Monday, February 28, 2011

Water Into Wine (part 4 of 4)

The head steward, as indicated by the presentation of the author of the text, realizes the dynamics that are now at play.  It is interesting that we are provided with the information that the head steward of the feast did not know the source of the wine (John 2:9), and it is upon tasting the wine that he is spurred into action.  The actions that follow, usually interpreted as his commendation of the bridegroom, can only be so interpreted outside the context of cultural meal practice and the social constructs that are on display in the meal.  The head steward, thinking about all of the problems that have now been presented to both him and the bridegroom due to the revelation of this new and better wine at the end of the meal, must take quick action on his own behalf, so as to preserve his own honor and standing in the community.  If he does not, it is he that runs the risk of being shamed, and this is what we see being played out, through the text, before our eyes. 

The head steward, of course, is the master of the feast.  Chief among his duties would be the duty to see to it that the most honored guests had received the best wine and the best food.  Now, unbeknownst to him, the best wine is going to go to the guests at the lower end of the honor spectrum, which would mean that he had not done his job, thus he would be shamed.  Thinking quickly, he goes to the bridegroom and says, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the cheaper wine when the guests are drunk.  You have kept the good wine until now!” (2:10)  Again, we must not think of this as simply a matter of the head steward offering praise to the bridegroom.  It is actually the head steward’s attempt to shift the negative reactions that are sure to come, along with the associated dishonor, on to the bridegroom and away from himself. 

If we were to have been present at the feast (and if the two protagonists of the scene were speaking English), we would more than likely hear the head steward put a great deal of emphasis on the word “you” when he says “You have kept the good wine until now!”  This is an attempt at self-preservation.  The head steward is protecting himself.  We can almost be sure that this was said in the hearing of the honored guests, so that when the new and better wine begins to be enjoyed by those who would normally have received the inferior wine, the honored guests, who are now the insulted guests, will see that the head steward recognized the problems inherent in the situation.  The head steward wanted to position himself as being more concerned with the honor of these sure-to-be-offended guests than was the bridegroom, so that if and when the bridegroom relieved him of his duties as head steward, due to the public shaming that was now sure to be coming to the bridegroom because of the very words of the head steward, he would be welcomed into the home of one of these other guests and charged with similar types of duties. 

Now it may seem as if the head steward is acting dishonorably here, but that would be over-reading the situation and ignoring a key feature provided by the text.  It is clear that the head steward did not know the source of the new wine.  The text is clear in its indication that he did not know, though the servants knew (2:9), while ironically also knowing that they were going to be the ones that got to drink the new wine, as the insulted guests would not lower themselves to drink the wine that was being provided to the servants and those at the tail end of the table service structure. 

Now, to help further explain the head steward’s words and actions towards the bridegroom, we need to bear in mind that as far as he is concerned, it is indeed the bridegroom that has provided this new wine.  This is truly the only reasonable assessment at hand.  If so, then for some reason, the bridegroom has gone behind the back of the head steward and colluded against him in this area, in an attempt to make him look bad before the community.  Also, the head steward would be completely justified in thinking that, for some reason, the bridegroom was making an overt attempt to dishonor his honored guests by purposely not providing them with the best wine.  The head steward, apparently, is not only not willing to let this blame be put on him, thereby letting the scheming bridegroom off the hook, he is also not willing to go along with the dis-honoring that he sees taking place. 

Finally, and though we should not push things too far in this area, we note that the wine was produced in the “six stone water jars… for Jewish ceremonial washing” (2:6b).  For reasons of purity, ceremonial washing was very important.  These ceremonial washings may have been limited to the hands, but we can also think of the incident in the seventh chapter of Luke, in which Jesus, while a woman is washing His feet with her hair, mentions to Simon that He had not had his feet washed when He entered Simon’s house.  So it is within the realm of possibility that these jars had been the jars employed in the washing of the guests hands and feet as they arrived for wedding feast.  If so, then the servants of the house would have been employed in this process, assisting the attendees in the process of washing, and perhaps even doing the washing themselves.  It is these servants then, who will be drinking the best wine from out of their jars of service.  With this, we can see the first becoming last (because they refuse to drink the better wine being served at the end of the meal), while the last become first (as those who had been relegated to the end of the meal now drink the finest wine).  As we entertain this thought, it is quite useful to hear the author say “Jesus did this as the first of His miraculous signs” (2:11a), with the first becoming last and the last becoming first.  “In this way He revealed His glory” (2:11b) and the advent of the kingdom of God.

Water Into Wine (part 3 of 4)

Now, all of this is not to say that we do not have a lavishly generous and unexpectedly gracious God.  It is not to say that we are unable to draw inferences from the events in the life of Jesus that will assist us in our spirit-animated journey of faith as functionaries in this world on behalf of God’s kingdom.  It is to say, however, that if we miss the real world importance of the life of Jesus, and if we do not first set these stories within their historical, cultural, and social contexts, and make every effort to first understand them on their own terms as they would be understood by those who experienced them first-hand, then we are most likely going to miss out on the true theological richness that lies ready at hand, as Jesus does go about revealing God.  We must not skip over the fact that this is, first and foremost, a real-world event happening to and with real-world people with real-world customs and concerns.

It has been previously said that Jesus created a problematic situation.  What was that situation?  Why was it problematic?  Was it a problem for Jesus?  To answer the last question first, we can say “no,” it was not a problem for Jesus at all, at least directly.  It could be an indirect source of problems for Him, which we’ll be able to understand as we make our analysis.  So it was not a problem for Jesus, but rather, it was a problem for the bridegroom, who was the host of the meal.  How was it a problem for him?  One would think that Jesus had solved a problem, rather than created one, but reaching that conclusion would be unfortunately short-sighted.  At least initially, we might think that the bridegroom would be appreciative of Jesus’ actions, as He intervenes to “save” the party by our customary way of thinking, but we shall quickly disabuse ourselves of this notion. 

We should not look at the fact that His mother presents the information that the party had run out of wine as indicative of a problem that the bridegroom would be looking to rectify, as the fact that they had run out of wine would be of no real concern to either the head steward of the party or the bridegroom.  Running out of food and wine was a common occurrence.  Sometimes, people who were slated for service later in the function would receive nothing at all, and this was accepted as part of the meal culture.  It might very well be the case that Jesus, His mother, and His disciples were going to be part of the group that would not have received any wine, as they were probably sitting at the “wrong end” of the table.  With this in mind then, and this has been said before, we need to look at this as a situation into which she believed Jesus would want to enter, based upon what she knew about her Son, and about His conception of the kingdom of God which He preached.  We might even be able to surmise an intrusion of her own sense of His status as Messiah, and based upon that, her interpretation of the great messianic banquet of Isaiah, with this interpretation possibly informed by Jesus’ own thoughts on such (though this is pure and unsupported speculation). 

Again, the fact that there is no wine is not a problem.  Why is that?  It is not a problem because the bridegroom would, presumably, though he would have some type of concern for the enjoyment of all of his guests, be most concerned with providing wine and food to the most honored guests.  As the service of food and wine reached further and further away from his seat and that of his honored guests, so too would his concern with their provisions recede.  As long as a certain group of individuals had been able to eat and drink to their heart’s content, all was well, and the wedding feast would be looked upon as a success. 

Additionally, it must be pointed out that the bridegroom was now going to gain stature in the community due to the fact of his marriage.  We can couple that with a successful wedding feast, which would also contribute to his enhanced stature in the community.  Because Jesus has done what He has done, this is now at risk of being undone.  The bridegroom, while he is lounging at the banqueting couch with his honored guests, is being unknowingly put at risk of a diminished stature in the community.  How is this so?  It is because the best wine is now being served, at the end of the banquet.  Rather than looking upon this as an act of considerable generosity and thoughtfulness on the behalf of this bridegroom, which we are prone to do, this would be perceived as a slight to his honored guests.  Questions would arise.  Why did they not receive this wine?  Why were they not good enough to receive these superior libations?  It would be wondered why the bridegroom was mocking his guests in this way.  Rather than being enjoyed by the elites of the community, the best wine is now going to be enjoyed by the servants and less honored guests, thus putting them on the same level as the honored guests, or worse, elevating them above the honored guests, which could be perceived as an insult to honor, thereby becoming a source of conflict.  

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Water Into Wine (part 2 of 4)

A Latin poet named Martial, who lived just a few years after the time of Jesus, provides us with yet another interesting picture of the honor and shame culture that played out at the banqueting tables of the ancient world.  From his work we read: “Since I am asked to dinner… why is not the same dinner served to me as to you?  You take oysters fattened in the Lucrine lake, I suck a mussel through a hole in the shell; you get mushrooms, I take hog funguses; you tackle turbot, but I brill.  Golden with fat, a turtle-dove gorges you with its bloated rump; there is set before me magpie that has died in its cage.  Why do I recline with you?”  It is easy to observe that there is a significant dichotomy of quality at work here.  By now, can we not begin to make the mental analogy to Jesus’ conversion of water into wine? 

As we consider what has been reported by both Pliny and Martial, and as we attempt to thrust ourselves into that foreign and ancient world of which we know woefully little, would we not find ourselves amazed---indeed, would not all those in attendance at such a function find themselves amazed if the best food and the premium wine was served at the end of the banquet?  Yes, we would, because such a thing would be a scandalous reversal of the expectations of those in attendance.  Is that not what happens in Cana?  Let’s look at the text, doing so with a far better mental framework by which to gain proper context as we do.  Remember, Jesus was initially unconcerned, but eventually involves Himself in the situation that has been brought to His attention by His mother.  When He finally gets involved, “Jesus told the servants, ‘Fill the water jars with water.’  So they filled them up to the very top.  Then He told them, ‘Now draw some out and take it to the head steward,’ and they did.  When the head steward tasted the water that had been turned to wine, not knowing where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), he called the bridegroom and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the cheaper wine when the guests are drunk.  You have kept the good wine until now!’” (John 2:7-10) 

As we read this passage, let us be sure to avoid falling into the trap of thinking about parties in contemporary terms, thereby applying anachronisms or ideas too broadly that might naturally occur to us.  This is not an issue of simply throwing a party, making sure that everybody at the party gets the good drinks first, and then, once everybody at the entire party is drunk, bringing out the lower quality beverages, doing so at a time when people are less likely to care what they are imbibing.  This is, quite simply, not the situation at hand in Cana.  There is an order of quality and an order of service, with the best food, and the largest amount of food, along with the best and largest amount of wine, going to the more honored or honorable guests, with the guests at the far end of the table, and therefore at the lower end of the social spectrum, left with items of much lower quality.

Jesus has created a problematic situation for all involved.  This should not be overlooked.  We tend to romanticize the words of Scripture that we have just read, looking at them through goggles that distort the image that would have been easily seen and obvious to the first century author, reader, and hearer.  That distorted image has us seeing and hearing the head steward going to the bridegroom and offering him a compliment in regards to his generosity and his unexpected grace, which is put on display by lavishing the best wine upon his guests at the end of his party, clearly sparing no expense in so doing.  From there, we make an analogy about the grace of God, as shown through Jesus, and perhaps even toss around a couple of ideas about the law as good wine, gifted by God, whereas the Gospel is an even better wine that has been saved for the end, therefore placing Jesus in the role of head steward, God the Father as the obviously generous bridegroom, with the servants that filled the purification jars (now clearly representing the strictures of the law---with an associated new wine versus old wineskin paradigm) representing the church, and the historical Jesus that speaks to the servants now functioning as more of a Holy Spirit figure, commanding the servants (the church). 

This sets off something of a spiritualized, proof-texting binge in which we take this miracle and fold it up with other miracle reports in the Gospels as little more than evidences of the divinity of Jesus, as if the Gospels were merely meant to function in such a way.  In an even more entertaining venture, some attempt to use this event as Jesus’ own approbation of drinking alcoholic beverages, as if this occurrence was God’s way of legitimating a questionable activity.  Amazingly, and in the same vein, some individuals, with equally narrow fields of vision as those who actually want to use this event as a sanction for the drinking of wine, endeavor to employ the miracle at this wedding feast as a polemic against the drinking of alcohol.  As surprising and antithetical as that may sound, the claim is made with the argument running along the lines of “because the wine was new, it had not had time to ferment and was therefore non-alcoholic, meaning that it was nothing more than grape juice, which is Jesus’ (and therefore God’s) way of informing us that this, since this ‘wine’ (though it’s really just grape juice) is clearly recognized as being better than what had gotten everybody drunk to that point, this is what God would prefer His people imbibe from this point.”  Both sides, of course, are equally ridiculous.  Any attempts to draw inferences for Christian practice in the area of beverage consumption from this miraculous intervention by Jesus and its presentation by the author of John, is an exercise in missing the point. 

Water Into Wine (part 1 of 4)

Now on the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee. – John 2:1a  (NET)

At the beginning of this story, we find that “Jesus and His disciples” (John 2:2a) were invited to this wedding and its associated feast.  Quickly, we encounter the fact that there was a problem, which was that “the wine ran out” (2:3a).  For some reason, this was of some concern to Jesus’ mother, so she took it upon herself to inform Him that “They have no wine left” (2:3b).  Apparently, there was something about Jesus’ personality and character that caused His mother to think that Jesus would be interested in addressing this pressing issue.  Jesus’ mother believed that Jesus would fix this problem. 

At least initially, Jesus does not sense that this is an issue in which He wants to involve Himself, saying, “Woman, why are you saying this to Me?  My time has not yet come” (2:4).  Even though Jesus says this, Mary believes, with this apparently based on what she knows about her Son, that He is going to do something.  She “told the servants, ‘Whatever He tells you, do it.’” (2:5)  Most likely, though one knows not how long, some time elapsed between the time at which Mary speaks to the servants and Jesus’ act of intervention in the problem at hand.  Eventually, and though we are not necessarily provided with an overt reason, Jesus is spurred into action.  For some reason, though He had seemed uninterested when first told of the wine shortage, Jesus takes action to correct the situation. 

Why is the fact that there is no wine a problem?  Why is Mary concerned with this?  Why does she think Jesus will be interested in involving Himself?  Why does the author of this Gospel see fit to include this story?  The answers to these questions come through an examination of the setting and the culture.  In the end, this becomes an opportunity for Jesus to provide instruction to those in attendance, and ultimately, the author of John finds it useful to include this story because it serves to provide elucidating information about the nature of Jesus’ kingdom and His mission. 

In order to understand the goings-on here in Cana, we must take it upon ourselves to understand the nature of feasts in the world occupied by Jesus.  When it came to feasts, there were rules in place for the table.  Meals were, for all practical purposes, miniaturized pictures of the society, and there were rules (unwritten) governing association and socialization.  The positioning of guests around a table was a demonstration of social hierarchy and political differentiation.  What was quite common in the ancient world, which we can safely presume was present at this particular meal as a matter of course, was a u-shaped table known as a “triclinium.”  Banquets were organized around this table, using dining couches, with the host sitting at the center of the bottom of the “u”, with the two most prominent positions to the right and to the left of the host.  Accordingly, the least honorable seats would be located at the end of the table.  Thus, the banquet table in the ancient world would be an effective microcosm of the stratifications of the existing social order.

So how does this visible social stratification at the banqueting table have any bearing on Jesus turning the water into wine?  It has much to do with the “when” of the miracle.  To understand the significance of what has happened, and to continue layering in levels of understanding, we’ll need to do some historical contextualizing so as to recover an aspect of the ancient world and its feasts that has been almost completely lost in the western world.  To do so, we turn first to Pliny the younger, a magistrate of ancient Rome, who lived from the late first century into the early second century.  He wrote about feasts and community meals in and before his day, and his report speaks to the social order that is demonstrable in the service progressions in the meals.  In reference to a meal at which he was an honored guest, Pliny writes: “Some very elegant dishes were served up to himself and a few more of the company; while those which were placed before the rest were cheap and paltry.  He apportioned in small flagons three different sorts of wines; but it was not that the guests might take their choice: on the contrary, that they might not choose at all.  One was for himself and me; the next for his friends of lower order (for you must know the measures of friendship according to degrees of quality; and the third for his own free men.” 

What Pliny here describes is quite common, and we can see how this report might be applied to the wedding feat at Cana and the turning of the water into wine.  Pliny makes the point that, while there were three different sorts of wines presented to the table, one should not be deluded into thinking that each person at the table was going to be able to choose which of the three wines they were going to take for themselves.  If all were looked upon as equals, this might be the case, but this was not the prevailing situation.  Again, there were clear delineations made between and among guests.  In case the seating position relative to the host was not a sufficient indicator to a person of his societal ranking, the quality of the food and wine which he would find offered to him would be a yet further indicator.  Naturally, the host would have the finest wine and food served to his most honored guests, with the lesser wine served to those that were slightly less honorable (in this honor and shame society), with the poorest quality wine and food offered to those that were the least honorable, who also would have been seated the furthest away from him at the u-shaped table, if they were seated at the table at all. 

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Where Your Treasure Is (part 3 of 3)

This rich man, unfortunately, did not have the proper mindset, as “he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’” (Luke 12:17)  The appropriate response would have been to provide the excess to the poor of the land, but this was not the route that he chose, as we go on to find out that “he said, ‘I will do this; I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.  And I will say to myself, “You have plenty of goods stored up for many years; relax, eat, drink, celebrate!”’” (12:18-19)  Apparently, he also has a portion of Deuteronomy in mind, though it gets twisted and excerpted through his own personal translation.  The crowd that is listening to Jesus understands this rich man with abundant crops that are clearly productive of excess, to have selected portions of the fourteenth chapter of Deuteronomy, reading for himself “When He blesses you… you may spend the money however you wish for cattle, sheep, wine, beer, or whatever you desire.  You and your household may eat… and enjoy it” (14:24a,26a,c). 

They knew that what he should have done was use the excess in such a way that “the resident foreigners, the orphans, and the widows of your villages may come and eat their fill so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work you do” (14:29b).  Unfortunately, he did not choose this path of action, and we find that “God said to him, ‘You fool!  This very night your life will be demanded from you, but who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’” (Luke 12:20)  Jesus punctuates the parable with “So it is with the one who stores up riches for himself, but is not rich toward God” (12:21). 

Shortly thereafter, we hear Jesus saying “So do not be overly concerned about what you will eat and what you will drink, and do not worry about such things… your father knows that you need them” (12:29,30b).  The rich man in the parable had taken this to the opposite extreme, which would have been obvious to Jesus’ audience.  Jesus then brings the story back to His primary concern, which was the rule of God (the coming together of heaven and earth), saying “pursue His kingdom, and these things,” food, drink, clothing (12:28), “will be given to you as well” (12:31). Clearly, the man in the parable was not in pursuit of the kingdom of heaven. 

With this, Jesus has outlined a portion of His vision of the service of the kingdom of heaven.  He says, “Do not be afraid, little flock,” positioning Himself as the shepherd-King of the kingdom, for your Father is well pleased to give you the kingdom” (12:32).  The kingdom of heaven (God’s rule), Jesus says, is not unattainable.  Though it will eventually take a direct action on His part to accomplish a final consummation, God intends to work through His people to make manifest His rule as a foretaste of what is to come.  God’s constant desire has been to move through His people in a way that will cause them to provide witness to the world that He is ultimately Sovereign.  To this end, Jesus’ ministry has been marked by His going “through towns and villages, preaching and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God” (8:1b).  Indeed, the larger witness of the Gospels is that Jesus was insistent that the kingdom of God was at hand. 

Jesus then fills out His thoughts about the appearance that will be taken when the rule of God on earth was made manifest, by saying, in contradiction to storing up one’s abundance for oneself, “Sell your possessions and give to the poor” (12:33a).  This firmly connects these words with the earlier parable, which Jesus introduced by saying “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (12:15b).  In this selling, Jesus’ listeners are informed that they will “Provide yourselves purses that do not wear out---a treasure in heaven that never decreases, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys” (12:33b).  Because Jesus’ use of “heaven” is here framed by His reference to “the kingdom,” we do not imagine a place somewhere off in space.  Rather, we, along with His and Luke’s hearers, imagine the rule of God on earth, and a time in which death has lost its sting, the grave has no victory, and where corruption and decay are no more.  Jesus’ words fit squarely into the vision of a restored creation, which was part and parcel of the conception of the full manifestation of the kingdom of heaven.  It is then that there will be no wearing out, no decrease, no thieves, no moths, and no destruction. 

To this is then added, “For where your treasure is, there you heart will be also” (12:34).  The location of the treasure is firmly ensconced within the vision of the kingdom of heaven.  Selling possessions and giving to the poor, and doing so in recognition of Jesus’ claim of Lordship and of God’s claim on all things, becomes an operation that causes an overlap of heaven and earth.  The treasure, ultimately, because of the selling of possessions, ends up with the poor.  This, of course, in a way that should be of massive interest to anyone that claims an allegiance to Jesus as Lord, is where Jesus was and is to be found.  Though it is not to be found in Luke’s narrative, a substantial component of the Jesus tradition that would have been in the air at the time of Luke’s writing is “Come, you who are blessed by My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.  For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me… I tell you the truth, just as you did it for one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did it for me” (Matthew 25:34b-36,40b).  We not have to wonder at what is implied by these oh so important words.  In providing for the poor, we know the location of our treasure and of our heart, and we stand with Jesus in acknowledgment of His rule and of the presence of God’s kingdom.               

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Where Your Treasure Is (part 2)

Joining with the participants of the early church to and for whom Luke wrote, we now position ourselves as hearers of Luke’s Gospel.  In doing so, we hear “Then someone from the crowd said to Him (Jesus), ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.’” (12:13)  Though we will not touch on the parable here, this statement and the words from Jesus that follow will still be resounding in the ears of an audience well-trained to provide comprehensive attention to an oral-performance-oriented presentation such as is Luke’s narrative, when the fifteenth chapter is reached and they hear “A man had two sons.  The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the estate that will belong to me.’” (15:12a)  The way that the crowd will hear and understand the parable that follows that introduction will not only be shaped by community and cultural norms and traditions, but it will also be shaped by what we see and hear in chapter twelve. 

Back to the request that is made of Jesus, Jesus responds by saying “Man, who made Me a judge or arbitrator between you two?” (12:14)  Though it is not entirely relevant to this particular study, an interesting point can be made here based on Jesus’ response.  As part of Luke’s efforts in his two part series of what came to be called the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, Luke makes the effort to paint Jesus as a Moses-like figure (as does Matthew).  We can see this in Peter’s speech that is recorded in the third chapter of Acts (3:22-26), when Peter references Deuteronomy 18:15, making it clear with what follows that Jesus is the promised prophet like Moses.  Based upon this, it is not inconceivable that Jesus’ question of “who made me a judge or arbitrator between you two,” would cause His hearers to hearken back to the story of Moses and to his attempt to settle a dispute between two of his countrymen.  Though it is Moses that is there rebuffed with a response of “Who made you a ruler and judge over us?” (Exodus 2:14a), Luke’s very subtle point is made. 

Continuing, we hear Jesus say “Watch out and guard yourself from all types of greed, because one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (12:15).  This will be programmatic for what comes later.  With this said, Jesus embarks upon a parable, saying “The land of a certain rich man produced an abundant crop” (12:16b).  With the mention of an abundant crop, and with the shared background of the knowledge of the Levitical/Deuteronomic blessings to be had for adherence to covenant responsibilities, Jesus’ hearers would immediately take this as a sign that this man was blessed by God.  What would or should also come to mind is the passage from Deuteronomy that says “Be sure you do not forget the Lord your God by not keeping His commandments, ordinances, and statutes that I am giving you today.  When you eat your fill, when you build and occupy good houses, when your cattle and flocks increase, when you have plenty of silver and gold and when you have abundance of everything, be sure you do not feel self-important and forget the Lord your God who brought you from the land of Egypt, the place of slavery, and who brought you through the great, fearful desert of venomous serpents and scorpions, an arid place with no water” (8:11-15a). 

Such ideas would not be lost on a people that, though they occupied their promised land, stood under the yoke of Rome, and figuratively at least, were in the place of slavery.  Of course, this was the position of both Ezra and Nehemiah, who gave voice to a mindset that prevailed amongst the people through the hundreds of years following the return from Babylonian captivity and on into Jesus’ day, (contrary to claim of John 8:33 that “we are descendants of Abraham… and have never been anyone’s slaves”) as they insisted that, even though the people of God had re-settled in the land, “we are slaves” (Ezra 9:9, Nehemiah 9:36).  According to what comes next in the eighth chapter of Deuteronomy, Jesus’ hearers would have expected the rich man to adhere to the proviso to “Be careful not to say, ‘My own ability and skill have gotten me this wealth,” and to “remember the Lord your God, for He is the one who gives ability to get wealth” (8:18a). 

Where Your Treasure Is (part 1)

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. – Luke 12:34  (NET)

As is almost always the case, Jesus does not offer up these words as a disconnected aphorism.  Though it can be taken as a truth, it is only taken as such because of the context provided to it by Jesus and the Lukan narrative.  Though we will not here touch on the overall movement of Luke’s Gospel, we dare not make an attempt to rightly comprehend a statement such as this without operating within a mental framework that is consistently cognizant that Luke is telling a story so as to communicate a particular point of view, and that every component of that story is serving a greater end.  That greater end is Jesus’ conception of the kingdom of heaven.  In fact, it is a reflection upon the kingdom of heaven that is the immediate precursor to the series of statements that concludes with “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  To this point, prior to this telling statement, Jesus has said to “pursue His kingdom” (12:31), and that the “Father is well pleased to give you the kingdom” (12:32b). 

Before we move any further, we must be careful not to make the serious mistake of thinking of the kingdom of heaven as something distant, whether that distance be a matter of time or space.  For a Jew such as Jesus, the kingdom of heaven was defined as God’s rule on earth.  Heaven was not the eternally blessed attainment, after death, of a life well-lived.  It is incredibly important to establish such things, as it is incumbent upon us to know what Jesus would have had in mind, along with what His hearers would have had in mind, knowing that they had to share a common verbal and mental vocabulary, so that Jesus might be understood.  The idea of heaven, and the attached idea of an eternal realm to be occupied by disembodied souls, would have been foreign to the religious thought-world of the Israel of Jesus’ day.  As a matter of fact, it would have been heavily resisted, as an alien invader.  It was Greek thought, popularized by Plato, that divided the physical from the spiritual, positing that the physical world was only a shabby reflection of the spiritual world.  Essentially, for the Greeks and for those influenced by Greek thought, physical equaled bad, whereas spiritual equaled good. 

This would not have been the position of one of the covenant people of the Creator God.  They knew that God had created a world that was very good, that the good world He had created had been corrupted, and that God was eventually going to act to not only restore this world to its very good condition, but that His restoring, redeeming operation, which would occur in history, was going to create a world even better than the one that had suffered a fall. 

Heaven was the realm of God’s abode, and the ongoing movement of God that occurred through His people was for the purpose of causing heaven and earth to come together.  When acts in accordance with the covenant responsibilities of the covenant people were performed, such as caring for orphans and widows (an extraordinarily prominent theme throughout the Hebrew Scriptures), that was when heaven and earth were over-lapping and God’s will was being done on earth as in heaven.  The long-sought-after kingdom of heaven was the time when this overlap of the abode of God and the realm of man (the creation in which the creatures made in God’s image dwelt and were called to steward) would finally and completely take place.  When the kingdom of heaven was fully and finally manifest, and God ruled over His redeemed creation, it would then be said that “Death has been swallowed up in victory,” and questions such as “Where, O death, is your victory?  Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:54b-55) could be asked.  The Apostle Paul rightly connects the coming of the kingdom of heaven with the resurrection of the dead, thus indicating, among other things, that this was a feature of first century Jewish thought.     

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Letter To Laodicea (part 120 of 120)

Jesus tells this church that “All those I love, I rebuke and discipline.  So be earnest and repent!” (3:19)  With what has already been said about their need to imitate the other churches in their area and the vomit-inducing and obviously displeasing nature of their practice, as well as the mocking words of “wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked” (which are only mocking to those that are failing to adhere to Jesus’ insistence to provide food, water, clothing, and support to the least while actually considering themselves to be adequately representing their Lord and His kingdom) what follows, when heard within the contextual narrative (both the isolated narrative of this particular letter and the larger narrative of God’s redemptive plan) is obviously going to be quite severe. 

These dreadful words of “Listen! I am standing at the door and knocking,” combined with “If anyone hears My voice,” which may be difficult over the din and commotion of the convivium which probably has a place in their table fellowship, as we have surmised was the case in Corinth, “I will come into his home and share a meal with him, and he with Me,” would be quite telling.  This is where they are failing.  Like a number of other churches, their meal table is corrupted.  For a variety of reason, it is not a representation of the kingdom of God; rather, it is a representation of the world, its power, and its order.  The church’s meal table is designed to teach its participants how to live as the kingdom of God, while showing a watching world what the kingdom of the sovereign and Creator God looks like in action.  It must look different, and it must be part of a process that produces people that look different, as they willingly enter into suffering and shame as need be, in following the ideal of the cross.  This is learned by conscientiously seeking and taking the lowest place amongst those that comprise the people of God, so that such behavior becomes, as previously mentioned, the virtuous practice of those same people when they regularly and constantly encounter those that stand outside of that kingdom, in an exile from what God intends for the creation that is made in His image, and in need of being exodus-ed into the world of resurrection and new creation that is being modeled out by the confessors of Jesus’ Lordship and God’s kingdom.   

As appears to have been the case in Corinth, and probably in the church addressed by James, an unfortunate stratification has taken place in the Laodicean church.  In Corinth, the stratification, and its subsequent ordering of the church based on principles of honor and shame, appeared to be connected to “spiritual gifts.”  For the situation addressed by James, wealth seems to be a factor.  Without again going into the rest of the churches addressed in the New Testament, what we can see here in Laodicea, is that wealth is again the issue.  Clearly, it is behavior that is destructive and damaging to the kingdom and to the church’s witness of its Lord.  Consequently and understandably, it is looked upon as being abhorrent, and the most stern and damning words that are delivered to any of the seven churches of Revelation are directed to the church that is corrupting the meal table.  While other churches receive their criticisms, Laodicea seems to be in a unique position amongst the churches here addressed, and this appears to be the case because it is the church that, because of their corruption of the meal table, stands in the position that most flatly contradicts the ethos of the Gospel as presented by what is a focal point of Jesus’ ministry---the meal table. 

Their contravention of the demands of the Christian meal table (the Lord’s Supper in its fullest, messianic-banquet-themed sense), puts the Laodicean church in the most negative light of any of the other churches to which Jesus speaks in Revelation.  The others have their problems, no doubt, but it is Laodicea (lukewarm) that stands the most condemned and most in need of repentance, while also being instructed to consider the ready-at-hand examples of the meal tables of the churches at Hierapolis (hot) and Colossae (cold), who are apparently, owing to the fact that Jesus wishes that the church at Laodicea would be more like them, are getting the meal table right.  It is quite right that this particular letter has received so much attention, even though much of that attention has been lavished in ways that made no attempt at understanding the message of the letter in its proper context, as it is the one church that receives its rebuke in relation to that which so heavily defines the church, which is its table practice.  

There is social commentary taking place here, and in each case, it is directed first (and only?) to the churches.  This makes sense in light of the fact that Jesus is concerned with the advent of the kingdom of God.  Because His churches are the emissaries of that kingdom, they are charged to learn from Him the ways that they are be its representatives.  That way, of course, is love; and that love is properly learned at a properly modeled meal table.  The weight of the meal table, as a definer of life and relations in the world, simply cannot be over-stressed.  This extensive and necessary study concerning an oft-misunderstood letter from an oft-misunderstood and mis-represented book, while dispelling the popular mythology derived from this abused passage within this abused book, has been an effort to situate the meal table, and its indisputable importance, in its rightful place in the New Testament, while offering the requisite social applications that are demanded by our understanding of the social implications and applications (which gain their significance from the heavily Jewish theological, soteriological, Christological, and eschatological aspects of Jesus’ words and deeds)  of the record of Jesus’ ministry.  Theology, quite simply, must be done, it must be done constantly, and it must be converted to practice.  Jesus’ social commentary was thoroughly rooted in His theology, as the practice of that theology, so often seen at the meal table, was rooted in the His understanding of the kingdom of God.  That said, it is the cross that takes center-stage, especially in the world-shaping and ethic-forming area of meal practice. 

Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to filter all of our considerations as to what it means to live as denizens and citizens of God’s kingdom through the message of the cross, never forgetting the hope embodied by the Resurrection.  As Christians, we must keep the meal table and its importance, especially as we participate in communion, consistently in our minds as we attempt to engage this world that God so loves.  By embodying the cross and taking the lowest place, with that happening first and foremost as we gather together as church bodies and learn how to be the people of God for His world, we will avoid the judgment of being vomited out of God’s kingdom, and we will never hear Jesus telling us that He stands outside of our fellowship, as He is looked upon as unworthy as we jostle for positions of honor and trample upon the ones with whom Jesus identified through His ministry and when He went to the accursed cross.  He will, in contrast to what was told to the church at Laodicea, never have to stand and the door, begging to be present in our churches, and this will be redound to His glory.  How will Jesus be present?  He will be present when we are serving and suffering with the wretched, the pitiful, the poor, the blind, and the naked, for as we serve these, we serve Him.  May God give us ears to hear, always allowing us to hear what the Spirit says to the churches.    

Monday, February 21, 2011

Letter To Laodicea (part 119)

As it relates to those who are informed about their wretchedness, poverty, blindness, and lack of clothes, is this not the example of that early Christian hymn employed by Paul in the letter to the Philippians?  It is quite probable that the hymn would have been well known to the church at Laodicea, and it’s presentation of an exalted Jesus (in the form of God---the Jewish context providing the background for this, as the expected Messiah, and therefore Jesus, was thought to be the physical manifestation of Israel’s God) willfully emptying Himself to take on the form of a slave and going to the lowest of the world’s low places (the cross) before receiving His exaltation (His Resurrection and His rule).  If we rightly understand the use of “first as last” and “last as first” terminology within the world of Jesus and the early church, take into consideration how a banqueting table provided information about the community that participated at the banquet, and rightly apply the Jewish worldview that Jesus presented and by which the church developed, then we can see that mimicking this pattern is Jesus’ expectation. 

If Jesus, as the first, becomes last, ultimately becoming first again in relation to the kingdom of God, then so too should all that claim Him as Lord and thereby signal a participation in that kingdom, willfully become last, thereby becoming first (in a sense) because they represent the kingdom of the Creator God.  Though this will continue to have the appearance of being last to watching world, they also become first because of the kingdom that is not at work and because of the resurrection to come.  Here, in order to make a bit more sense of these thoughts, we can bring in a statement from the first chapter of Revelation, as the recipients of the writing are reminded that Jesus “has appointed us as a kingdom, as priests serving His God and Father” (1:6a).     

It is this issue of becoming last---a servant of all and a slave of all---that makes it so difficult for those who have wealth to enter into the kingdom of God, and it is this component of the Jesus tradition (probably being circulated in a standardized, written format at the time of the writing of the Revelation), that is providing context for Jesus’ chastisement of this church that is located in an extraordinarily wealthy city.  Based on what we know about Laodicea and its important position and its wealth, along with the words herein employed within a wider context of the church’s mission and the Jesus tradition, this is not a stretch in the least little bit.  Significantly, we’ve allowed ourselves to stay firmly rooted in the social context, hearing the words of the letter as would the recipients of other New Testament era letters---applying the words to the immediate situation within the church so as to grasp the immediate issues while extracting the wider truths and ethic therein revealed, doing so within the shared and developing Jesus tradition and church doctrine that were fundamentally shaped by Jewish expectations concerning the messianic banquet, the resurrection of the righteous dead, and the kingdom of God on earth.

Taking up the issue of imitating the practice of those that came before them, as did Israel when they entered in upon what was, for all practical purposes, their kingdom of God, and doing so within the context provided by the letter to Laodicea, leads us directly to the meal table.  The history of Israel presents a full engagement in the practices and customs of the previous occupants of their land.  Exile (vomiting out) was the result.  As we consider this, keeping the vomiting in mind along with its Levitical pretense, the context for the letter to Laodicea, together with the context of the honor and shame culture, and the context of the early church’s highly significant development of the Jesus-derived egalitarian meal table as fundamental for faith and practice, leads us by the hand to interpreting the crucial text in the blinding light of the messianic-banquet-infused ideals of the church’s meal table.   

It has been our position that, due to the centrality of the meal table as the tangible demonstration of the presence of the kingdom of God because of the importance of messianic banquet considerations along with the example of Jesus’ table fellowship, that important communications in relation to the faith and to their witness for that kingdom would have been heard at a table gathering.  Based on the record of the Gospels and the table-oriented language employed in the New Testament’s letters, this is not far-fetched in the least.  Therefore, this is the setting in which we presume the Laodiceans to have heard the letter addressed to them, and indeed, the setting from which they and the other churches would have heard the whole of the Revelation.  So we can only imagine the perking of the ears when Jesus chastises them in a way that has not really been heard in the previous six letters (though there are chastisements to be sure), and then goes on to say to a kingdom community that, like other churches, properly oriented themselves around the meal table as a primary confession of their adherence to the Gospel, “Listen!  I am standing at the door and knocking!  If anyone hears My voice and opens the door I will come into his home and share a meal with him, and he with Me” (3:20).  These words would be dreadful to hear, as the listeners would hear Jesus telling them that He is not presently a component of their table fellowship that is supposed to represent the messianic banquet.        

Letter To Laodicea (part 118)

So the vomiting takes on a duly important aspect in the letter to Laodicea.  It serves to inform this church that they are doing that which has been practiced by others before them.  By this, they are also informed, as we hearken back to that which we learned about the usage of “hot” and “cold” in the fifteenth verse of Revelation three (references to the cities of Hierapolis and Colossae, and by extension to the churches in those communities), that those church communities are performing in a way that is pleasing to Jesus.  By saying “I wish you were either cold or hot” (3:15b), the Laodicean church is being asked to emulate that which is taking place in the churches at Hierapolis and Colossae.  The use of “lukewarm” in the sixteenth verse, by way of reminder, is simply a roundabout way of identifying Laodicea.  Effectively, Jesus is telling them that their doing something the way that they are doing it, contrary to the ready examples that they have in two other nearby church communities, is unacceptable. 

Clearly, the church community at Laodicea believes themselves to be quite special.  It would appear that, in this case, there are some wealthy individuals in the church, which is not problematic in and of itself.  However, allowing cherished non-church-community ideals to infect the church and its fellowship is highly problematic.  The church, of course, while taking the full measure of its cultural context, attempts to shift their community’s culture in the direction of the cross, recognizing above all the sovereign claim of God’s kingdom and its consequent demand on those that confess allegiance to its King.  The church, which is identified within its community by its fellowship, is not to be overrun by a dominating social ethos in such a way that it begins to reflect society back on itself.  If the church is reflecting the values and ethics of the community in which it is to be found, then unless that community is one that is predominantly shaped by an abiding concern for the kingdom of God, then that church is going to be quite handicapped in its ability to reflect the glory of God into the world. 

The world, of course, is the new world that began taking shape at the Resurrection.  Just as a people of God was sent into a promised land to live in a certain way that God desired and to redeem that land as the firstfruits of a redeemed humanity and creation, so too are the people of God following the Resurrection, and in the transformative power of the Spirit and the Gospel confession, delivered into their promised land (now the entire creation), to live as their God desires, as the firstfruits of a redeemed humanity and a redeemed cosmos.  We see this concept at play with what comes next in the text, when Jesus, referencing His desire to vomit them out of His mouth because they are mimicking the inhabitants of the land, when they should be mimicking the churches of Hierapolis and Colossae.  When Jesus says, “Because you say, ‘I am rich and have acquired great wealth, and need nothing’” (3:17a), He lets them know that the grand claim and accompanying attitude of the city of Laodicea following the earthquake that leveled their city, that they needed no help or funds from Rome to rebuild, had infiltrated their church.  This is what lets us know that there were very likely some wealthy individuals to be found in the church (and perhaps they were preaching a very early version of the “prosperity gospel”?).  Again, this is not a problem unless the presence of the wealth leads to ungainly results, such as we can see in the letter of James, in which the wealthy are treated better simply within the church and afforded greater honor (in the honor and shame culture) simply because of the fact of their wealth. 

Lest they become too puffed up with their wealth, which would have been gained through their business of money exchange for the region (3:18a), their sale of high-end clothing made from the black wool for which Laodicea was famous (3:18b), or the sale of their eye salve (3:18c), Jesus lets them know that they are actually “wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked” (3:17b), and encourages them to “take My advice and buy gold from Me refined by fire so you can become rich!  Buy from Me white clothing so you can be clothes and your shameful nakedness will not be exposed, and buy eye salve to put on your eyes so you can see!” (3:18)  We must notice the use of “shameful.”  As we have learned, such language, given the cultural context, is quite specific and should not escape our attention. 

This is a bit of a double entendre, as it serves as both a rebuke against unwarranted puffery as it relates to what is of true value in the kingdom of God and amongst the people that represent that kingdom, while also reminding them that this is the attitude that those that have acquired wealth (regardless of the means by which it was acquired (whether that be skill, diligence, luck, inheritance, oppression, or fraud) should take when it comes to their position inside the church.  The wealthy, who are seated at the places of honor at the world’s banqueting tables, should be even more fervent in their efforts to take the lowest place (eschaton) when it comes to the gathering together of the church.  Yes, even making a strenuous and concerted effort to do so, while not trumpeting the fact that it is occurring.  Ultimately, the practice of serving in the church will spill over into their participation in the wider community (as should be the case for all, whether rich or poor), thus the gathering together as a church and exemplifying the power of the Gospel to turn the world upside down (the accusation leveled against the church community in Acts 17), allows the people of the kingdom of God to learn the way that God expects them to serve and prefer one another so that they may effectively represent His kingdom to a watching and waiting world, in an ongoing development of the virtue of serving and preferring, so that such things become a matter of habit.  

Friday, February 18, 2011

Letter To Laodicea (part 117)

As we assume the appropriate viewing posture for Revelation as a whole and for the letters in particular, what we find is that each church is being asked to respond to a present or looming situation, whether problematic or not.  This is obviously the case for each church, and naturally, it is no different for the church at Laodicea.  It was made clear near the beginning of our study that each church will be well aware of the situation that is being addressed in the letter that is addressed to them, and that they can take the steps to respond appropriately. 

The Ephesian church is going to know what is meant by their having fallen from their high state and the deeds that they used to do (2:5).  The Smyrnans are going to be acutely aware of that which is bringing suffering upon themselves, which may also include imprisonment (2:10).  The Pergamum church will know precisely what it means that some are following the teaching of Balaam, while some are following the teaching of the Nicolaitans (2:14-15).  The Thyatiran church does not have to guess at what is being communicated in regards to their toleration of Jezebel (2:20).  In Sardis, there will be no mystery surrounding their pretending to be alive when they are really dead, in connection with their incomplete works, along with their need to wake up and what it means that there are some who have not stained their clothes (3:1-4).  For the Philadelphians, there would have been no difficulty in deciphering talk about their deeds, doors, and an open door that no one can shut (3:7-8).  Lastly, and to the point that we have been making all along, the Laodiceans would have known exactly what is being implied by all of the language directed towards them. 

The language of cold, hot, lukewarm, vomit, rich, wealthy, in need of nothing, gold, clothing, eye salve, door knocking, and a meal would have been well understood.  A purely spiritual interpretation, though clearly an issue of the operation of the Spirit within this church body is being addressed, is unwarranted.  The specificity and direct applicability of the language indicates that they would not have been left to wonder what to do or how they were to respond.  We may wonder what it means and grasp at all types of straws as part of that wondering, but we do so only if we are too lazy to enter into the text and to hear the letter in the same way that an early church would have heard the letter, which would have been in the same way that other churches were asked to hear the letters of Paul.  As has been made as clear as it can possibly be, in the letters, specific churches with specific issues are addressed.  Sometimes they are praised, often they are rebuked, and the meal table is nearly universally a central concern.  To go along with that, hearing the letters in the same way that the churches would have heard the letters would not only include a presumption that there are concrete issues being addressed, but it would also include hearing the letter read during the church’s gathering, which would almost certainly include table fellowship.

Together with that, the history of Israel (reaching back to Adam), which would have been a major point of instruction for the Gentile churches (as apart from a knowledge of the story of Israel absolutely no sense can be made of Jesus, His suffering, or His Resurrection).  Also, it would be rather difficult for the participants in the church, as they considered themselves the renewed Israel, to correctly live out the responsibilities of being the people of the covenant, if they were not aware of what had befallen the covenant people that had come before them.  So that history, and the story of God’s movement through His specially chosen people to accomplish His covenant purposes, would be called to mind by the very powerful phrase used in the sixteenth verse of the third chapter, which was “I am going to vomit you out of My mouth!”  This was a highly charged statement that would most certainly call to mind a portion of the Levitical narrative. 

In the eighteenth chapter of Leviticus, as “The Lord spoke to Moses” (18:1a), Israel is instructed that “You must not do as they do in the land of Egypt… and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan into which I am about to bring you; you must not walk in their statutes… So you must keep My statutes and My regulations; anyone who does so will live by keeping them” (18:3,5a).  We must observe the correlation between God bringing His people into their promised land (a microcosm of the kingdom of God on earth), and His bringing His people (such as the members of the church body at Laodicea), through their confession of Jesus as Lord, into the kingdom of God on earth (that encompasses the whole of the creation) that was inaugurated with the Resurrection of Jesus. 

What would happen if God’s people disregarded these words?  Picking up in the twenty-fourth verse of the same chapter, we read “Do not defile yourself with any of these things,” that being the customs of the peoples to whom you are supposed to demonstrate an entirely different way of being human as you represent your Creator, “for the nations which I am about to drive out before you have been defiled with all these things.  Therefore the land has become unclean and I have brought the punishment for its iniquity upon it, so that the land has vomited out its inhabitants” (18:24-25).  Vomited out?  Really?  So, doing that which runs against the witness and serves to defeat the purposes of the redeeming, Creator God would result in an occurrence of vomiting.  This would seem to connect the vomiting of Revelation with the long-running narrative of the people and purposes of God.  With that in our thoughts, as it would have been for an early church that was not so unfortunately disconnected from its Jewish roots, we go on to hear God say, “So do not make the land vomit you out because you defile it just as it has vomited out the nations that were before you” (18:28).            

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Letter To Laodicea (part 116)

Our journey nearly complete, we finally circle back to the place from whence we began, and we are finally able to reach a satisfactory conclusion in regards to what it is that is being communicated to this church of Laodicea.  It is more than abundantly clear that we can in no way be satisfied with spiritual interpretations that forget that this was a real church full of real people, dealing with real issues that were of grave importance to the church in the decades following the life and ministry of Jesus.  Understanding this will also allow us to come to the conclusion that Revelation is not to be taken as a guidebook to events of the future, but as a writing of the apocalyptic genre that was designed to provide a critique to the present, which also provides it with its universal and unquestioned value to the people of God. 

It is as we understand the letters to the churches of Revelation as specifically applicable to those churches that we find those same letters, and Revelation as a whole, applicable to the church for all time, and highly useful when it comes to matters of faith and practice.  For too long, Revelation has been distorted and pulled out of shape through fantastic interpretations that look at it as prophecy of what is to come at some time in the distant future.  This has, to our detriment, diminished its value for the people of God.  It is as we put Revelation back in its right context, seeing it in a critique of the church and an unmasking of the nature of worldly power, that we find an eminently useful book that allows us to better serve our God and His kingdom-oriented purposes.  That effort might very well begin with a right understanding of the powerful communication to Laodicea.    

The language that is used, which we will again examine in light of all that has been put forward in the effort to create an appropriate context for interpretation, will allow us to cast off any notions that the churches of Revelation somehow represent seven “church ages.”  However, it is not the case that, simply because we are able to identify the issues at hand for the Laodicean church, that Jesus’ words to this church, as reported by the author, have no bearing on or relevance for the church today.  As we have seen, the issues that we see being dealt with in the New Testament letters, and which influenced the construction of the Gospels as they related the facts of the ministry of Jesus, once properly situated, can be seen as more than relevant for the church then, the church now, and indeed, the church for all time.  A greater purpose is served, in that the centrality of the meal table, which comes undeniably to the forefront of concern and practice for the Christian community, along with call to a sacrificial love in the midst of a world shaped by matters of honor and shame, serves to sweep away so much of the clutter of thoroughly subjective and anachronistic interpretations of the Gospel that are completely lacking in social, historical, political, geographical, and cultural context. 

Once we have taken the step of recognizing the preponderance of what can almost be taken as the controlling meal table motif in the New Testament letters, doing so in conjunction with the observation that the meal table takes up a significant amount of space in the multiple tellings of the story of Jesus that we see in the Gospel accounts, what seems difficult is simplified.  Indeed, it is the meal table, that which would eventually be transmitted in Christian tradition as the communion (though its fullness would be better comprehended if it was a banquet rather than simply the two elements), with its heavily and inescapably Jewish underpinnings of the messianic banquet, that also shows us so much of the foolish and strained interpretations that have been attached to Jesus’ words to the church at Laodicea. 

Never let us forget that the Christian meal table, in following the example of Jesus, was and is designed to be a witness that Jesus rules as Lord of all (the Gospel), that the kingdom of God is in existence (inaugurated with the Resurrection), that it is present in the here and now whenever two or three are gathered and confessing that Jesus is Lord (thus creating a Temple---the place where heaven and earth come together), that it is a kingdom established and marked and extended by willful and loving suffering and sacrifice (thus the natural references to the body and blood of Jesus and His crucifixion), and it is a kingdom to which all are ultimately accountable.  This is where the church at Laodicea was falling short.    

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Letter To Laodicea (part 115)

As we traverse the pages of the New Testament, we make one final stop before returning to Revelation so as to round out our study.  To this end, we land in the first letter of John.  Once we began trekking through the New Testament letters, one things that has become glaringly obvious is the focus on community first and the individual second.  Though we understand that a community is comprised of individuals, when it comes to the kingdom of God, the individual first operates in accord with the community.  It is this communal involvement, which consists in the subsuming of individual desires and pursuits (primarily in relation to gaining honor and avoiding shame), that then translates into individual service.  This individual service, in an aspiration towards holiness (a concept which cannot be removed from the concept of sacrifice, especially self-sacrifice), is only valid as it relates to God’s end of the establishment of His kingdom on earth, and if it is performed with an eye towards the service of the community.  As soon as one’s service becomes something performed with an eye towards a personal salvation that is connected with attaining heaven as the perceived final goal of the Christian, which this service regularly taking the form of abstention from sin (as defined by oneself or a spiritual authority figure), then service quickly converts from self-sacrifice to self-idolatry.  Thus, the covenant end of reflecting the glory of God into the world in representation of what it means to be truly human, as God intended when He created a being in His image, is left unaccomplished---usurped by mis-directed worship. 

This notion of individual concerns being subsumed to the concerns of the community is part and parcel of recognizing that the kingdom of heaven is meant to come to earth.  Additionally, it is a component of the resurrection of the body being a point of focus for the people of God.  If we are to take seriously the idea that Jesus was physically resurrected into this world, and that we are ultimately to be resurrected as He was, into this world, then concerns for this world as the place in which God will eventually consummate His kingdom will play an increasingly important role in the life that is lived as a continual confession of the Lordship of Jesus and the fact of His reign.  Consequently, the cultivation of an isolated, personal holiness with thoughts of the kingdom of heaven as removed and distant from this world, falls off the page. 

Ironically though, and as a testament to the transformative power of the Gospel message, the more a person lives and serves with thoughts of the community and the presence and coming of the kingdom of heaven at the forefront of every day concern, the more “holy” and “sanctified” that person will become.  Without a personal striving, a personal transformation is undergone, as the person that demonstrates a constant communal concern, in the mode of our Lord, is continuously and steadily transformed into the image and likeness of Christ.  All of this, which also reinforces the oft-stated importance of the meal table of the earliest Christians (in imitation of Jesus) as they sought to embody the kingdom through their messianic banquet, allowing themselves to be a transformed and witnessing community before they presented themselves as transformed and witnessing individuals, is said as an introduction to what appears to be an affirmation of this idea in the fourth chapter of first John. 

This notion of community taking precedence over individual, as we contemplate the importance of the people of God (emphasis on people---God directed Adam and Noah to multiply, Abraham received the promise that he would be a nation, God made a covenant with Israel), appears to ring true when we read “Dear friends, if God so loved us, then we also ought to love one another” (4:11).  Here, we notice the emphasis on the community of believers with the use of “us,” and we cannot help but consider the mutual love that was encouraged at the meal table when we hear about the love for one another, with this said within a culture that meted out love in a highly discriminatory fashion based on honor and shame, patronage and benefaction, and patriarchal constructs.  In contrast to this, the Christian is called to love in a radical way, with none of these considerations in play. 

The author goes on to write “No one has seen God at any time.  If we love one another, God resides in us, and His love is perfected in us” (4:12).  In that time, there would be no better and no more radical and visible way to express the love of God than the egalitarian meal table of the church.  Continuing with communal emphasis then, we hear “By this we know that we reside in God and He in us: in that He has given us of His Spirit” (4:13).  Having presented this community oriented dissertation about the evidence of the love of God and of the presence of His Spirit, the author then goes on to discuss the individual, writing “If anyone confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God resides in him and he in God.  And we have come to know and to believe the love that God has in us.  God is love, and the one who resides in love resides in God, and God resides in Him” (4:15-16).  Still, the use of love, contexted by the need to “love one another,” informs us that individualistic concerns are connected with the community, as we have recently made clear. 

Going further, we find words that are evocative of both Paul and Peter’s use of words regarding judgment that are connected with the proper approach to the meal table of the church communities as they sought to adequately represent the Jesus-inspired ideal of the messianic banquet that signaled that God’s rule had begun in the Resurrection of Jesus, as we read “By this love is perfected with us, so that we may have confidence in the day of judgment, because just as Jesus (doing and teaching, crucified and resurrected---crucially important points), so also are we in this world” (4:17).  We notice, as outlined above, the quick shift back to the concern for the community as the author continues on to write “There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment” (4:18a).  Indeed, if the community demonstrated the love for one another in their table fellowship that is demanded by the witness and the Gospel message of Jesus, they would have no fear of God’s judgment falling upon them.  To that point, “The one who fears punishment has not been perfected in love” (4:18b), in that they have not yet properly approached the meal table in the spirit of humility and service, seeking first the kingdom of God (His rule on earth) as opposed to personal concerns of honor and shame.    

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Letter To Laodicea (part 114)

Though it is offered in a context of suffering on behalf of Christ, and doing so because of a life lived in declaration of a different and superior king while also living as a model citizen that assists human authorities in rightly fulfilling their God-given and clearly defined roles, it is possible to hear echoes of the concern for Christian table fellowship and the Lord’s Supper when we hear “For it is time for judgment to begin, starting with the house of God” (4:17a).  To that Peter adds “And if it starts with us, what will be the fate of those who are disobedient to the Gospel of God?” (4:17b) 

Because Peter returns to the theme of suffering, with the suffering not that of a withdrawn and self-denying asceticism (though there is nothing wrong with self-denial as long as it is ultimately others-focused)  but of suffering at the hands of one’s fellow man, when he writes “So then let those who suffer according to the will of God entrust their souls to a faithful Creator as they do good” (4:19), we may be thought to be attempting to press the matter too far.  However, since it is apparent that the meal table, and the understanding of the nature of the kingdom life received at and through the fellowship of that table (which is what will produce the suffering in spite of the doing of good works for the community), we are not completely off the mark in making such a connection. 

Since we are relatively confident that Peter has the meal table in mind (hospitality, speaking, service, stewardship), it is possible to again make a comparison to the Lord’s Supper (messianic banquet) dissertation offered by the Apostle Paul.  In this context, which includes obvious talk of the need for humility in light of spiritual gifts, talk of judgment beginning with the house of God stirs us to consider “For the one who eats and drinks without careful regard for the body eats and drinks judgment against himself” (1 Corinthians 11:29).  Words such as “And if it starts with us, what will be the fate of those who are disobedient to the Gospel of God,” which is the Lordship of Christ, seems to lead us to words such as “That is why many of you are weak and sick, and quite a few are dead.  But if we examined ourselves,” meaning, if we took into consideration the body of the church as a unified body, considering others as more important than ourselves and being sure that needs are met (without concern for honor or position or anything else) so that members of the body do not become weak or sick, “we would not be judged” (11:30-31).  This seems to fit quite nicely with the judgments of conquering and exile at the hands of both Assyria and Babylon that fell upon ancient Israel (along with the ongoing subjugation by Persia, Greece, and Rome), which, if we read both the histories and prophets carefully, partially came because of the failure to care for the least in their communities.  Naturally, this was connected with their idolatrous worship of the gods of the surrounding nations, as it was only the Creator God of Israel that instructed His people to care for the orphans and widows as part of their covenant and their worship.  Naturally, both Peter and Paul are writing with the history of Israel and God’s dealings with Israel in mind.

Returning to the notion of right speaking and right service, in accord with a Spirit-led, cross-induced, and Gospel oriented humility that Peter introduced earlier in the fourth chapter, which reminds us that the first shall be last and the last shall be first, Peter, like Paul, brings up the subject of church order.  He writes, “I urge the elders among you; Give a shepherd’s care to God’s flock among you” (5:1b-2a).  This does not mean that the elders are to view themselves as lordly shepherds while the congregation is to be viewed as mindless sheep, as Peter goes on to write about “exercising oversight not merely as a duty but willingly under God’s direction, not for shameful profit but eagerly” (5:2b-3).  Remembering that we are at the meal table, and that the church is defined by what goes on at the meal table based on the conception of the messianic banquet and the example of Jesus, we hear Peter say “And do not lord it over those entrusted to you, but be examples to the flock” (5:3). 

Not only is the example here mentioned that of self-sacrificial service and the taking of the lowest place, but this is also a reflection of the then oral Jesus tradition that we find in the twentieth chapter of Matthew.  There, after the “mother of the sons of Zebedee” (20:20a), in reference to the messianic banquet and in the context of the protoklisian and the chief seats to the left and to the right of the seat of honor, asked Jesus to “Permit these two sons of mine to sit, one at Your right hand and one at Your left in Your kingdom” (20:21b), Jesus ultimately responds by saying “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in high positions use their authority over them.  It must not be this way among you!  Instead whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave---just as the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve” (20:25b-28a).  Jesus, of course, would model this out, as recorded in the thirteenth chapter of the Gospel of John.  Do we not hear the echo of this encounter and these words in what comes from Peter?         

Letter To Laodicea (part 113)

To talk of service and stewardship, and as we consider the setting, Peter joins “Whoever speaks, let it be with God’s words.  Whoever serves, do so with the strength that God supplies, so that in everything God will be glorified through Jesus Christ” (4:11a).  This is then punctuated with a declaration of the Lordship of Jesus, as Peter writes “To Him belong the glory and the power forever and ever” (4:11b).  While we would certainly agree that there is a burden on the one that speaks, and that service can be tiring, we must not allow ourselves to drift too far from the setting into which these words were delivered and for which they provide a controlling authority.  We dare not become too far removed from the meal table, as it is the meal table that keeps us in the proper interpretive context, instead of drifting off into anachronistic ideas about what is implied by speaking and serving. 

Modern conceptions should not be thrust on the text in a way that creates an artificial division of labor between preachers that preach and those that go about serving.  This is not an attempt to draw a dichotomy between the person that occupies the pulpit on Sunday morning and those that are then charged with visiting hospitals or distributing food to shut-ins.  Rather, we understand these words in relation to that which defines the community of Christ-followers, which is their table fellowship.  When one speaks, he or she must do so with a heart of love, as well as grace, conscious of the demand for harmony at a table that could rightly have a bit of awkwardness associated with it. 

The one that speaks does so with sympathy, compassion, and humility, always mindful of the fact that in Christ’s kingdom, the first shall be last and the last shall be first.  So it is with the one who serves.  As was said, service can be tiring, and yes, one is able to serve the kingdom of God through the strength that God supplies; but in context, the strength that God supplies for service is the strength that allows the one that would generally be considered more honorable, to humbly, willfully, and lovingly serve the one that would generally be considered to be less honorable.  It is that type of service, in which the first become last and the last become first because of an active embracing of the message of the cross inside the message of the Gospel, and not because of some type of forceful reversal in which the previously oppressed take it upon themselves to lord it over those that may or may not have had a hand in the oppression, that demonstrates true strength.  It is in this that God is glorified, as this self-abnegating service is done in deference to the kingly claim of the one to whom belongs glory and power forever and ever. 

At verse twelve, Peter begins the insertion of an interlude related to suffering on behalf of Christ.  Much of this suffering, of course, will come about because of what it is that is learned at their meal table.  The messianic, kingly declaration of the Christian meal table will practically work itself out in a lifestyle that demonstrates one’s adherence to the Lordship of Jesus and to his claims to power, rather than any over-reaching and illegitimate claims on offer from the Caesar.  However, because Christ’s kingdom model is one of self-sacrifice and service, the Christian, recognizing the legitimate extent of human authority, actually seeks to solidify the role of human authorities.  By taking up the cause of Christ’s kingdom and properly applying its principles of service and compassion through good works and public benefaction, the care of orphans and widows, the feeding of the hungry and thirsty, and the clothing of the naked, the Christian is able to inform the governing powers that they have a limit imposed upon them by God that they can reach, and upon reaching that limit are to be told that they are to go here and no further, for then they would be intruding on the responsibilities of those that claim to represent the world’s true imperial power. 

For Peter, as for Paul, the Christian becomes the model citizen.  He does not foment unrest but informs the world and its rulers about a king and a kingdom, doing so through service and sacrifice, thus putting the Gospel on display and allowing the Spirit to do the work of the transformation of hearts and minds.  Peter pleads with these denizens of a greater kingdom---one that demonstrates what it truly means to be human, saying “But let none of you suffer as a murderer or thief or criminal or as a troublemaker.  But if you suffer as a Christian,” that is, if you suffer because your practice makes it clear that you are not a participant in the worship of Caesar and his power, “do not be ashamed, but glorify God that you bear such a name” (4:15-16).