapter, especially in light of the fact that Jesus speaks to the His disciples in the tenth chapter in the context of mission.  Indeed, the tenth chapter begins with “After this,” which, according to the text, is immediately after Jesus speaks of the “kingdom of God” (9:62b), which we should look upon as something greater than mere coincidence, “the Lord appointed seventy-two (or possibly seventy, depending on the manuscripts in use) others and sent them ahead of Him two by two into every town and place where He Himself was about to go” (10:1).  Here, not only do we note the parallels to the master’s sending of his servant to make preparations for the grand banquet (though since the meal is a gathering in of associates rather than the master going out to meet, we do not press the analogy too far), but we also make note of the fact that this is kingly behavior, as a ruler would send emissaries ahead of him to the places he intended to visit, so that adequate preparations could be made.  

Letter To Laodicea (part 56)

Continuing to make applications along Christological lines, as the parable of the banquet does so much to summarize and encapsulate the mission of Jesus and its implications for His church, and at the risk of being repetitive, it can be justly declared that the invitation that is symbolized by the parable illustrates and illuminates the free invitation that is being extended by God for all to participate in His coming kingdom feast (messianic banquet) that marks His rule on earth.  In that light, what stands as a unique feature of the model of the kingdom that was being shown forth by Jesus, is its subversion of what was deemed to be and held to as the normal modes of repentance. 

Instead of the normal modes of repentance, and its prescriptions, which would be repentance, a determination not to repeat, and an appropriate reparation (as detailed in the Mosaic law, as promulgated by the prophets, and as heavily enforced within the traditions, Temple and sacrificial system of Jesus’ day), Jesus sets forth something different.  Though He does not countermand the law or the prophets, but rather, by embodying the fullness of the law’s intentions, He offers up a historically-rooted reminder to His people that demonstrates that which has apparently fallen from memory.  Yes, Israel was God’s special and chosen people, and yes, they had been elected by God as the vehicle by which He would reveal and accomplish His redemptive plan for His image-bearers and the creation over which they had been given dominion.  They, however, had forgotten that at one point, they had been counted among the rest of humanity that stood outside of God’s covenant plans. 

Before Abraham was called, and before he was provided with a covenant responsibility, he had been an idolater.  There was nothing special about him, and like anyone else, he had to be compelled to turn from idols to serve the living God.  When Israel is freed from Egypt, God has to remind them that there was nothing special about them that marked them out for the calling and the covenant, but that they had been called in order to operate within God’s purposes---redeemed for redemption, as it were.  As things stood in Jesus’ day, Abraham would have been looked upon, by those who counted themselves as keepers of the boundaries of the covenant, as one of those wicked sinners that stood under the judgment of God.  Abraham, ironically enough, would have been one of the very individuals that would have experienced the messianic banquet as the divine trap that was meant to ensnare and bring the destructive judgment of God. 

So when Jesus goes about embodying the kingdom and the covenant, there is an underlying symbolism at work, in that He is repeatedly acting out God’s movement to the one that was looked to as the “founder” of God’s people.  Jesus is seeking out those that would be defined as “wicked,” and He is extending the kingdom of God to them first, which is exactly what God had done with Abraham, and is what can be understood as something of a regular feature of Israel’s history as outlined in the Scriptures.  Taking this point to a brief aside, it is valuable to briefly consider the history of all of the callings to participate as a representative of God, whether as a prophet, priest, or king.  We never see or hear anybody’s credentials, and thereby are provided with an understandable foundation for the call.  On the contrary, we simply see or hear the call, and then find the called one engaged as a representative of the Creator God. 

For Jesus then, it can now be said (as was always actually the case) that true repentance, which is found in a sincere desire to rightly bear the divine image and therefore function as the ambassadorial representative that God had always intended humans to be, which begins with an acknowledgment of the rule of God through His Christ, is the acceptance of being found.  This is part of the subversion in which Jesus positions Himself as the new and true Temple, which makes perfect sense if He is in fact the place where Israel’s God has taken up residence.  This helps explain why it is that His consistent actions and speech were so incredibly shocking and offensive to the sensibilities of those that were part of the power structures of the day.  Jesus, while presenting Himself as Messiah, seemed to be countermanding that which provided identity to the people of God (Temple, Torah, tradition, and covenant boundaries), rather than taking steps to see these things come into their places of rightful supremacy.  Jesus, of course, was doing no such thing.  He was providing ample demonstration of the way that Israel was intended, through all which was held in high esteem, to be a light to the nations, thereby bringing glory to their God as the ends, rather than to their nation, which was only to be the means to the achieving of God’s glorification.  

Friday, December 17, 2010

Letter To Laodicea (part 55)

In the light of the cross, and of His taking up of that low and humiliating position to confirm His Kingship, it must now be said that the in-breaking of the kingdom of heaven had brought about a dramatic inverse of reality.  This is not to be forgotten or taken lightly when considering Jesus’ disposition towards the Laodicean church.  As part of this inversion, in which the low position of humiliation becomes the place of exaltation, we even have the chance to see Jesus undergoing a mock coronation ceremony, with this scourging humiliation through the lowest of all low means, taking place in the midst of the age that was then in existence, even as He was receiving His exalted position in the new age being brought into existence through the working of God through the Christ-event.  On the one hand, what appeared to the interested on-lookers of the day as a failed and humiliated would-be messiah figure being put to death on Gologtha, would be viewed on the other hand as the most honorable of all royal enthronements that the world would ever be privileged to witness. 

Therefore, as we link the cross with the parable of the great banquet and what preceded the telling of that parable, we effectively see Jesus, having taken the lowest place (the eschaton), being instructed by God (the host of the messianic banquet) to “move to the highest place” (the protoklisian).  Thus the route to the chief seat is well marked, and ignorance as to the path to exaltation within the kingdom of heaven can no longer be plead.  Like Jesus, one must be willing to be identified with the lowest of the low in the eyes of the world, and be willing to walk the humbling path to the humbling place in order to have a place within the kingdom of heaven.  At the same time, as we think along such lines, could it not be proposed that each and every place in the kingdom of heaven is a protoklisian, the route to which runs right through the world’s eschaton?  If we do think this way, we do so while remembering that the chief seat, for Jesus, was the seat of service, as witnessed by the example of the thirteenth chapter of John and the washing of His disciples’ feet?  What effect should such thoughts have as we contemplate our duties within this kingdom of which we take part if we confess Jesus as our Lord? 

Taking in the scope of this picture that is being presented in word and deed, should we not be able to deduce a component of the flattening out of the entrenched social hierarchy, and its accompanying ethnic and national distinctions, which contributed to the apostolic insistence that in the kingdom of heaven, of which the church should be a model as it shares the message of the Gospel (Jesus is Lord) with the world, that there was neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female?  The apostles rightly perceived that in one fell swoop, Jesus, by taking the shameful place of humiliation, and doing so as the Messiah and King, eliminated all distinctions that serve to divide.  Those divisions, especially in that day, with its elaborate and divisive social structures, would stand in the way of a universal submission to the Lordship of Jesus as the Christ.  Clearly, God intended all peoples to stand shoulder to shoulder in recognition of His power and His rule, but such a vision would not be able to be achieved if the people that confessed that rule, through Jesus, could not themselves stand shoulder to shoulder in an egalitarian community.  The earliest church, with exceptions, was able to successfully embody this, to the point that one was not able, through observation of their gatherings, to distinguish any type of social hierarchy.  This was a foreign concept.  Little wonder, then, that the church thought of themselves as a third humanity---a new way of being human. 

Indeed, what would be the attraction of the community of the new age of the kingdom of God if it employed structures of authoritarian power, through an ongoing recognition of established societal norms, that made it look exactly like the structures of the old age?  This is why the flattening out of society that is represented by Jesus’ parable of the great banquet, in which all dine together in a way that presents no obvious and discernible hierarchy, is so completely radical.  Why should this not be the case?  Must we imagine that God would embody human flesh for the purposes of bringing about the redemption of His corrupted creation, and simply leave things as they were?  Of course not.  What Jesus is clearly addressing through His words and actions, and which He quite naturally expected to be embodied by the community that called Him Lord, is the fact that the situation in which the world found itself, with its oppression of man by man, its abuse of God-ordained power, its neglect of widows and orphans, and more, was the result of man’s fall.  This had obviously not been intended within the original, pre-fall creation, and it would certainly have no place in the restored creation to come.  Therefore, the church of Christ, which exists as ambassadors of the kingdom of heaven that is presently ruled by Jesus though we await its consummation and full manifestation, must serve as a visible example and reminder of the appearance that will be taken by the rule of God, while also doing its best to prepare the world, through the proclamation of the Gospel, for that rule.  

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Letter To Laodicea (part 54)

Continuing the Christological analysis of this parable, before we begin to shift away from the Gospels (having sufficiently made the necessary points that will allow us to take a step into one of Paul’s letters and then move on to our conclusions regarding the church at Laodicea and what, specifically, they are to hear Jesus saying), we recount many of the points that have been made thus far.  Though Jesus continues at this meal for some time, and though we could spend days and weeks delving into the kingdom-of-God-and-messianic-banquet-related themes (such as a comparison to the healing of the blind man in the eighth chapter of Mark, and the two-stage process therein, which compares favorably to the two-stage process outlined in this parable of the great banquet; or an analogy of the complete lack of social hierarchy at work in Jesus feeding of the four thousand in that same chapter---all eat the same food at Jesus’ banquet and there is much leftover) that are brought to the fore through the sayings and parables that are to come in the fourteenth through seventeenth chapters, there has been enough redundancy to this point to more than lay the groundwork for what will be our final analysis, having reinforced the reinforcement of the grounding of the words that are on the lips of Jesus in Revelation, as they would have been heard in their context and within the prevailing traditions concerning Jesus and His expectations for His church (universal) and His churches (local bodies within their communities).  

The “protoklisian,” and what it represents, must be a fresh and ready component of the summation of our thoughts as they begin to take shape.  At the meal in which Jesus is in attendance, and within the meal that is the subject of the parable, there would have been a protoklisian.  All in attendance would have seen this, and all listening to the parable would have held to this understanding and been able to envision it in their mind’s eye.  As has been said, this place of honor in traditional society was the chief position at the head of the table.  It would have been assumed that the messiah, because he would be naturally linked with the cherished idea of the messianic banquet and because of the natural extrapolations that would be made from his position in the chief seat in the greatest conceivable banquet, would take the chief position as the king of Jerusalem when he came (chief seat at chief banquet would equal chief seat in Jerusalem and the world).  However, Jesus’ teaching in regards to the “eschaton,” or that which was the lowest seat at a banquet, in conjunction with His statements about the first being last and the last being first, demonstrate, quite remarkably, that the in-breaking of the kingdom of God that accompanied the presence of the messiah, as Jesus understood it, represented something of a role-reversing reality. 

Not only was it role-reversing in the “last being first” sense, but it was role reversing because of the low position that He Himself was going to take as the Messiah---a role which would thwart and reverse the popularly (though not exclusively---there is no single Jewish voice in the 1st century in this regard) held notions about the activity of messiah that were prevalent in His day.  Whereas popular imagery had the messiah dispensing death-related judgment to the enemies of God’s people, and ruling from a magnificently adorned throne like that of Solomon, the protoklisian that would be occupied by Jesus, as He walked out His mission, would not be an ivory-bedecked throne.  As the analysis goes, and in accordance with Jesus’ teaching, such a “first” place of exaltation becomes a place of shame---a “last” place.  Lest we attempt to fool ourselves, it is not to then be taken simply because it has become the last and shameful place. 

For Jesus to then occupy the place that would truly be first in His eyes, and be the place of true exaltation, He would have to take the place that His world viewed as the last and most shameful place.  This, of course, would be the Roman crucifix.  Anecdotally, we can see that Jesus did indeed elevate this shameful place, as it would quickly move from the realm of that which was not mentioned in polite conversation, to become that which was employed by His church as the scandalous and ultimately glorious symbol and image of the inaugurated kingdom of heaven on earth.  Again, this thinking is crystallized by this section of Luke’s narrative, and the sayings, stories, and parables therein, which is what makes it an excellent jumping-off point to begin the trek down the path of a conclusion. 

Continuing to reflect on the nature of the cross, and doing so apart from any type of atonement theology or notions of soteriology (which are obvious components of the cross, but they simply do not have a place in this treatise), the Roman cross was known within Greco-Roman society (of which Israel was a part owing to the well-documented inroads of the process of Hellenization) as a punishment that was reserved for the lower class.  It was reserved for slaves, rebel subjects (whose rebellion made them part of the lower class), and any would-be pretenders to kingly authority in defiance of Caesar.  It was known as an instrument of “humiliores,” thus connecting it with humiliation, and so connecting it with Jesus’ thoughts concerning places to be sought and places to be taken, and the exaltation and humiliation to be achieved by such seeking and taking.          

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Funeral Of The Archbishop Dr. M.A. Thomas

The funeral service for the Archbishop Dr. M.A. Thomas was an outpouring of love and respect from a community that he loved and which he served with compassion.  Before the formal funeral service, which would be held on December 9, 2010 at the Faith Worship Center located on the grounds of the Emmanuel Children’s Home at Raipura, a steady stream of mourners visited the Bishop’s House sanctuary of the Kota Junction church, as the body of M.A. Thomas was available for viewing both day and night, with seminary students keeping a prayerful vigil, leading up to the day when he would be finally laid to rest. 

At advance memorial services, an endless procession of individuals that had been touched by this great man of God offered their own emotional eulogies, as words and memories were shared in the midst of song and prayer.  These pre-funeral services were highlighted by the words offered by the surviving siblings, children, and grandchildren of Dr. Thomas, as each, in turn, took the opportunity to give voice to that which so many were feeling.  Though this was a time in which the family was given the opportunity to speak, the sentiment amongst those in attendance was quite clear, in that all were made to feel, by M.A. Thomas, as if they were family, with the vast majority joining the exceedingly large chorus of those that looked to him as their “Papa.” 

At the conclusion of these services, the time had come to relocate to the Raipura orphanage for the funeral service that would see attendance of nearly five thousand.  The caravan, composed of hundreds of vehicles that accompanied the open-bed truck that carried the casket containing the body of M.A. Thomas, crowded the streets and stretched for miles.  As the procession snaked its way through the streets of Kota, a sense of hushed awe and respect for a life of tremendous impact came over the bustling streets, with many bowing and saluting the body as it passed. 

Celebrants and mourners poured onto the grounds of the Emmanuel Children’s Home, crowding the sanctuary and filling it to capacity.  Truly, a great man of God---a great man by any standard of measurement---was being honored on this day.  The official and final service, presided over by Dr. Sam George, son-in-law of M.A. Thomas, began with the singing of several of the Archbishop’s favorite hymns---To God Be the Glory, Amazing Grace, & How Great Thou Art.  This was followed by a reading of the twenty-third Psalm, which, though regularly recited at funerals, took on a significantly deeper meaning when connected with a man who truly and fervently believed that God would provide for every need, who walked through the valleys of death’s confrontation, who embodied the goodness and mercy of God, and who took the house of God with him wherever he went. 

The choir sang songs that had been written and composed by M.A. Thomas, thus serving as a reminder of the tremendous gifting of the Spirit of God that had been poured out on this remarkable man.  Words of consolation were offered by Dr. K.C. John (founder of Bible Chapel), the Revered Samuel Abraham (younger brother of M.A. Thomas), Dr. David Byrd (board member of Hopegivers International), Dr. A.F. Pinto (founder and president of Ryan International Group), Dr. D. Brahm Dutt (President of All India Lepers Federation, and Dr. Sam George.  Following this, the grandchildren took yet another opportunity to say goodbye to their grandfather, singing one of his songs as a group, standing together as a vocal and living testimony to the blessed life of a faithful man.  The “message of peace” was brought by His Eminence the Most Reverend Dr. K.P Yohannan (founder of Gospel for Asia and Metropolitan of Believer’s Church, India), who spoke of M.A. Thomas as a friend, a mentor, a brother, a father, and as an inspiration in all that he undertakes in the Lord’s service.  Finally, the son of M.A. Thomas, the Bishop Dr. Samuel Thomas, stepped to the pulpit, to deliver the “message of hope,” reminding the assembled crowd that there is a hope beyond death, and inviting those that did not yet share in the faith and hope that was held by M.A. Thomas, to join in that faith and claim Jesus as their Lord. 

Throughout this entire ceremony, an unbroken stream of people, beginning with the orphan children of Raipura to whom M.A. Thomas had dedicated his life, made their way to the front of the sanctuary, to stand before the casket containing the body of the man of service and compassion.  They sprinkled flower petals, laid wreaths and bouquets, bowed, prayed, and wept.  Men and women of various faiths and creeds---Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Sikh, and Hindu---those to whom M.A. Thomas stretched out his hands without discrimination, came to honor the man who purposefully and conscientiously embodied the cross on a daily basis for more than fifty years, who bore the image of God in and for this world, and who served and serves as an inspiring example of what God expects from those that are called to make manifest His kingdom on earth. 

As the service closed, in song and prayer, hearts were both joyous and heavy.  The casket was carried through the front doors of the church sanctuary---carried towards the place of burial.  While on this path the casket was set down and re-opened, giving those that dearly loved this man one final opportunity to pass by and view the face that so radiated God’s glory.  Finally, the casket was carried through the teeming masses to the place in which it would be lowered into the ground.  Appropriately, Dr. Samuel Thomas read from the fifteenth chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, celebrating the resurrection of Christ and the promise of a resurrection to come.  As the casket was placed in the ground, adjacent to the burial plot of his beloved wife, Dr. K.P. Yohannan led the assembly in prayer.  As final good-bye’s were offered, thousands of voices joined together in the singing of “Blessed Assurance,” serving as a reminder that though M.A. Thomas is no longer physically present with us, he most assuredly lives, standing in the presence of God. 

Dr. M.A. Thomas lived as a friend of the friendless, a defender of the defenseless, and as a preacher of the Gospel of Christ.  Undoubtedly His Lord has said to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” 

Message Delivered by Dr. David Byrd:
He did not die a martyr’s death, but he lived a martyr’s life.  Along with that, I must say that I feel completely unworthy to share a platform with so many that are also living martyr’s lives.

To my dear friend Samuel, to Elizabeth, to Mary, and to all of the family and friends that are here gathered, and with whom I feel a special kinship, I would like to express, on behalf of my family, and especially on behalf of my beloved and departed father---without whom I would have not had the opportunity to be a servant of this incredible mission---what an amazing and humbling privilege it is to be here today, and what a blessing it has been to be allowed to participate in this great work.  Please know that, along with you, my heart lies heavy.  Together with that, I share with you my sincere desire to continue to have a hand in achieving the vision that has been cast by this noble servant of God, and I ask that you continue to count me, my family, and my church as a willing partner in these efforts.

We have often heard that there is no greater love than that a man lay down his life for his friends.  As you all well know, for the Archbishop Dr. M.A. Thomas, every man, woman and child was a friend. Though there were many that counted themselves as his enemies, and though he endured real and sustained persecution, and though his life was ensconced within true spiritual warfare, he saw no one as an enemy.  Of course, none of us will ever forget that the word that would so often escape his lips when he preached would be “friends.” 

Quite frankly, and I do not say this lightly, and though his labors were performed in obscurity as far as the majority of the world is concerned, I declare to you that this was the greatest man to grace the face of this earth in these last eighty years.  In a century that may have seen the execution of more evil than any other time in human history, this man held a candle to the darkness and embodied the cross, preaching and living out the kingdom of His Lord.  Indeed, when it comes to our responsibility to make manifest God’s kingdom on earth, it can be said that he shows us the way.  If we need an example of what Christ expects from His people, one has been graciously provided.

If anyone was to wonder what drives me to serve, and what it is that inspires me in all that I undertake, the answer is to be found in the life of this man. For me, and this is said with all necessary propriety, this is Jesus.  This man---a man that withheld his goods from no one, who turned his cheek, who opened his home, who shared his table, who gave all that he had unsparingly, yes, who laid down his life in service to the kingdom---is a glorious representation of the One that we call our Savior. Naturally, all of us would do quite well to emulate the stirring example of M.A. Thomas, recognizing that he walked a path of which many speak, some contemplate, but few dare to tread.

As I stand here today, I hope to adequately represent the arms that are stretching out from around the world, to join hearts and hands with those who mourn this loss that we feel.  While weeping does indeed endure in the night that has been left to us with his passing, we take care to celebrate his work, pledging with all sincerity and determination to pick up that candle---which has been passed to us as a blazing torch---and continue to wield it against the dark forces that attempt to dissuade us from reaching out to all and sundry, with hands of service, marked with grace, with love, and with compassion.

As we continue to take up the charge to proclaim the death and Resurrection of Jesus---to preach Christ crucified and glorified---let us also proclaim the faithfulness of our God, honoring the presence of His Spirit in His servant, thankful for the example of a cruciform life that we have been given in our own day, which is that of our much beloved M.A. Thomas.