Monday, January 31, 2011

Letter To Laodicea (part 99)

Long has it been the case that the words of this hymn (easily memorizable and formulaic presentation of the Gospel of Jesus) have been juxtaposed with what we encounter in the thirteenth chapter of the Gospel of John.  Indeed, it may very well be the case that the widespread circulation of this hymn, together with the widespread and foundational understanding of the systemic importance of the meal table for the church (and therefore the rooting of popular understanding of this hymn within the context of the church’s messianic banquet inspired meal table, along with the subversive nature of the language in its relation to the Caesar cult) is what prompted the author of John to include what we read there.  If this is the case, and if the knowledge and importance of the early hymn was at least partially responsible for the inclusion of the content of the thirteenth chapter of John (providing justification for the use of an undoubtedly true story, especially when we consider the societal function of the meal table and the reversal which was insisted upon by Jesus according to the Jesus tradition that is reflected in the letters and would come to be recorded in the Gospels), then because this letter came before the composition of John, it is possible that this letter itself had an impact on John’s presentation of Jesus. 

If that can be imagined, then the preface to the hymn that Paul provides, which is “instead of being motivated by selfish ambition or vanity, each of you should, in humility, be moved to treat one another as more than yourself” (2:3), is the context in which we approach Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet.  Therefore, when we read that “You should have the same attitude toward one another that Christ Jesus had” (2:5), and do so while hearing these words at a meal, we are unsurprised to find that Jesus did this washing of feet when “The evening meal was in progress” (John 13:2a).  When we read “Because Jesus knew that the Father had handed all things over to Him, and that He has come from God and was going back to God” (13:3), we easily hear the hymnal echo of “who though He existed in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped” (2:6). 

Remember, though it is not obvious at first glance, with much labor we have been able to deduce that Paul is writing with the Christian meal table in mind, as is John (quite obviously).  There is a great deal of implicit meal-related understanding at work when Paul employs the language about Jesus, whereas John has a more overt presentation when it is written that “He got up from the meal, removed His outer clothes, took a towel and tied it around Himself” (13:4).  Here, Jesus, who had probably been occupying the protoklisian at the meal (most likely due to the group’s acclimation rather than of His own accord), presents Himself as a slave, essentially taking the eschaton position.  Yes, He “emptied Himself by taking on the form of a slave.”  In this slave position, made all the more meaningful because it takes place during the course of a meal, “He poured water into the washbasin and began to was the disciples’ feet and to dry them with the towel He had wrapped around Himself” (13:5).  Not only does he perform the duty of a slave, which is the duty of those that do not possess honor, but He even goes so far as to use His very clothes for the purpose of drying the feet that He has washed, dishonoring Himself to an even greater extent.  Given its context, Jesus was heaping shame upon shame.  In a culture in which shame was equivalent to death, we can see that not only did He take the opportunity of “looking like other men” and “sharing in human nature,” but “He humbled Himself, by becoming obedient to the point of death.” 

As was just mentioned, Jesus took the eschaton position at this gathering.  As also mentioned numerous times in the course of this study, there was no lower position in all the world at that time than the Roman cross.  It was the eschaton of eschatons.  So just as Jesus took the lowest possible position that could be taken at the banquet, which was that of a foot-washer that used His own clothes to dry wet feet, so too “He was obedient to the point of death---even death on a cross!”  After submitting Himself to the veritable death of His shameful actions at this meal, we read that “when Jesus had washed their feet and put His outer clothing back on, He took His place at the table again” (13:12a).  Similarly, having been lowered to the most shameful position on earth (the cross), God exalted Him and gave Him the name that is above every name.”  Yes, in the exaltation of the Resurrection, He took up His position at the right hand of God---the seat to the right hand of the protoklisian, which would signify that He was the most honored guest at the messianic banquet.  Having humbled Himself, He would be exalted (a reminder of Luke 14), with the master of the banquet directing Him to move to a higher place, in which “every knee will bow… and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”  It was with His exalting Resurrection, of course, that He is clothed with a new, glorified body.  Figuratively, as “He took His place at the table again,” Jesus had “put His outer clothing back on.” 

Obviously, the connection between the hymn in Philippians and the story in John are inescapable.  Because the author of John made it a point to illustrate the well-known hymn through the story of Jesus at the Last Supper, this means that the meal-related implications of the hymn, of its meal-related presentation in the letter to the Philippians, and the singular importance of the meal for the early Christians is inescapable as well.  We must know that all of this is quite telling for the way that the letter to the Laodiceans is to be understood.   

Letter To Laodicea (part 98)

All of these worthy considerations position us to view one of the most famous passages in the New Testament in an entirely different light.  If we are at a meal table with the church in Philippi, and if we are well aware that Paul’s words are conjuring up a meal-table-based context for his use of what comes next in the Philippian letter, then Paul’s incorporation of what has long been considered to be an early Christian hymn gathers to itself an important dimension.  The Christian meal table provides an amazing and enlightening context for the hearing of “You should have the same attitude toward one another that Christ Jesus had, who though He existed in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied Himself by taking on the form of a slave, by looking like other men, and by sharing in human nature.  He humbled Himself, by becoming obedient to the point of death---even death on a cross!  As a result God exalted Him and gave Him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will blow---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” (2:5-11). 

Yes, a glorious and familiar passage no doubt, seemingly given new life when considered in relation to that which represented the messianic banquet.  Having just heard these words, we note the honorific tone, but we cannot dismiss the subversive nature of the language.  The Gospel (Jesus is Lord of all) is the thrust of the statement, and this world-power-challenging proclamation was at the heart of the messiah-based kingdom of God movement that would come to be called Christianity.  As we bear in mind the growth of the Christian movement (kristianos), as it took its place alongside the movement of the Caesar cult (kaisarianos) in the Roman world, it is possible to hear the second portion of this song of praise as an aping of the language of the Caesar cult (as Paul does in his usage of “from faith to faith” in Romans 1:17).  At the same time, it is not only the second half of the song that apes the cultic language, so too does the first half.  The elevation of Caesar above his defeated or soon-to-be-defeated opponents would be a natural outgrowth of his apotheosis.  Yes, not only is Caesar exalted above all as divine, but Caesar’s enemies, who may think of themselves as gods in their own right, are actually slaves.  They are ordinary men.  They will die at Caesar’s hands.    

Having said that, it is interesting to see how early Christians put all of this familiar language and imagery to use.  Certainly it would have been said of the Caesar that “the gods exalted him and have given him the name above every name, and that at the name of Caesar every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Caesar is Lord.”  Unlike Caesar, however, it was said of Jesus that His Lordship over all (including Caesar) came about through a process that the rulers of the world would not have supposed.  Whereas Caesar positioned himself as the son of god (divi filius), and laid claim to his rule according to this proclamation, Jesus “existed in the form of God” but “did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped.”  Whereas Caesar exalted himself and enslaved others to extend and enrich the empire of the one referred to as the son of God, to bring about the kingdom of God, Jesus countered “by taking on the form of a slave.”  Whereas Caesar and his sycophantic worshipers lauded him as being a man among men and therefore endowed by the gods with the right to rule because of the superiority of his very nature, the true Emperor, Jesus, came “looking like other men” and “sharing in human nature.” 

Caesar, of course, inflicted his power (the pax Romana) upon the peoples of the world by the looming threat of death, whereas Jesus became “obedient to the point of death.”  The Roman cross and its accursed death was the emblem of power of Caesar and of his right to unchallenged rule.  All those that presumed to challenge his divinely appointed and sanctioned rule would meet their ends upon that emblem.  So naturally, Jesus, as the anti-Caesar, went to “death on a cross,” with His Resurrection proving that the great powers of the world (Rome, Caesar, death) had no power over Him.  Whereas the cross was meant to shame, it was Jesus’ path to exaltation.  This, of course, was contrary to all thinking in that day.  The fact that the early church so freely employed the language of death by crucifixion, within a world that had a robust understanding of the explicit implications of such a death (you’re not a king), and within a Jewish world that saw such a thing as evidence of God’s highest cursing, gives tremendous weight to the firm belief in the fact of Jesus’ physical Resurrection.  The Resurrection is the only explanation for the language here employed.  If there was the smallest doubt that Jesus did not physically raise from the dead, then the church would certainly not give triumphant voice to the fact of His crucifixion at the hands of Rome.    

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Letter To Laodicea (part 97)

So yes, we will be able to hear Paul’s letter to the Philippians in the context of the table of fellowship, as it is most definitely set against the norms of the day.  As the letter is read to this assembled congregation that is highly favored by the Apostle, he encourages them to “conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ, so that---whether I come and see you or whether I remain absent---I should hear that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind” (1:27a).  As we remain attuned to the meal table, and to themes associated with the meal table, what immediately follows the mention of one spirit and one mind can certainly strike us in a way that sets up an interesting context for what we will read in the first half of the second chapter. 

Paul desires to see this church “contending side by side for the faith of the Gospel... not being intimidated in any way by your opponents”  (1:27b-28a).  When we think about the divisions of the world that were so commonplace and which were brought into view by the customary meal practice of the ancient world, and when we think about the frictions in Corinth and Galatia, along with what were certainly the understandable struggles within every church as they sought to live out what they understood to be Jesus’ message and vision of the kingdom of God (as it was informed by Isaiah’s vision of the all-inclusive messianic banquet) in which the first are last, the last first, and all seek out the lowest place (with these words uttered in the context of a banquet), it behooves us to take serious note of this encouragement towards “contending side by side for the faith of the Gospel.”  Undoubtedly, the pressure to segregate and stratify, as a means of making the Christian message more palatable and the church of Christ more inviting to those from every rank of society, was intense.  Additionally, the pressure to hold to old covenant markers as a means of identifying the people of God and of participation in that kingdom, which carried with it an invitation to contention within the body rather than a contending side by side (as we see in Galatians), would induce a denial of the faithfulness of God that was found in the announcement of the rule of Jesus as Messiah and Lord of all (the faith of the Gospel). 

It is as we see this church at the meal table, as we position ourselves there along with them, and as we understand the intense struggle concerning the community’s table (thus signifying the world-changing power of a well-understood and properly contextualized execution of the Lord’s Supper), Paul’s words come to take on an entirely new life.  Having been encouraged to contend side by side (as they looked around, and presumably, because Paul was quite complementary of this church for the most part, saw themselves faithfully representing that which was demanded by their understanding of Jesus and His kingdom), they go on to hear Paul say “Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort provided by love, any fellowship in the Spirit, any affection or mercy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, by having the same love, being united in spirit, and having one purpose” (2:1-2).  Do these words not echo what we find in Paul’s message to the Roman church, the Corinthian church, and the Galatian church?  If so, and if we recall the context of issues concerning the meal table that provides the setting for Paul’s instructions and directives concerning the church’s love, fellowship, affection, unity, and purpose, then we are forced to hear what follows from within the same context. 

This, then, makes an eminent amount of sense when we go on to hear “Instead of being motivated by selfish ambition or vanity, each of you should, in humility, be moved to treat one another as more important than yourself” (2:3).  This certainly calls to mind the unending societal competition for honor that played itself out at the world’s banqueting tables.  More than that, this calls to mind the words of Jesus that would be recorded in Luke.  It is very much worth returning there to read “Then when Jesus noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable.  He said to them, ‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, because a person more distinguished than you may have been invited by your host.  So the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, “Give this man your place.”  Then, ashamed (notice the juxtaposition of honor and shame), you will begin to move to the least important place.  But when you are invited, go and take the least important place, so that when your host approaches he will say to you, “Friend, move up here to a better place.”  Then you will be honored in the presence of all who share the meal with you.  For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.’” (14:7-11) 

Naturally, this church did not have access to the Gospel of Luke (only oral tradition can be confidently asserted at that point), but since Luke was one of Paul’s companions and essentially his biographer, and since this letter was one of Paul’s letters written from prison in Rome (and therefore a late composition), it is not unreasonable to suggest a familiarity on the part of this church with this portion of the Jesus tradition.  Indeed, the call to avoid selfish ambition or vanity, and to act in humility and treat others as more important, when heard from a position at the meal table, cannot help but call to mind these words of Jesus.  The insistence that “Each of you should be concerned not only about your own interests, but about the interest of others as well” (2:4) goes a long way toward solidifying this position.  Interestingly, as we contemplate the unavoidable importance of the meal table within the early church, as they sought to understand and live out the massive implications of the Resurrection of Jesus, we are not left to wonder why the Gospels, which come after most of the letters chronologically, take the shape that they do, regularly featuring Jesus at meals (banquets).  Clearly and quite understandably (considering the imagery of the messianic banquet), the meal table was a vital component of what was and is a Jewish messianic movement, and a defining aspect of what was being communicated about Jesus by His Apostles.          

Friday, January 28, 2011

Letter To Laodicea (part 96)

On our steady (if slow) return march to Laodicea, we move from Galatians to Philippians.  We approach the text of the Philippian letter in much the same way as we have been approaching the letters to Rome, Corinth, Galatia, and Ephesus.  In fact, we attempt to approach the letter (and all the letters) in the manner of first century hearers in a predominantly oral/aural culture, and sensibly hear them as direct and pointed communications that are meant to critique and praise, while at a time and place that would have been entirely appropriate to the early church, which was the table of fellowship, as Christ’s people sought to distinguish themselves from their communities through their faithful enactments of the wonderful vision of the eschatological messianic banquet.  Yes, there has been much repetition of this theme, but because it is an overt and subversive confession of the rule of God in Christ that is being portrayed by this relatively simple action, and because most of us give little thought to this idea, it is worth repeating ad nauseum. 

This occasions a quick reminder that it is not only the letters that make a request to be heard from such a position, but the Gospels are also designed to be heard as theo-dramas---scripts for performance through recitation---that will instruct their hearers about Jesus in a standard and uniform way.  Though in this day we have the privilege of approaching all of Scripture privately and individually, the Scriptures were to be heard in a community---a community that shared a basic story that stretched back to the first words of Genesis.  Jews who heard the content of the Gospels and the letters of the New Testament were thoroughly immersed in the story of their people, shaped by what seemed like an endless procession of exile and exodus.  Gentiles who heard letters and the stories that would come to be codified in the Gospels were in need of instruction in the story of Israel so that they could make sense of what they were hearing.  That is the position in which the vast majority of Christians find themselves.  All would hear as part of a community shaped by Greco-Roman culture and customs, in a world ruled by a Caesar.  

If we do not, or if we are unwilling to make the effort to understand the world in which the church was birthed, shaped as it was by Greek culture and Roman power, we will be lost.  If we do not, or if we are unwilling to make the effort to understand the world of Israel and Judaism into which Jesus spoke, which demands our utmost attention and concern so as to avoid a lazy and misguided retrojection of our own culturally-shaped worldviews (whatever that culture may be), then we will merely find a Jesus of our own making, constructing power-exerting truth claims that are designed to benefit ourselves, our cultures, our countries, and our bank accounts, that exist primarily to justify the ability to go about our merry way, with little to no modification of the ways in which we interact with this world.  

If we allow ourselves to form spiritual opinions that do not take into account of, through the hard-won knowledge of broad-ranging and far-reaching study, the social, historical, political, economic, and cultural norms of Jesus’ day (and Abraham’s day, Moses’ day, David’s day, Daniel’s day), and instead, retreat into the weak and indefensible position of being led into all knowledge by the Spirit (Jesus is reported to have spoken of being led into all knowledge by the Spirit, and He spoke such words to a group that was well aware of and ensconced within the story of Israel, past and present), then our opinions will be nearly worthless.  They will be nothing more than a personal mythology of God that causes us to hear the words of Scripture from within the echo-chamber of our own mind, reinforcing, without challenge, subjective definitions and notions of spirituality and of that which is pleasing to God and demanded by Him.  Too often, this leads to attempts to control the actions, behaviors, social interactions (and probably money) of members of a church community, which is far less complicated then instructing so as to inspire the members of a church community to figure out how they can go into this world as effective ambassadors of the kingdom of God, serving others as Jesus demanded to be served (providing water, food, and clothing, while visiting the sick and those in prison). 

A complacent and ironically dogmatic ignorance of the world into which Jesus spoke, and of that world which also shaped the words that Jesus used and the way that His words would be understood, often leads to an unwarranted separation from society---a retreat, waving the white flag of surrender, when the responsibility is to be bold ambassadors for God’s kingdom through the spoken and lived-out proclamation that Jesus is Lord---and an ungrounded and unfounded insistence on personal holiness (defined by a series of “do’s” and “don’t’s”) constructed at the whims of an authoritarian figure.  Rarely, will self-sacrifice be the model of the church community that is asked to prize ignorance.  In such a community, the only self-sacrifice demanded will be that of the community sacrificing its goods (time and money) for the enrichment of its head, as an “us against the world” mentality is fostered and new covenant boundary markers are raised (in defiance of Jesus) as an impenetrable wall that does little more than impede the advance of God’s kingdom.  The banner of such a community becomes their own perceived spiritual superiority, which flies in the face of what we find in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, while also inducing a nausea on the part of our Lord.    

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Letter To Laodicea (part 95)

As we consider all that we have learned about meal practice (social delineations, the symposium portion of the meal, positioning around the table, etc…), continue to position ourselves as first century hearers of the letters of the New Testament in the context of the orally-transmitted Jesus tradition, and remain open to the possibility that the meal tables of the church were of such significance that they were the setting for the reception of important communications such as Paul’s letters, we must be profoundly struck by what comes next from Paul. 

Having insisted on the necessity of preferential love and service to one another (remembering the over-arching meta-narrative related to meal practice that stretches across Paul’s letters), Paul writes “However, if you continually bite and devour one another, beware that you are not consumed by one another” (5:15).  This use of “bite,” “devour,” and “consume” are clearly meal-table-based metaphors.  “But I say, live by the Spirit and you will not carry out the desires of the flesh” (5:16), as the flesh wants to divide and stratify, succumbing to the tremendous separating pressures that demand adherence to the ways of man’s kingdom principles. 

“For the flesh,” Paul continues, “has desires that are opposed to the Spirit, and the Spirit has desires that are opposed to the flesh” (5:17a), as the Spirit seeks to make manifest God’s kingdom in self-sacrificial love, while the flesh seeks to preserve self-satisfaction and self-interest, especially in the all-important pursuit of honor and avoidance of shame.  Indeed, “these are in opposition to each other, so that you cannot do what you what” (5:17b).  With a quick rejoinder that “if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law” (5:18), Paul reminds his hearers about the barrier-destroying confession of Jesus as Lord, as opposed to the barrier-erecting insistence on holding to old and outdated covenant markers that will have nothing more than a deleterious effect on the practices of the meal table that should create unity amongst the body of believers, so that the members of that body (think of Romans and Corinthians) can then carry that spirit of unity, and its love and service, into the world as an ongoing announcement that the kingdom of heaven is at hand (Jesus is Lord). 

Once again, the meal must weigh heavily on our thoughts, and especially the symposium, as we then go on to hear “Now the works of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity, depravity, idolatry, sorcery, hostilities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish rivalries, dissensions, factions, envying, murder, drunkenness, carousing, and similar things” (5:19-21a).  When we consider that weight that is carried by the meal table, as it is indeed intended to replicate the “Last Supper,” as a Passover theme-contexted messianic banquet that announces the Lordship of Christ and the kingdom, it is no wonder that we then hear Paul saying “I am warning you, as I had warned you before: Those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God!” (5:21b). 

Following this, Paul goes into his famous list that is commonly referred to as the “fruit of the Spirit.”  Often, this is taken out of its wider context, and is given little more than the context of Paul’s distinction between “Spirit” and “law,” with this semi-contextual de-contextualization supported by the statement that “Against such things there is no law” (5:23b).  Happily, based on the knowledge that has been gained by the path that we have been walking, we are able to hear him speaking from within that a much wider context.  The idea that Paul has the meal table in mind here in Galatians takes deeper root, as we now hear that “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control” (5:22-23a), as a statement upon which Paul expands and elaborates in the thirteenth chapter of first Corinthians (the “love chapter”), which, as has been well-demonstrated, is rooted in Paul’s critique of Corinthian meal practice. 

With this line of thinking as our frame of reference, it becomes possible, and even probable, that “against such things there is no law” (remembering the boundaries and barriers and divisions of the “works of the law” as covenant markers) receives its elaboration as “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child.  But when I became an adult, I set aside childish ways.  For now we see in a mirror indirectly, but then we will see face to face.  Now I know in part, but I will know fully, just as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:11-12).  It is as this is understood that we then hear “If we live by the Spirit, let us also behave in accordance with the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25).  Yes, “these three remain: faith, hope, and love.  But the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13).  Because of that love, which we first put into practice around our society defining table, “Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, being jealous of one another” (Galatians 5:26).        

Letter To Laodicea (part 94)

Not surprisingly then, if he is indeed calling attention to the nature of the messianic feast (as the culmination of the movement of God that began with the Abrahamic covenant), Paul goes on to make reference to Abraham, writing “so then, understand that those who believe are the sons of Abraham… So then those who believe are blessed along with Abraham the believer” (Galatians 3:7,9).  Just in case we may find ourselves inclined to disconnect this reference to Abraham here in Galatians from messianic-banquet-related considerations, there is a rather clear allusion to the Jesus tradition that will eventually come to be recorded in Luke’s Gospel, in which Jesus, as He makes reference to the kingdom of God and the rejection of the narrow door of loyalty to Him and His ways by which that kingdom is to be entered, says “There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves thrown out.  Then people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and take their places at the banquet table in the  kingdom of God” (13:28-29).  As these words resound in our hearing, Paul adds that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us… in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham would come to the Gentiles,” as people come from east, west, north, and south to take their places at the table of the messianic banquet, “so that we could receive the promise of the Spirit by faith” (3:13a,14). 

With that said, Paul enters into a discourse concerning the covenants (Abrahamic and Mosaic), ending up with his famous declaration that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female---for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (3:28).  The demonstration of whether or not the members of this body of believers truly believed this would be witnessed by the arrangements of their meal table.  Having insisted that all that “belong to Christ” (3:29), that is, that all that confess Jesus as Lord and so order their lives according to the precepts of His kingdom, are “heir according to the promise” (3:29b), Paul then equates being an heir with being a slave (4:1).  As this letter is communicated to the assembly, which would have consisted of Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free, and in which there would always be the ongoing temptation to succumb to the social forces by which they were surrounded and to retreat into their closed communities, making use of reference to slaves and slavery would have had a particularly useful effect.  In fact, as part and parcel of this, Paul makes explicit reference to Jewish Christians attempting to uphold and return to the boundary markers of the covenant---the “works of the law” of circumcision, Sabbath-keeping, purity laws---that had previously served to identify the people of the Creator God, who would be participants in His kingdom. 

As we reach the fifth chapter of Galatians, we are in the enviable position of being reminded of the thirteenth and fourteenth chapters of Romans, along with the thirteenth and fourteenth chapter of Paul’s first letter to Corinth, and we remember what we were able to glean from our look at those chapters in their social and theological context as we read, “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity to indulge your flesh, but through love serve one another.  For the whole law can be summed up in a single commandment, namely, ‘You must love your neighbor as yourself.’” (5:13-14)  The insistence to “serve” takes even greater meaning upon itself when placed in a social, table-based context.  Christian love is given wonderful expression when the people of God, though they may stem from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds, come together and, with no thought given to their social status outside of the community of believers, serve each other without distinction as they seek to demonstrate the messianic banquet and the kingdom of God.  It starts at the table (the table of the Lord)---that powerful symbol of society---and radiates outward.  Clearly, if there are issues and problems at the church’s meal table, then there will be problems with the church’s witness to the world, and the church will become ineffective and powerless, thus handicapping the spreading of the kingdom of heaven.  Historically then, it is no wonder that the Lord’s Supper has been such a source of contention.  

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Letter To Laodicea (part 93)

Spending a bit more time in Ephesians, and thinking about Ephesians in this way, as we hear the words of the letter from the position of participation in the community meal, thus providing an adequate context for the letter’s concern with the relationship between Jews and Gentiles and the unity between the two that is to be espoused by the church, we have an entirely new world opened to us as we consider “So then you are no longer foreigners and noncitizens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of God’s household, because you have been built on the foundations of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the cornerstone” (2:19-20).  Not only is temple language put to use, which was very important for the early church as it understood and presented itself as the new temple in its representation of Christ, but when we hear “In Him the whole building, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (2:21-22), echoes of the “body” language found in Paul’s treatment of spiritual gifts from the first Corinthian letter, along with everything else implied by Paul’s treatment of “the body,” should be ringing in our ears. 

Approaching Ephesians with this mindset---social practice and the messianic banquet---should go a long way in crystallizing our thinking about what we see in Paul’s letter to the Galatians.  As would have been the case with the letter to the Romans and the letters to the Corinthians, the letter to the Galatians would have been read out loud to a congregation, with a possible expectation by Paul that said congregation would be gathered at a meal table as a fundamental aspect of their fellowship (always keeping in mind the meal-table-heavy Jesus tradition and its intrinsic tie to the messianic banquet).  How much deeper goes the reading from Galatians as we place ourselves with this church at their table and hear “But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he had clearly done wrong.  Until certain people came from James, he had been eating with the Gentile.  But when they arrived, he stopped doing this and separated himself because he was afraid of those who were pro-circumcision.  And the rest of the Jews also joined with him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray with them by their hypocrisy” (2:11-13). 

Of all things with which he could deal, Paul makes it a point to bring up issues surrounding the church’s meal practice.  Of course, having already seen this with the churches at Rome and Corinth, as well as with what seems to be implied by the letter to the church at Ephesus (though this may have been an encyclical letter), this should no longer be a surprise to us.  Indeed, at this point, we should be find ourselves surprised by a failure to on Paul’s part to cultivate thoughts in line with the messianic banquet in his communications to the churches.  Most certainly, this illuminates a portion of the controversy to be found in the fifteenth chapter of Acts, and the decision to be delivered to the Gentile churches “that you abstain from meat that has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what has been strangled and from sexual immorality.  If you keep yourselves from doing these things, you will do well” (15:29).  Now, we will not be dogmatic in the least little bit at this point, as this does take some stretching, but does such language not evoke images of the symposium?

Returning to the Galatian letter, it is this mentioning of the meal table of the church that is the grounds for Paul’s immediate movement to “We are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners, yet we know that no one is justified by the works of the law but by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ” (2:15-16a).  As we saw with the Ephesian letter, with the mention of boasting that puts us in mind of the symposium and therefore a component of first century meal practice, which then leads into talk of justification, so we see the same thing here.  A clear pattern appears to be at work.  Along with Romans then, the Galatian letter, and therefore the two letters of Paul that are held up as containing the pinnacle of the message of justification (and therefore the pinnacle of what is thought to be Paul’s message, though like Jesus, Paul is most concerned with the kingdom of God), inextricably entwine justification, with all of its requisite associations with the kingdom of heaven (God’s rule), with a demonstrable concern with Christian meal practice that should be reflective of the messianic banquet.    

Monday, January 24, 2011

Letter To Laodicea (part 92)

As has been seen, the issue of table fellowship, and its implications for the community of the church and for its standing as the representatives of the kingdom of heaven, is a crucial and oft-repeated theme of the New Testament writings.  We must take the time to consider the fact that the writings of the New Testament, whether we are thinking about the letters penned by a variety of authors or the Gospels and the book of Acts, are composed at definite historical times and place, within or for communities of believers, and as responses to given sets of concerns.  When such a set of facts is taken into consideration, the consistent presence of, or allusions to Christian meal practice (whether that of Jesus or of the early church) cannot go unnoticed.  Indeed, it must strike us with a jarring force that will serve to shape or re-shape our fundamental approach to Scripture interpretation.  This, of course, must be commensurate with a serious and dedicated attempt to grasp the Christian writings from within their own social and historical context, rather than the lazy and unreasonable reaching for meaning that begins with a consideration of our own societal and cultural norms, and the backwards application of worldviews that are concordant with the world that is in our view, upon the first century world in which Jesus walked and in which the writings that make up the New Testament were penned. 

In our abbreviated, and certainly non-exhaustive trek through the Gospels, we spent a great deal of time and space presenting the social world of Jesus, while pointing out the seemingly inordinate amount of time that Jesus spent at meals, the seemingly inordinate amount of space and ink given to the record of His time at meals, and historically, the amount of blood spilled and energy expended to defend and propagate these sacred writings that are so infused with stories and instruction related to meal practice.  All of this seems to be inordinate only if we are dismissive of the significance of ancient meal practice along with the importance attached to the meal in the early church as being representative of the messianic banquet---therefore enlightening us as to why the Gospel authors went to such great lengths to portray Jesus as being a regular, instructing participant at meals. 

Though we skipped over the book of Acts, if we were to spend time in examination of that work, we would find a present though limited concern with issues surrounding Christian meal practice.  With Romans, which is almost universally and primarily looked upon as Paul’s grand treatise concerning justification by faith, we come to realize, because we discern that justification is intimately connected with and related to Paul’s concerns with the kingdom of God, that the results of justification are practically worked out at the table.  Therefore, because notions of the kingdom of God and of God’s present rule through Jesus are associated with the messianic banquet, we were able to see that any understanding of justification, and therefore what it means to be a participant in the kingdom of God and of what that participation may look like, will eventually concern itself with Christian table fellowship (because of the powerful social forces whose work is on display at the meal tables of the ancient world). 

We spent a great deal of time dealing with what, because of the treatment of the Lord’s Supper in the eleventh chapter, become table-fellowship-related issues in the first letter to the Corinthians.  Though we spent no time with the second letter to the church at Corinth, because we have been made aware of the issues of the symposium (and though the second letter to the Corinthians may be a compilation of more than one letter), we can sense that Paul did not see the response that he desired, as he practically demands that they become more generous in their self-sacrificial support of their poor brethren, and because we hear him launch into a speech of “boasting” (a regular feature of the symposium), which Paul ultimately defines as foolishness, that simply seems to mock this church (and therefore their continued mis-management of the table of the Lord). 

If we were to spend some time in Ephesians, hearing the words of the letter as a first-century hearer that is not thoroughly imbibed in a Christian culture that looked at heaven as the distant isle of the blessed where the immortal soul would go for eternity when it finally sluffed off this shabby and second-rate body and departed from this shabby and second-rate creation, but rather, as a hearer of the good news of the Jewish Messiah that created an expectation of God’s realm of existence coming to earth, of a renewal of creation, and of the resurrection of the body into this creation (just like Jesus), while also operating with a mental construct that took into consideration the looming social structures of the day (banquets), we might hear words such as “But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even though we were dead in transgressions, made us alive together with Christ---by grace you are saved---and He raised us up with Him and seated us with Him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, to demonstrate in the coming ages the surpassing wealth of His grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus” (2:4-7), in relation to receiving positions of honor (along with all believers, in equal honor) at the messianic banqueting table.  Accordingly, when we read “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so that no one can boast” (2:8-9), and hear those words in conjunction with knowledge of prevalent and powerful social customs, while considering that it is more than possible for the letter to have been audibly delivered to a church body while they shared a meal, together with awareness of the Jesus traditions concerning the humble being exalted (which we find in the account of the meal that begins in the fourteenth chapter of Luke), and then observing that the letter goes on to speak of the unity of Jews and Gentiles, we gain an entirely new awareness of the profundity of this aspect of that which was crucial for the early Christian communities.       

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Letter To Laodicea (part 91)

It is readily apparent that Paul's dissertation on "tongues" in this fourteenth chapter is presented from within the context of the community of believers and of concern for the kingdom of God, as the Spirit of God is at work and manifesting itself.  Ultimately, grasping this sense of community, as it is related to the Lord's Supper and the problems being addressed in Corinth, is ever so crucial to our discerning the problems in Laodicea.  For that reason, we continue here in the chapter, picking up at the twenty-sixth verse, in which we read “What should you do then, brothers and sisters?” (14:26a)  Paul demonstrates his concern for the practical outworking of that which he has said to this point, so that the community of believers might effectively represent their King and kingdom, letting self-sacrifice and love have its way in determining the way in which the church will interact, fellowship, and present itself as it seeks to better understand its God. 

Expounding upon his own question he writes “When you come together, each one has a song, has a lesson, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation” (14:26b).  The Apostle expresses his awareness that the exercise of spiritual gifts is widespread, and that it is not limited.  In fact, he encourages this, as we can see.  He needs to, however, reinforce a guiding ethic, so that the exercise of spiritual gifts does not devolve into a competition for honor and honored seats at the table of fellowship.  The guiding ethic then, is Paul’s insistence to “Let all these things be done for the strengthening of the church” (14:26c).  Because Paul will go on to offer helpful guidelines for how this strengthening might take place, we should not consider the strengthening of the church in some fuzzy, mystical sense, but in the hard and concrete sense of things in which Paul has operated to this point. 

The dichotomy here is between that which weakens the church and that which strengthens the church.  That which would weaken the church would be that which seems to disavow the claims of Jesus and His Gospel, causing the church to fall into a general conformity with the surrounding world.  This would be accomplished through the standard pursuit of honor, and would ultimately find itself being manifested at the church’s meal table.  That which would strengthen the church would be that which would confirm the claims of Jesus and His Gospel, causing the church to make good on its claim to represent a new type of humanity.  This new humanity, standing in radical dissimilarity from the society and the world in which it was to be found, would be the humanity that revealed its confession of Jesus as Lord through its faithful demonstration of the messianic banquet---representing the in-breaking of the kingdom of God in the midst of a world still rife with darkness, evil, pain, and suffering.

The strengthening of the church, as the community by which the world is to glimpse the kingdom of God, and as the community that is to go about the business of extending the reign of heaven into the community in which it finds itself (God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven), is that which must be under consideration in what follows.  Paul writes “If someone speaks in a tongue, it should be two, or at the most three, one after the other, and someone must interpret” (14:27).  Why?  So that the church may be strengthened---so that the church may represent the kingdom.  This is the purpose of the gathering of fellowship.  The church does not gather so that individuals might be made to feel a certain way, or so that individuals in attendance might feel themselves lifted up into the heavens.  No, the church gathers together so that ultimately heaven can come to earth, as His people learn how to better represent Him and to reflect His glory into His world. 

The sense of community is palpable, as Paul goes on to write, “But if there is no interpreter, he should be silent in the church.  Let him speak to himself and to God.  Two or three prophets should speak and the others should evaluate what is said.  And is someone sitting down receives a revelation, the person who is speaking should conclude” (14:28-30).  The one who concludes, in deferring to another, is demonstrating preferential treatment to another brother or sister, not insisting that his or her own exercise of a spiritual gift has a greater value.  The community of believers remains in sight as Paul says “For you can all prophesy one after another, so all can learn and be encouraged” (14:31).  All are to be encouraged.  All are to be strengthened.  If Christ is going to be adequately represented by this church, then there is to be no exclusive group.  Paul’s concern is for the body.  He demands that this church eat and drink with “a careful regard for the body” (11:29b).  If they do not, continuing instead in their discriminating, prejudiced, and hierarchical practices, they will effectively continue to cast Jesus out of their midst.  This, unfortunately, does not seem to be an isolated problem.      

We have been brought full circle back to the Lord’s Supper in Corinthians, which has a tremendous bearing on the goal of our project.   It has become clear that what Paul means by “recognizing the body” must be interpreted by the mounting argument throughout the letter.  When we hear Paul’s words against the societal background, the Jesus tradition, and the messianic banquet, Paul is stating an axiomatic truth, that all members, rich or poor, of the church are also the body of Christ, therefore they are all one and equal members.  However, the Corinthians have reverted back to the popular social guidelines of their day, by which the wealthy are distinguished from the poor by way of class division at their banquets.  Paul simply states that, “This is not the Lord’s Supper.”  For as we have been studying, Jesus’ celebratory banquets were all inclusive, regardless of class or status.  As a matter of fact, Jesus banquets reversed the entire social order altogether, turning the honorable guests into the shameful and vice-versa.  So in drawing these social boundaries they have undone Jesus’ end-time banquet, and they are no longer functioning as the intended new-humanity.  This, unfortunately, is not an isolated complaint.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Letter To Laodicea (part 90)

Continuing on, with the underlying theme of exalting that which is good for the body of Christ, Paul writes, “Now, brothers and sisters, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I help you unless I speak to you with a revelation or with knowledge or prophecy or teaching” (14:6).  Notice that Paul’s concern is not the personal, spiritual benefit to be had by speaking in tongues, but rather, helping this congregation grow in a love that will be manifested at their messianic-feast-recognizing meal table (celebration of the Lord’s Supper).  Paul insists that a tongue can provide benefit for the body that is charged with living as the kingdom of heaven, but only when accompanied by interpretation.  For that reason, he is more inclined to see revelation, knowledge, prophecy, and teaching as beneficial for the church, as it seeks to meet the obligation with which it is charged. 

To assist in their understanding, Paul provides an analogy, writing “It is similar for lifeless things that make a sound, like a flute or harp” (14:7a).  Is it possible that Paul is here indicating that any speaking in tongues that does not involve a strengthening of the church community is lifeless?  Lifelessness would indicate that it is devoid of the Spirit of God.  Is Paul saying that speaking in tongues, like every other gift of the Spirit, is a community-oriented gift?  In this light, it becomes clear that the gifts of the Spirit that have been outlined by Paul (messages of wisdom and of knowledge, gifts of healing, performance of miracles, prophecy, discernment of spirits, tongues, interpretation of tongues), and which would still be in the minds of the hearers of the letter as this letter is being read out loud in a single sitting, are meant to be exercised in fellowship?  Therefore, a gift of the Spirit, exercised in private for one’s own personal benefit, might very well be considered to be lifeless, as it is self-centered, certainly not self-sacrificial in a way that is designed to benefit the community.  When we consider the words of Jesus, in which He speaks of feeding the hungry, offering cups of cold water, clothing the naked, and visiting those that are sick and in prison, the community (and therefore kingdom of God) oriented aspect of the Christian life takes center-stage. 

We keep this in mind as we return to Paul’s analogy and hear “Unless they make a distinction in the notes, how can what is played on the flute or harp be understood?” (14:7b).  A concern with being understood is a concern for the community.  Paul continues, saying “If, for example, the trumpet makes an unclear sound, who will get ready for battle?  It is the same for you.  If you do not speak clearly with your tongue, how will anyone know what is being said?  For you will be speaking into the air” (14:8-9), and therefore not providing a benefit to the church---merely drawing attention to oneself (and gaining honor for oneself???). 

Continuing on in demonstration of his concern for something that appears to be terribly problematic within this church body, allowing us to surmise that this particular gift was being abused, with that abuse on full display at the meal table, Paul writes “There are probably many kinds of languages in the world, and none is without meaning.  If then I do not know the meaning of a language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me.  It is the same with you” (14:10-12a).  Clearly, Paul’s emphasis still lies with the exercise of spiritual gifts for the purpose of building the community that can adequately represent the kingdom of heaven within and to the world.  To that end, he adds “Since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, seek to abound in order to strengthen the church” (14:12b).  More than anything, Paul says, the purpose of the exercise of spiritual gifts must be the strengthening of the church.  Anything less than that will fall short of what God intends for His people. 

Interpretation then, becomes a key component in the consideration of speaking in tongues.  Interpretation not only allows for understanding of what has been said, but it also provides the opportunity for the Spirit to be at work in another person---that being the one providing the inerpretation.  This is especially crucial in not allowing for divisions and hierarchies and privileged positions to be had in the church, while reminding all that the exercise of spiritual gifts are communally oriented.  Just as words of prophecy, wisdom, teaching, and revelation, as well as miracles and healings, are only of benefit to the church in a relational setting as they strengthen the church, the same must be said of tongues.  If there is no relational, communal aspect to tongues, then clearly, it does not serve to build up the church.  “So then,” Paul writes, “one who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret.  If I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unproductive.  What should I do?  I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my mind.  I will sing praises with my spirit, but I will also sing praises with my mind” (14:13-15). 

What is the application of all of this for Paul?  He writes, “Otherwise, if you are praising God with your spirit, how can someone without the gift say “Amen” to your thanksgiving, since he does not know what you are saying?” (14:16)  Love, which always has the kingdom of heaven in mind, demands that the one who speaks in tongues---praying, singing, and praising with their Spirit---maintain a conscientious awareness of whether or not the exercise of their gift is going to have a direct benefit for the church, and by extension, the kingdom of heaven.  Paul adds, “For you are certainly giving thanks well, but the other person is not strengthened” (14:18), and therefore, you are being selfish and not acting with a neighborly, self-sacrificial love.  Paul goes on to say “I thank that God that I speak in tongues more than all of you, but in the church I want to speak five words with my mind to instruct others” (14:18-19a), thus able to benefit all and strengthen the church so that all are honored, “rather than ten thousand words in a tongue” (14:19b).  

Friday, January 21, 2011

Letter To Laodicea (part 89)

Returning to the thirteenth chapter of first Corinthians then, we resume our observations here with Paul’s statement that “Love never ends” (13:8a).  We hear that in association with a community that is creating divisions and hierarchies, both social and spiritual, and allowing those divisions and hierarchies to have a place at the meal table that is meant to represent the flattened-out world of the messianic banquet.  They are subverting that which is meant to be subversive, and acting in a way that is not in concert with what has been taught them about love (and here reiterated by Paul). 

In addressing the divisions that have been become a part of the structure of this church, Paul pushes them to the margins, writing “But if there are prophecies, they will be set aside; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be set aside.  For we know in part, and we prophesy in part, but when what is perfect comes, the partial will be set aside” (13:8b-10).  When received in the proper setting and understood within the flow of the letter, what is perfect would seem to be the presence of the consummated kingdom of heaven.  The church is to be the practitioner of that which has been established through the Resurrection of Jesus and the new world that was brought into existence with that Resurrection, in anticipation of that expected consummation.  If we know that these things will end and be set aside, then certainly any divisions and hierarchies within the church that take away from the unity of the meal table and that are constructed based upon the exercise of these spiritual gifts, should be set aside in the course of that practice of the kingdom of God. 

When Paul adds “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child.  But when I became an adult, I set aside childish ways” (13:11), it is as if he is telling this church that they need to grow up and put aside the ways of the world that surrounded them, and to stop being infected by an overt, Christ-and-kingdom-denying concern with honor and shame and status.  The ethic of love, as it was and is to be embodied by the confessors of Jesus as Messiah and Lord, is to be overly concerned with neighborliness (such as that which was put on display by what must have been the well-known, though not yet recorded in Lukan form, parable of the Good Samaritan), rather than selfish pursuits (whether social or spiritual) that would only serve to divide and to corrupt the purity that Jesus expects to be on display through the table-based, community informing, fellowshipping witness of His church. 

Now, this is not to diminish the operation of the spiritual gifts, as Paul does say “Pursue love and be eager for spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy” (14:1).  However, Paul wants to make it clear that the exercise of spiritual gifts is not for the cultivation of a private spirituality or a “personal relationship with God” (though these are certainly side benefits), but for the benefit of the community in which they are exercised.  This is made patently obvious when we read (hear) “For the one speaking in a tongue does not speak to people but to God, for no one understands; he is speaking mysteries by the Spirit.  But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouragement, and consolation.  The one who speaks in a tongue builds himself up, the one who prophesies builds up the church” (14:4). 

This is not the place for a discourse concerning the nature of speaking in tongues, or of what is meant by prophecy, but it is the place to point out that Paul does indicate that there should be a desire to prophesy, setting this over speaking in tongues.  The reason given is that prophecy “builds up the church,” whereas tongues does not.  However, we also hear this along with the insistence that “I wish you all spoke in tongues, but even more that you would prophesy” (14:5a).  Why is this?  Because “The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets so that the church may be strengthened” (14:5b).  Here, Paul makes it fairly clear that the true value of speaking in tongues, especially when the exercise of spiritual gifts is directed towards the edification of the community in the operation of mutual and self-sacrificial love, is in the strengthening of the church, which occurs when interpretation occurs.  The gift of tongues is perverted when it becomes a measuring stick for spirituality (just as any gift of the spirit is perverted when it becomes a measuring stick for spirituality), especially if it leads to artificial and damaging hierarchies and stratifications within the church, thereby causing the church to look no different than the on-looking world.  The only difference is that the seats at the table are determined by the abuse of that which comes from the Spirit of Christ.  Surely, this is the type of thing that would make our Lord want to vomit! 

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Letter To Laodicea (part 88)

Once again, lest we entertain the notion that it borders on folly to continue to bring the meal table into the discussion as we consider these chapters of Romans (and 1 Corinthians), we find ourselves justified in so doing as we see the fourteenth chapter begin with “Now receive the one who is weak in the faith, and do not have disputes over differing opinions.  One person believes in eating everything, but the weak person eats only vegetables.  The one who eats everything must not despise the one who does not, and the one who abstains must not judge the one who eats everything, for God has accepted him” (14:1-3).  Separated from the meal table, this becomes a complicated exercise of mental abstraction, productive of all manner of opinions.  When placed at the meal table, in full knowledge of the importance of the meal table and its social significance, this becomes an avenue for the expression of neighborly love (13:9-10). 

We are forced to continue making sense of Paul’s words in this chapter in relation to the meal table, as we go on to read “The one who eats, eats for the Lord because he gives thanks to God, and the one who abstains from eating abstains for the Lord, and he gives thanks to God” (14:6b).  Ideally, each person views the eating of the others at the table, not with eyes of suspicion, as if there is some type of pursuit of honor occurring (whether it is being attempted through eating or not eating), but with the eyes of love.  It is these eyes---eyes connected to a transformed mind (12:2), that will allow all to put aside selfish notions and see the actions of others, whether this is completely true or not, as being part of their thankfulness to God for their being allowed to participate in His kingdom.  Continuing in the milieu of the Christian meal table, and continuing to hear these words along with the original hearers who would have been hearing them while at the meal table (thus increasing the poignancy of the letter), Paul continues with “But you who eat vegetables only---why do you judge your brother or sister?  And you who eat everything---why do you despise your brother or sister?” (14:10a)  Remember, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor” (13:10a), and in regards to the social implications of the meal table, words like “Do not be conformed to this world” (12:2a) would still be freshly ringing in their ears. 

Emphasizing his point and the crucial nature of the table of Christian fellowship, making for a tremendously useful hermeneutical structure that will serve us well when considering the Laodicean church, Paul goes on to write “I know and an convinced in the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean in itself” (14:14a).  This use of “Lord” in the phrase “in the Lord Jesus,” because of the conceptions associated with the use of “Lord” under Roman rule (the Caesar) is a clear reminder of the established kingdom of God.  Its usage at this point reminds the hearers that all that has been said, and all that will be said, when prefaced or contexted by “the Lord,” or “Lord Jesus,” must be understood within the parameters of the universal Lordship of Jesus and His kingdom.  When heard at a meal, or used in conjunction with references to meal practices, images of the messianic banquet are conjured to the imagination.  Continuing on then, we read “still, it is unclean to the one who considers it unclean.  For if your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer walking in love.  Do not destroy by your food someone for whom Christ died.  Therefore do not let what you consider good be spoken of as evil” (14:14b-16). 

By now, we should find attempts to extract these statements about food from their appropriate setting, which is the church’s regular practice of the messianic banquet, or of that which represents the messianic banquet, to be an impossibility.  They must be understood, not as guidelines for eating, but as the outworking of self-sacrificial love that first seeks what is best for one’s neighbor, thus fulfilling the law (serving as an identity marker for the people of God, which was the way that Paul used and referred to “the law”).  With our understanding of the social significance of meals, and of what meals communicated to those that were given the chance to view them, the church was forced to recognize that their conduct at meals was an extraordinarily vocal (though voiceless) witness to those in positions of observation, as those that identified themselves as citizens of a different kingdom, who indicated that they were subject to a different King, and who claimed to be able to extend this kingdom and the rule of its King in an entirely different way from that of any kingdom the world had ever seen, were given the regular opportunity to put that kingdom on display.  That display was the meal table, as it was a microcosm of the community, and therefore, of the kingdom represented by that community.  If love and preference for one another was on display, then those who observed (whether observing from afar or observing because they were invited to join in at the table) would see the goodness of that kingdom and its King.  If battles for honor and shame, or false humility, or a lack of preferential treatment, or obvious judging in trivial matters was on display at that table, then what should be seen as good would end up being spoken of as evil, and the advancing kingdom would be stopped dead in its tracks. 

The church was never to lose sight of the fact that their meal table was so much more than a meal table, but that it represented their King and the rule of His kingdom.  It is for that reason that Paul would write “For the kingdom of God does not consist of food and drink, but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit” (14:17).  Expressions of love, birthed out of the Spirit of God that is present whenever people are calling Jesus Lord, whether in word or deed, are what create a meal table (a communion).  It is for this reason that “the one who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by people” (14:18).  To all of this, as he writes to this mixed audience of Jew and Gentile, Paul adds, “So then, let us pursue what makes for peace and for building up one another.  Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food.  For although all things are clean, it is wrong to cause anyone to stumble by what you eat.  It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything that causes your brother to stumble” (14:19-21), with this stumbling connected to the expression of the kingdom of God through His people, rather than that brother’s cultivation of personal holiness (though holiness, as we tend to think of it, is a by-product of a constant concern for the compassionate expression of Christ’s rule).            

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Letter To Laodicea (part 87)

It is worthwhile to re-read this section as a whole so that we can frame it within a statement made very early in this letter to the Romans.  Paul writes “Pay everyone what is owed: taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. Owe no one anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.  For the commandments, ‘Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not cove,’ (and if there is any other commandment) are summed up in this, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  Love does no wrong to a neighbor.  Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (13:7-10). 

Because this is a mixed congregation of both Jews and Gentiles, we can surmise that Paul’s use of “the law” would be well understood to be those basic provisions of the law (circumcision, Sabbath keeping, food regulations, refraining from worship of idols) that served as identity markers for Jews, and were constant points of contention and division in the early church.  Knowing this allows us to see how the unity and actions of love outlined and encouraged in chapter twelve come into play.  In addition to that, as we continue to consider that this is a letter that will be read to a gathered church at a single sitting, we hearken back to a very early statement in the letter, wherein Paul uses the phrase “from faith to faith” (1:17). 

This simple statement sees Paul borrowing from the imperial propaganda of the day, which presents Caesar as the supreme benefactor.  The statement implies that Caesar is faithful to his subjects, providing them with peace and security, and therefore his subjects are faithful and loyal to him and to Rome.  We must hear the words of the thirteenth chapter with such words and thoughts in mind, in the knowledge that Paul is presenting Jesus as the actual supreme benefactor, of which the Caesar is merely a parody.  All civic interactions proceed within this framework, and the self-sacrificial love modeled by Jesus, which saw Him go to the cross (unconcerned with the shame because of the honor He trusted would come), becomes the model upon which the life of the Christian community is based (unconcerned with shame because of the honor that comes with what counts as the fulfillment of the law, thereby marking one out as a member of the people of God and a participant in His kingdom). 

From here, Paul advances again towards the meal table, which it is clear that he has in mind, as he goes on to write “Let us live decently as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in discord and jealousy” (13:13).  Though it is not meant to serve as an accusation, this is language that should remind us of the symposium, and as it is possible that this church is hearing this letter while gathered for fellowship that will include a meal, the language would not be lost on them either.  It is to this then that Paul adds “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to arouse its desires” (13:14).  We do a great disservice to the apostle if we simply substitute personal and subjective notions of “the flesh” here, rather than considering “the flesh” within the context of the potential for disunity, division, stratification, and unwarranted authoritarianism within the church. 

We must also take this statement into consideration in the context of the dissertation regarding the Christian’s responsibilities towards governing authorities.  A desire of the flesh might be, because one considers himself or herself to be part of the kingdom of God, to cast off all restraint and disregard governing authorities.  This was obviously a real possibility, which would account for Paul’s insistence that such authorities are “God’s servant for your good” (13:4a), and that it is “necessary to be in subjection” (13:5a)  (Note: Though democracies did exist, Paul does not have knowledge of a government that is constituted by “We the people,” such as to be found with the United States of America; so it is incumbent upon all generations of Christians, the world over, to understand Paul’s words in context and then to work out the implications of those words within their own time and place, guided by the dictates of the existing kingdom of heaven.) 

Rather than thinking about putting on the Lord Jesus Christ in the context of the cultivation of private spirituality, the understanding of putting on of the Lord Jesus Christ should be shaped, and processed horizontally and outwardly, by embodying the transformational, kingdom-of-God-contexted love that was put on display by Jesus throughout the entirety of His mission, culminating in the cross.  This would certainly serve to quell any fleshly desires that might be manifested (separations based on honor and shame) or discussed (open rebellion against Rome that could result in the taking up of arms and the discrediting of the Jesus movement) at the meal table, thus resulting in a life of true holiness (a life laid on the altar of sacrifice in service to God).  

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Letter To Laodicea (part 86)

Peering into the thirteenth chapter of Romans, Paul extends his discourse on the nature of the love that will be exercised within the Christian community, writing “Owe no one anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law” (13:8).  This statement takes into consideration the pervasive structure of the debtor society of the Greco-Roman world, while it also seems to address the attendant and entrenched system of patronage and benefaction.  Those that are instructed to “Owe no one anything” are encouraged to take the necessary steps to free themselves from the encumbrances of debt, and therefore free themselves from having to acquire a benefactor, as slipping into or maintaining such cultural norms will diminish the impact of the Christian community as a force for societal transformation, which can also have deleterious effects on the Christian meal table. 

The Christian, Paul would surely insist, is to be the patron of only one benefactor, that being Jesus, thus allowing the Christian to take the position of being a loving and altruistic benefactor to his community, his country, and to the world, as an enthusiastic representative of the kingdom of God.  When we consider the context in which Paul delivers the statement of verse eight, we see that he began with “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.  For there is no authority except by God’s appointment, and the authorities that exist have been instituted by God” (13:1).  This is the paradoxical situation of the Christian.  Yes, the confessed member of the body of Christ owes his allegiance to the kingdom of God, and yes, the Christian message is quite subversive in that it recognizes Jesus as the King of kings.  However, the Christian lives with a tension, recognizing “God’s appointment” of authorities.  That paradoxical tension of respectful subversiveness is well explicated by the second Psalm, which provides an example to be followed by the people of God and the nature of their interaction with governing authorities.  There we find God’s people saying “So now, you kings, do what is wise; you rulers of the earth, submit to correction!  Serve the Lord in fear!  Repent in terror.  Give sincere homage!  Otherwise He will be angry, and you will die because of your behavior, when His anger quickly ignites” (2:10-12a). 

Undoubtedly, this is directed firstly to the kings of Israel, and then by extension, to the kings of the earth as God’s people take up their role to be a shining light to the nations that do indeed exemplify divine blessing, with a desire to be continuous extensions of the positive end of the Abrahamic covenant.  Such is neatly summed up by the last part of verse twelve of the second Psalm, in which we read “How blessed are all who take shelter in him!”  It is in this light, the light of love and the opportunity to be a legitimate and well-received voice to those rulers that are in need of submission to the imperial claims of Jesus, that Paul writes “For this reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants devoted to governing.  Pay everyone what is owed: taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due” (13:6-7). 

As we read about “respect” and “honor,” we must remember the culture of honor and shame, and understand this part of what Paul is saying accordingly.  Naturally, if the Christian has complied with his duty to be a voice to the rulers, doing good so as to receive their commendation (13:3b), with this doing of good the language of public benefaction, and if the church has been complicit in its responsibilities to care for orphans, widows, lepers (sick), and the poor, then the governing authorities will be able to restrict the scope of its activities to being “God’s servant to administer retribution on the wrongdoer” (13:4b), rather than engaging in all manners of activities with which the Christian will find disagreeable.  This then, allows the Christian to pay taxes with a clear conscience, properly acknowledging God’s provision of those charged with government functions. 

Of course, this also bears on the responsibility of the church to communicate the words of one who preached the kingdom of God, as in the Gospel of Luke we find it recorded of John the Baptist that “Tax collectors also came to be baptized, and they said to him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’  He told them, ‘Collect no more than you are required to.’” (3:12-13).  The idea that tax collectors would collect only that which they were required to collect would have been quite the radical notion in that day, as it was well understood that tax collectors, quite simply, collected more than what was required, lining their pockets and enriching themselves with the excess.  Yes, this issue of government and taxes, as presented by Paul, must be understood within the context of the church’s responsibility to embody the love of God by effectively preaching the Gospel of the kingdom and living out in their own community the principles of that kingdom.  If a government, on this side of the cross, has become oppressive, with oppression generally linked to high levels of taxation (while we understand that the average person under the Roman empire paid well over half of their income---in the course of a subsistence lifestyle---in taxes, with this often leading to debt and ultimately slavery, which brings in the issue of “owe no one anything”), then the church of Christ need only look at itself and its failure to remain true to Jesus’ message of the advent of the kingdom of God, and of God’s desire to bring the rule of heaven to earth, as it has most likely retreated into an escapist fixation that limits the acceptance of Jesus’ challenging and world-altering message to going to heaven when one dies.