Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Speaking In Tongues (part 6)

Now, as we read through Pau’s Corinthian correspondence against the appropriate backdrop of the prizing of rhetorical skill and the honor competition and assignment associated with public speech acts, we get the distinct impression that Paul did not quite measure up in this area.  It appears that some of the Corinthian believers derided Paul, going so far as to question his apostolic credentials, simply because, in his speeches before the assembled church community, he failed to employ the rhetoric and rhetorical skill that was so-highly-valued.  At the same time however, Paul had no difficulty whatsoever in deploying his rhetorical arsenal in his written communications. 

We see evidence of this attitude towards Paul in the second Corinthian letter, as we read “For they say, ‘His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak and his speeches of no account.’” (10:10)  It seems that they were uncomfortable with the idea that the person to whom they pointed as the presumptive founder of their community was not able to command respect through his public speaking.  This goes a long way towards understanding the divisiveness in the Corinthian church that Paul references in the third chapter of the first letter.  Paul writes “For whenever someone says, ‘I am with Paul,’ or ‘I am with Apollos,’ are you not merely human?  What is Apollos really?  Or what is Paul?  Servants through whom you came to believe, and each of us in the ministry the Lord gave us.  I planted, Apollos watered, but God caused it to grow” (3:4-6). 

Apollos, according to the eighteenth chapter of Acts, “was an eloquent speaker, well-versed in the Scriptures.  He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and with great enthusiasm he spoke and taught accurately the facts about Jesus, although he knew only the baptism of John.  He began to speak out fearlessly in the synagogue” (18:24b-26a).  Chapter nineteen commences with mention of Apollos in Corinth, while Paul is in Ephesus.  Apparently, Apollos put his skills to use in service of the church at Corinth, with his eloquent speech causing some to see him in a more positive light than Paul (read: more honorable).  We do not immediately surmise that Apollos was somehow in competition with Paul, but understanding the honor and shame culture, it is not difficult to figure out that his rhetorical abilities caused him to be assigned honor in a way to which Paul apparently did not have the same access. 

Paul, without condemning or criticizing Apollos, his speaking, his eloquence, or his learning, refocuses the Corinthian believers, criticizing them and their continued introduction of societal values into the church as they elevated and assigned honor to one based on accepted custom, making sure that they understood that both he and Apollos were nothing more than servants (diakonoi in Greek, those who were assigned to “wait on tables” in Acts 6), and that honor was to be assigned to the one that they served (both the believers and God).  Paul stresses the unity and equality between he and Apollos in their role of servants, disavowing the attempts at elevation and emphasizing the need for the same amongst the congregation of believers, writing “The one who plants and the one who waters work as one, but each will receive his reward according to his work.  We are coworkers belonging to God.  You are God’s field, God’s building” (3:8-9). 

Before he brings up Apollos, who is renowned for his eloquent speech and his ability to employ lofty speech in his presentation and defense of the Gospel (thereby explaining Paul’s making mention of Apollos), Paul defends this recognized deficiency in his own abilities.  Naturally, though he may see his abilities as being deficient, he believes that the message that he preaches, and the effects that it produces in those that hear it and live it, more than makes up for his perceived failings.  With a solid framework in place, we now better understand what Paul is getting at when he writes “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come with superior eloquence or wisdom as I proclaimed the testimony of God.  For I decided to be concerned about nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.  And I was with you in weakness and in fear and with much trembling.  My conversation and my preaching were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not be based on human wisdom but on the power of God” (2:1-5). 

This very thing that he did not want to see, which is faith based on human wisdom, is what was happening among those that were inclined to identify themselves with Apollos, in alignment with the prevailing principles of honor and shame.  This also illuminates Paul’s asking them “are you not merely human?”  Again, Paul takes no issue with Apollos.  Indeed, Paul might have desired to possess Apollos’ abilities.  At the same time, what he saw in Corinth, as the people were perhaps reacting to Apollos more based on his abilities rather than on the message that he faithfully delivered to the best of his abilities, served as a tremendous example to Paul.  In the end, he would rather see that the message of the Gospel (Jesus as Lord of all) and its cross (humiliation, suffering, weakness, cursing, shame) carry the day, for then there would be no doubt as to wherein lied the efficacy of the message.  Honor would not be assigned to the one that delivered the message, but to the one of whom the message spoke, and it would hopefully spark imitation of the supreme honoree along cross-shaped lines. 

We must approach this carefully, especially if we find ourselves in the midst of a Christian culture that decries deep learning as being somehow antithetical to the spirit of the Gospel.  Paul does not take issue with learning and the ability to speak persuasively.  He is taking issue with the response of the people, as they are continuing to value the standards of the kingdoms of man rather than the standards of the kingdom of God as demonstrated by Jesus, as outlined in the what they have would known about Him through the traditions that were being orally transmitted about Him (in word and deed), and as displayed through His cross.  Throughout this first letter to Corinth, Paul’s concern is with the body and its unity, and he adamantly opposes anything that might throw that body into disharmony, divisiveness, or stratifications along customary lines in a way that would decrease the witness and the effect of the body of Christ.       

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Speaking In Tongues (part 5)

Archaeology has uncovered an abundance of inscriptions in the city of Corinth that attest to the importance of the honor and shame system and the court of public opinion.  These inscriptions are honorific in nature, as would be expected, and serve to demonstrate what seems to be a near obsession with public honor.  Such inscriptions, obviously, would be encouraged by those being honored as it would cause the honorees to be viewed in the most positive light imaginable and by the widest possible cross-section of the populace (with this standing in for mass media). 

These inscriptions would run the gamut, extolling individuals for being loyal and generous, excelling in virtues while shunning vices, gracious tending to the affairs of others as much as he would his own, and living a life free from strife.  These things serve to adequately demonstrate the types of things that could lead, along with actions of public benefaction, to the accrual of honor.  A person feted in such ways would be accorded much honor in accordance with the value system of society, as confirmed by the ever-changing court of public opinion.  Conversely, disloyal behavior, stinginess, an excess of vice-like behavior, a selfish pre-occupation with one’s own affairs, and the production of strife were actions that would lead to the accrual of shame.

Given the high value placed on public opinion, we can understand the high value placed on the use of rhetoric in the ancient world, as skilled speakers could do much to shape consensus, dragging public opinion concerning that which should be understood to be truly honorable in the direction desired by those that wished to either gain in status or cement their positions.  It is the importance of the orator in this regard, as not only would the orator have his own honor while also being employed in ways that would gain honor for others, that stands in the background and informs Paul’s words about eloquence and wisdom and status and identification with certain individuals in his first letter to Corinth. 

Eloquence, which was associated with wisdom, was associated with honor.  A highly effective public speaker would be viewed with much honor and could be employed to achieve the same for others by either “singing their praises” or shaping the consciousness of the community in such a way that they found themselves wishing to bestow honor in accordance with the actions of the one being so praised.  We cannot pass this by without acknowledging Paul’s focus on eloquent speech, understanding its function within the culture.  We must also acknowledge that glossolalia is a speech act as well.  This particular type of speech act, which was associated with the gods, when performed publicly, was yet another means by which honor would be accrued. 

Paying attention to the value of the orator, we can peruse a papyrus fragment dating from 110 A.D., roughly fifty years beyond the time of the writing of Paul’s letter.  In that fragment we read “Pay to Licinius the rhetor,” rhetor being a specific type of orator (short for rhetorician---one specifically skilled in the art of rhetoric, which was a foundational component of the education system of the day and a valued tool for the shaping of opinion well employed by Paul), “the amount due him for the speeches in which Aurelius… was honored… in the gymnasium in the Great Serapeion, four hundred drachmas of silver.”  According to the first century Roman historian by the name of Tacitus, the amount of money that was paid to Licinius exceeded the wages paid to a Roman soldier for a year’s worth of service.  This serves to demonstrate the high value placed on this skill.  

Accordingly, as there was much money to be made, especially because the skill was put to use in connection with the pursuit of honor (or the conferring of shame---it served a dual role), training in such speech and writing was central to the education provided in the institutions of the day.  Indeed, the mastery of rhetorical speech was a potentially lucrative enterprise, serving to assist in the accrual of both wealth and public honor.  Again, the gaining of position in society, and by extension, within the institutions and associations of that society, whatever those may be, is connected to public speech acts.  Those that were more charismatic were able to serve themselves quite well.  Because of this, rhetorical speech was prized almost universally in the ancient world.  Romans, Greeks, and Jews, rich and poor alike, slaves and free, men and women, all enjoyed listening to the presentation of an eloquent speech riddled with lofty rhetoric.  In this way, the people in Corinth, and in the church in Corinth, were no different (and there is nothing wrong with that). 

Monday, August 29, 2011

Speaking In Tongues (part 4)

Having set the state for a basic presentation of the honor and shame culture and how it might relate to the church in general and the Corinthian church in particular in connection to the action of speaking in tongues, let’s take some space to provide a basic outline of the functionality of honor and shame in the world in which both Jesus and the early church arose.   

An important first century Roman Stoic philosopher by the name of Seneca, in writing about honor from within an active and functioning honor and shame system, had this to say: “All our arguments start from this settled point, that honor is pursued for no other reason except because it is honor.”  This says much about the value system of the Greco-Roman world.  Though those of us that live within the confines of western civilization cannot readily relate to such a sentiment, primarily because the pursuit of honor has been primarily replaced by the pursuit of material possessions and wealth.  Though it can certainly be the case that wealth and material possessions were attendant with honor in Paul’s world, this would not necessarily be the case.  Even if our perception of honor and shame has been skewed, we can still peruse the wider world in order to find the systems of honor and shame still in operation much like it was operating in Corinth.  Christians throughout the world still live within cultures in which one’s true status is largely determined by the values of honor and shame, and are in the enviable position of being able to more easily identify with and understand the situation with which Paul deals in his first letter to Corinth.  In a world so governed, the primary motivation for performing a good deed (public benefaction) or for living a life marked by virtue, was the attainment of honor. 

The opposite end of the spectrum from honor, of course, was shame.  As was alluded to in our talk about Jesus, a person might seek to increase his honor by publicly shaming a rival through insults, reproach, physical abuse, confiscation of property, and even public execution.  Mention of Jesus in connection with this leads to a helpful aside, in that Jesus’ insistence that His disciples turn the other cheek, go the second mile, bless when cursed, and offer the undergarment when sued for the outer garment, gain substantial meaning when understood alongside concerns of honor and shame.  Everything that Jesus suggests be done, which He then lives out, would be immediately viewed as honor-disavowing and shame-accruing. 

So how exactly was it determined who was possessive of honor and who leaned towards the shameful end of the spectrum?  There was no formal system by which honor was assigned.  There were no checklists to follow.  Rather, public consensus, which is always shifting, plays the most important role.  The shifting sands of public consensus meant that one would always have to be on guard, not only performing according to wider public opinion, but also doing one’s level best to shape public opinion and drive the public debate concerning what is honorable and what is dishonorable/shameful.  We can refer to this loosely governing construct as the “court of public opinion.”  Now, many of us that are reading this may not live in societies that are shaped by honor and shame in a manner similar to the ancient world, but we can all understand the high value that is placed on the “court of public opinion.”  Politicians, first and foremost, live and die through rightly understanding the court of public opinion, attempting to craft their positions to reflect the wider sentiment, or, if given the opportunity, reshape that sentiment in a way that is more to their liking.  Even in this construct, which is broad and encompasses a wide swath of the public, some people’s opinions and positions are given more weight than others.

In Paul’s world, which included the influential and wealthy city of Corinth, governed by concerns with honor and shame, the court of public opinion was a formidable entity.  This was the body of people within one’s society which determined one’s social standing.  Naturally, the determinations were made by those that were already understood to be possessive of honor, thus their opinions were not exactly unbiased or altruistic, as they would not want to jeopardize their own status by approving and assigning honor to that which might run contrary to that which has brought them their own honor.  So even though public opinion is malleable, it is often monolithic.  Given the absence of mass-media, public opinion could not be shifted on a whim.  Given these things, social standing, whether honorable or dishonorable, is determined in accordance with society’s values.  One’s honor did not come from how one viewed oneself, but from how one was viewed by the public at large, and those already considered honorable more specifically.       

Speaking In Tongues (part 3)

We now turn our attention to one of the most important societal constructs in the world of Paul’s day, which is the construct of honor and shame.  It was the system of honor and shame that governed relationships in the ancient world.  One that was desirous of pursuing honor, while also being able to function at an honor-pursuit level within society (not a child, woman, slave, leper, etc…), would take great pains to perform public actions that would not be damaging to one’s accrued honor, carefully avoiding activities or associations that would tend to bring shame.  Honor equaled prestige in the ancient world.  Honor was also considered to be a limited good, in that if one gained honor for themselves, it came at the expense of another person’s honor.  More honor for one equated to more shame for another, and one could gain honor for self by shaming another person. 

We can see this system at work in the records of the life and ministry of Jesus.  When Jesus is challenged, in addition to these challenges being akin to rabbinic debates, they are also contests of honor and shame.  If His challengers can defeat Him through their questions, asserting their superiority or demonstrating potential flaws in His reasoning or grasp of the law, then they will have shamed Him while gaining honor for themselves.  This could serve to stem the tide of His kingdom movement.  However, Jesus, who has attracted crowds and prestige, does not seek honor for Himself.  He is only concerned with His Father’s honor.  As a denizen of the first century Greco-Roman world and as a popular teacher that is increasingly viewed through messianic lenses, He should be quite conscientious of the way that He is perceived by the public; instead, He appears to be almost completely unconcerned with the honor and shame system.  It almost seems as if He views it as being quite backwards, with actions seen as most honorable by the wider public, perceived by Jesus as being shameful, and vice versa. 

At times, Jesus accepts the honors being afforded to Him, but generally, He only accepts honoring or honorific statements when they come from those that do not possess any public honor (tax collectors, lepers, those that have been possessed by demons, unclean women, etc…)  When the rich or the rulers attempt to honor Him, perhaps by calling Him “good,” He disavows the approbation.  He routinely speaks of the first being last and the last being first.  He interacts with tax collectors, who may have money and a measure of power, but are not looked upon as being honorable in the least.  He touches lepers.  He allows dishonorable women to touch Him.  He is more than happy to take the lowest place at a meal, eschewing the places of honor, and instructs His followers to do the same.  He washes the feet of  His disciples, which is the role of a slave and a reminder of the slave’s shameful place.  He allows children, who, as children, do not have a place in the honor and same pursuit (they do not have honor or shame accorded to them), to come to Him.  When they do, He tells those who are listening to Him that they must enter the kingdom of God as little children---unconcerned with the pursuit of honor or avoiding shame (which has nothing to do with a “childlike faith”).  He ultimately ends up on a cross, which was the lowest and most shameful place of all, going there willingly as He embraced the role of Israel for the world. 

These things (the honor and shame culture, along with Jesus’ treatment of this broad social construct) would have been well understood by Jesus’ followers and those that made up the churches that attempted to live out what it meant to be the renewed Israel that represented the rule of God through the remembrance of and reflection upon the orally transmitted Jesus tradition.  When Paul writes his letters, especially what are considered to be the early letters, there is no written record of the life of Jesus.  There are no Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as we have them in their present form.  Paul doesn’t have his own body of work or the letters from other apostles from which to draw, nor do the early believers.  They have the words of the apostles.  Those apostles shared their stories of Jesus (a relatively unified story to be sure, though with different emphases, as is obvious from the variety of presentations of the life of Jesus that we see in the Gospels) so that those who through in their lot with the crucified and resurrected King (the church) might do their best to model out the example that He provided, as the movement of the kingdom of God began to spread through the world through the instrument of the church, motivated by the Spirit of God.  They too were to be motivated to eschew honor and embrace shame, especially if such brought glory to their King and to their God, extending the reach and rule of that Kingdom, as they conscientiously strived to bring heaven to earth by mimicking the counter-cultural behavior of Jesus.  

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Speaking In Tongues (part 2)

Several of the mystery religions that inhabited the Greco-Roman world in which the church first developed also record the phenomenon of speaking on tongues.  These include the Persian cult of Mithra, the Egypt-based cult of Osiris, and the Dionysian, Eulusinian, and Orphic cults of Macedonia, Thrace, and Greece.  Lucian of Samosata, a reliable historian of the ancient world that lived in the second century, to whom we owe a debt because of his records concerning the meal practices of the Greco-Roman world, described an example of glossolalia in one of his written works.  In it, the ecstatic utterance was performed by somebody described as a roaming believer in the Syrian goddess that went by the name of “June” (the month is named after her).  Focusing on Corinth, the prevalence of cults that spoke in tongues, especially in what is the wider geographic area by which the city of Corinth was bounded, informs us that there would be a high degree of familiarity with the practice within the city.  This becomes especially poignant if we are to consider the geographical and cultural position in which Corinth was situated at the time of Christ, and a short time later, of Paul. 

Corinth was a very wealthy city, as it was a center of commerce.  Naturally, a city that is a center of commerce is also an intersection of culture as well.  Corinth was situated on the isthmus that connected the area of Achaia with that of Macedonia and Thrace, all of which, taken together (along with some islands), form the area generally referred to as Greece.  Situated on the isthmus, Corinth had two harbors, east and west, thus effectively connecting Asia with Italy (Rome most importantly) and by extension the rest of the known western world.  One can easily imagine Corinth’s being viewed as a quite attractive place to do business.  Owing to that, it would also be an ideal place from which to exert cultural influence, which probably accounts for the fact that Paul spends so much time with this church, taking great pains to influence it in its unique role as an embassy for the kingdom of God, and working diligently to see that it behaves in ways that will appropriately represent the King and the kingdom to which it claims its allegiance.  At the same time, we can also understand how and why accepted practices of the wider culture could creep into this church, as its members were constantly exposed to the ideologies and practices of practically the entire world, and almost always within what would have been a competitive commercial environment. 

Not only was Corinth a center of commerce, but it was center for sport, as it would play host to the Isthmian games (similar to the Olympics) every two years, while hosting the Imperial and Caesarean games every four years.  This, of course, would attract tourists, increasing the opportunities for commerce as well as its cultural importance.  Though Corinth would have had its share of wealthy inhabitants, it would also have had its poor, with some in-between, therefore reflecting the variety of social levels which characterized the large cities of the ancient world.  As we consider Paul’s letters to the church of Corinth, and specifically deal with the issue of speaking in tongues and what it would represent within the church and to those outside the church, as the church lived and worshiped and exercised their spiritual gifts within a culture largely dependent on constructs of honor and shame (the pursuit of honor for social advancement in public and in private associations), we cannot allow ourselves to forget the underlying and quite visible and accepted social stratifications of the ancient world. 

It is also quite interesting to note that the very term “glossolalia,” which is used to denote what is generally believed to be the uniquely Christian practice of speaking in tongues, is a term that is in wide use long before the church is on the scene.  This lets us know that it is not a term that needed to originate with Christians so as to explain their ecstatic utterances.  They were simply able to employ a term already in use, to describe a relatively widespread and known practice, with the term adequately conveying, for the Christians, the same information it would have conveyed on behalf of non-Christians---speaking in tongues while possessed by a god.  Glossolalia did not describe something new that originated with or in the church, but was merely adopted and adapted, by Christians, as an accepted religious practice that was full of meaning and richly symbolic.    

It is undeniable that what can be seen in the church today bears a heavy resemblance (identical?) to the occurrences of ecstatic tongues that took place in these ancient cults well before the day of Pentecost, to which is generally looked as the time of the outpouring of the Spirit that has, since then, enabled the ecstatic speech of Christians, though there are marked differences between both Christian, non-Christian, and pre-Christian speaking in tongues from what is recorded in the second chapter Acts.  Let us not be naïve.  In all cases of speaking in tongues, based upon the facts of history, the one performing the action is said to be doing so under the influence of their god.  Speaking in tongues is not a uniquely Christian practice by any means.  A large number of studies have revealed the fact that speaking in tongues is present in non-Christian religions all around the world.  We can find it practiced, distinct from the church, in China, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia, Siberia, Arabia, and Burma, just to name a few locations.  Glossolalia can be heard among Eskimos, in Japanese séances on the island of Hokkaido, from the shamans of Zar cult in Ethiopia, in Haitian Voodoo, and quite extensively in African tribal religions.  In each case, it functions differently for the group, though it will generally sound the same.      

Speaking In Tongues (part 1)

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but I do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. – 1 Corinthians 13:1  (NET)             

Whenever the topic of “speaking in tongues” is considered, a common misperception, together with a failure in basic knowledge of the subject, is advanced.  That common misperception is that “speaking on tongues,” or “glossolalia,” somehow began with Christians.  Whether one is “for” or “against” the idea of speaking in tongues, which is generally considered to be an ecstatic form of speech that is unintelligible to both the speaker and any hearers as it does not bear resemblance to any known languages, it is impossible to engage in a discussion without first considering the fact that the practice of speaking in tongues predates Christianity.  In fact, records of its historical practice, akin to the way in which it is practiced by millions of Christians around the world today, can be found centuries prior to the advent of the church, and in complete isolation from the influence of God’s chosen people Israel. 

The Apostle Paul, in his first letter to the congregation of Corinth, deals extensively with the issue of spiritual gifts, with that of speaking in tongues receiving what appears to be an inordinate amount of focus and attention.  This particular spiritual gifting appears to be of grave concern to the Apostle, and we can only have any hopes for understanding the reasons for Paul’s dealing with the subject in the context of the body of people that stood in representation of the kingdom of God, if we understand a bit of the history of the actions, its place in the culture, what it signified, how it was received, how it functioned, and in what it would result. 

So yes, as we gaze through the pages of recorded history, we will find that there have been many occasions where people have spoken in what has been referred to as ecstatic language.  The records indicate that this is no different, in practice and in appearance, than what is to be seen in the contemporary Christian practice of speaking in tongues (ecstatic language).  Shortly, we shall also see that the given reasons for the speech have remained unchanged, merely adapted to the new situation.  Most of the accounts of ecstatic speech predate Pentecost (though we will also have to provide a helpful delineation between what is recounted in the second chapter of Acts and the activity that is being addressed in Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church) and were of decidedly non-Christian origin (this should give pause to Christians that decry, perhaps quite rightly, the fusion of pagan holidays into Christianity, rejecting the celebration of Easter and its associated traditions or Christmas and its associated traditions because of their questionable origins, while uncritically embracing pre-Christian acts such as speaking in tongues that have also been carried over into the church).  As the simple facts of the matter will serve to demonstrate, Christians cannot say, with any degree of confidence, that every occurrence of glossolalia (again, this is not necessarily what we see in the Acts two) must be an expression of the will of God.  Many, of course, subscribe to this view, though it is historically untenable and does not withstand an even moderate degree of scrutiny. 

The very first recorded cases of that which can be termed as glossolalia, or ecstatic speech attributed to the activity of the gods upon a believe, goes as far back as 1100 B.C.  On that occasion, it is a worshiper of the Egyptian God Amun that attracted attention to himself through making sounds in a strange, ecstatic tongue.  He reported himself to have been possessed by the god.  Seven hundred years later, the famous Greek philosopher, Plato, demonstrated that he was quite well acquainted with the phenomenon of speaking in tongues, as he made reference to several families who habitually practiced ecstatic speech, with prayers and utterings offered as they were supposedly possessed by the spirit of their gods.  He would also go on to point out that these practices had even been said to have brought physical healing to those who engaged in them.  Accordingly, and because they had no reason to presume otherwise, Plato, and those contemporary with him, casually and confidently asserted that these occurrences were in fact caused by some type of divine inspiration.  It was his suggestion that the god simply took possession of the mind during this state, inspiring him with utterances that he could neither understand nor interpret. 

In the century prior to the coming of the Christ, the poet Virgil, speaking of the Sybilline priestess that lived on the island of Delos, described her activity of speaking in ecstatic tongues.  This was explained by her being in union with the god Apollo.  This was said to have happened while she meditated in a haunted cave, amidst what was described as the eerie sounds of the wind, as it played strange music through the narrow crevices of the rocks.  

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Galatians & Giving (part 4 of 4)

The bottom line is that “through love,” they were to “serve one another” (5:13b).  Though this can be heard in the general sense of Christian service, it can also be taken more literally and we can hear Paul insisting that all take the opportunity to be servants at the meal table.  Just because somebody was responsible for serving at meal tables (women, slaves) outside the church gathering, that did not automatically mean that they were to be the servants at the church gathering.  Indeed, Paul insists that the appropriate attitude is “You must love your neighbor as yourself” (5:14b).  Just as their service was not some generalized service, so too this “love” is not some general, undefined love.  Paul quotes from the nineteenth chapter of Leviticus, making allusion to all that surrounds the specific quotation. 

We will gain further insight into the social dynamic that is at work when we look to that passage in Leviticus and find “You must not deal unjustly in judgment: you must neither show partiality to the poor nor honor the rich.  You must judge your fellow citizen fairly.  You must not go about as a slanderer among your people.  You must not stand idly by when your neighbor’s life is at stake.  I am the Lord.  You must not hate your brother in your heart.  You must surely reprove your fellow citizen so that you do not incur sin on account of him.  You must not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the children of your people, but you must love your neighbor as yourself.  I am the Lord.  You must keep My statutes” (19:15-19a).  Clearly, Paul has this in mind when he appends to his thoughts “However, if you continually bite and devour one another, beware that you are not consumed by one another” (5:15), which, interestingly enough, is language connected to a meal table. 

If we bear in mind the Levitical allusion, and even though there is some intervening material dealing with the operation of the Spirit and the subsequent contrast between the works of the Spirit and the works of the flesh, do we not hear the Levitical pronouncement heavily informing the introduction to the sixth chapter, as we hear Paul speaking and saying “Brothers and sisters, if a person is discovered in some sin, you who are spiritual restore such a person in a spirit of gentleness.  Pay close attention to yourselves, so that you are not tempted too.  Carry one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (6:1-2)?  Certainly, the words that lead into the opening statement of the sixth chapter could be brought into service here, as Paul writes “Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, being jealous of one another” (5:26).  When we hear these words at a mixed meal table, cognizant of all of the potential sources of divisions and classifications and groupings that would be a natural component of every other meal gathering that would be known and even participated in by those that compose the church of Galatia, they should take on an even more profound meaning.    

So how does all of this knowledge about Paul’s purposes in relation to intra-church conflicts, cultural dynamics, and societal norms aid us in better understanding “Now the one who receives instruction in the word must share all good things with the one who teaches it”? (6:6).  Well, since it is possible and probable that slaves and masters were sitting side by side at the meal table (and hopefully learning to love their neighbor as themselves by engaging in conversation in a mutually up-building way), and because it is also most likely the case that a slave would, oftentimes, be chosen to preside over the meal and the symposium, it would also make sense to believe that, on frequent occasions, it would be a slave that is offering up a word of prophecy or sharing some form of instruction (be it a tongue, an interpretation, a song, or what have you) for the building up of the church. 

Yes, a slave, or perhaps even a woman, might very well be responsible for imparting instruction to the assembled body, as they participate equally in the symposium, teaching and expounding upon the word of God for the purpose of advancing the kingdom, or of advancing the understanding of the way in which the church is to function in and for the kingdom of God.  Likewise, when viewed from the perspective of the Jew, it may be a Gentile from whom instruction is being received.  Either way, there was to be no delineation and no discrimination, when it came to the remuneration of those that were instructing and serving to build up and strengthen the body.  In every other meal association, not only would it be unheard of to allow those with no honor, as assigned by the community at large, to teach (as if somebody lacking any honor could impart useful information), but it would also be problematic.  For the church, this would not be problematic, but it would be an opportunity to display the only proper delineation, which would be the delineation that demonstrates just how incredibly unique was the body that represented the world’s true King and His kingdom. 

Just as it would have been customary for an orator or one skilled in rhetoric, and therefore held in high esteem, to be compensated for the exercise of their particular gifting, with nobody thinking twice about the appropriateness of compensation, so too should there be no hesitation in providing compensation to anyone, be it a slave or woman, who performs such a role.  This equal sharing owing to teaching, regardless of one’s social status outside the church gathering, along with the necessary disavowal of any pathetic divisions or classifications within the church body, would be evidence of the operation of God’s Spirit within the community.  It is in accordance with this way of thinking that we can then hear Paul saying “Do not be deceived.  God will not be made a fool.  For a person will reap what he sows, because the person who sows to his own flesh will reap corruption from the flesh, but the one who sows to the Spirit will reap eternal life from the Spirit” (6:7-8).  Though it remains a component, clearly, the instruction to “share all good things with the one who teaches it” goes well beyond its customary use to provide justification for giving to one’s church, and thereby showing respect for the teaching.          

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Galatians & Giving (part 3 of 4)

In addition to Jews and Gentiles as classes of people that were part of the Galatian group that was defined by meal-gatherings at which Jesus was recognized as God (church), slaves undoubtedly formed a portion of their band.  Not only can we draw out this conclusion from the fact of Paul mentioning “Jew… Greek… slave… free… male… female” (3:28), but such is made even more obvious by what we see in the fourth and fifth chapters, with Paul’s references to slaves and slavery.  While he is surely employing a metaphor, utilizing the familiar imagery of the slave-market, the metaphor and the imagery would have a more pronounced impact for those that had either been acquired by their master at the slave market, or had purchased a slave at the slave market. 

Continuing the “heir” language that closes out the third chapter (as we realize that Paul wasn’t closing out any chapters or writing with verse divisions---always a useful reminder), Paul writes “Now I mean that the heir,” meaning, all that are children of Abraham by faith,” as long as he is a minor, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything” (4:1).  Can we read a bit deeper into this text?  Does this illuminate another problem within this congregation of believers?  Is there a younger member of the church, a relatively wealthy slaveholder who has had the goods of his parents fall to him at a young age, though “he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father” (4:2), who thinks himself better than his slaves or the members of their gathering that were slaves?  Though there can certainly be a larger analogy at play, specifically the issue of Jews and the covenant markers of the law versus Gentiles and the covenant marker of belief in Jesus, this may not be an unreasonable proposition.  Regardless, Paul takes yet another step to level out the community, writing “So also we, when we were minors, were enslaved under the basis forces of the world” (4:3).  The point being, we’re all slaves.  It may be appropriate to add “For if anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself” (6:3). 

After making reference to the familiar process of acquiring a slave (“to redeem those who were under the law” 4:5a), Paul continues with the language of slavery, drawing upon the custom of the adoption of slaves as sons, which would serve to demonstrate the great magnanimity of the master that performs such an adoption, adding “so that we may be adopted as son sons with full rights… So you are no longer a slave but a son, and if you are a son, then you are also an heir through God” (4:5b,7).  To this Paul adds “Formerly when you did not know God, you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods at all” (4:8).  Now, there may be some that are not going to like what they are hearing, as it is heavily disruptive of the social order and certainly takes no heed to the all-important sense of honor before the community that is diligently pursued and jealously guarded.  Paul understands this, but like Jesus, simply does not care, as it has no place in the pursuit of the kingdom of God.  Paul has discarded all honorific attachments, considering it unimportant in relation to what is necessary to embody the kingdom.  He’s more than content to take the lowest place, as He understands His Lord to have done and directed His followers to do.  So even though Paul understands what makes for true honor, he’s not deluded about the way that this line of thinking is going to be received, but understands it to be necessary if they are going to model out the kingdom of God, through their meal table, in the way that it was demonstrated by the one they call Lord.  He writes “So then, have I become your enemy by telling you the truth?” (4:16) 

Considering the language of slavery, and if we are hearing Paul correctly, from within the world in which he lived and the congregation to which he spoke, we understand that when Paul goes into his later analogy, comparing Sinai and the law with Hagar (and Ishmael) and slavery, whereas belief in Christ as the means for the expression of inclusion under the covenant is compared to Isaac (and Sarah), we do not have to hear this as condemnation or an assertion of superiority.  Clearly, Paul does not want those who he insists do not need to adhere to the outward marks of the covenant that are associated with the law, to somehow feel superior to those that bear and uphold those covenant markers, while also confessing their belief in Jesus as Lord.  This would be antithetical to his purposes.  Rather, we are probably better served by holding on to the social dynamic that is at work, seeing Paul’s continual leveling out of the community, with all---be they the wealthy master of a slave, Jewish by birth and therefore a part of God’s originally elected people, or a Judaizing Gentile that has come to believe that they must uphold the covenant markers that were then in place---being slaves at one level or another.  For that reason, they should be quite incapable of vaunting themselves over those that were actually slaves.        

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Galatians & Giving (part 2)

Returning to the issues at hand in the church that are indicated by Paul’s highlighting of the Jew/Gentile divisions, we can trace this theme through the letter.  Doing so should shed helpful light on the words of the sixth verse of the sixth chapter, allowing us to hear the words more appropriately.  In the first chapter, Paul writes of “a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you” (1:8b).  This is a helpful alert to a problem within the church.  Shortly thereafter, Paul begins his talk of Judaism (1:13,14).  He does not condemn, but rather, sets his former way of life in contrast with his call to preach Christ “among the Gentiles” (1:16).  In the second chapter, Paul again writes of his preaching “among the Gentiles” (2:2), going on to speak of circumcision and his Greek companion (2:3).  He calls our attention to this by writing “Yet not even Titus, who was with me, was compelled to be circumcised,” in a desire to bring him into conformity with the covenant markers of Judaism, “although he was a Greek” (2:3).  The only reason for Paul to make mention of this is if it has some bearing on that with which he intends to deal in this letter. 

In the sixth verse of the chapter, Paul offers an aside, saying “God shows no favoritism between people” (2:6b).  Though this is directly related to the “influential leaders” (2:6c) of the church in Jerusalem, it seems as though Paul includes this statement as part of the larger point that he is making, while going on to point out that he was “entrusted with the Gospel to the uncircumcised just as Peter was to the circumcised (for He who empowered Peter for his apostleship to the circumcised also empowered me for my apostleship to the Gentiles)” (2:7-8).  When it comes to participation in the Gospel and the kingdom for which it makes its claim, Paul clearly sets Gentiles on equal footing with the Jews.  This section leads into the recollection of his heated encounter with Peter, in which he decries Peter’s attempt to force Gentiles to adhere to the covenant markers of Judaism in order to be full participants in the covenant. 

Paul abhors this notion, saying that this is a setting aside of God’s grace, making it so that Christ died for nothing (2:21).  If covenant membership was predicated on bearing the covenant markers of Judaism, then the Gospel claim of Jesus’ Lordship had no place nor efficacy.  Therefore, He becomes an unnecessary revelation of Israel’s God.  Again, Paul is setting Jews and Gentiles on equal footing in regards to participation in the covenant.  The Gentiles do not have a lesser position in the covenant, and therefore, most certainly not in the church, though this seems to be what is being communicated, perhaps even unwittingly and unintentionally, to the Gentiles that at least partially compose this particular congregation.  With this, we do well to remember that we, along with the recipients of this letters, are most likely hearing it read to us at the setting of the community meal.  In this case, it is possible that, as Paul reports to be the case at Antioch (and therefore the reason he brings it to the fore here), the believers have taken to having separate meal tables---one for Jews and one for Gentiles (though we do not insist that this must be the case). 

In the third chapter, Paul imports the example of Abraham.  It is with Abraham, of course, that circumcision originates as the sign of the covenant.  Having imported Abraham, Paul immediately writes that “God would justify the Gentiles by faith” (3:8b), adding the report of the promise that “All the nations will be blessed in you” (3:8c).  To this Paul attaches “So then those who believe,” with that belief being the belief in the Gospel that Jesus is Lord, which Paul insists is the sole covenant marker for Gentiles, “are blessed along with Abraham the believer” (3:9).  Just as circumcision was a secondary marker for Abraham, with belief being the primary marker, so it would also be for Gentiles.  Gentiles were not to be relegated to second-class status if they did not have or observe the visible covenant markers (works of the law) of Judaism.  Gentiles Christians were not to be shamed or looked down upon, while Jewish or Judaizing Christians had honor accrue to them.  We see that Gentiles, and the need for them to be viewed as equal sharers in the covenant and its blessings, are primarily in view for Paul as he goes on to add that “in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham would come to the Gentiles” (3:14a). 

Having removed the barriers of separation between Jew and Gentile, Paul continues that process, moving along to other potential sources of division or stratification in the church that could lead to a weakening of the effective presentation of the message of the Gospel to an onlooking world, as he goes on to write “For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God through faith.  For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female---for all of you are on in Christ Jesus.  And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to the promise” (3:26-29).  This, along with the operational “structure” of the earliest of Christian gatherings, will have a bearing on our conclusions.    

Monday, August 22, 2011

Galatians & Giving (part 1)

Now the one who receives instruction in the word must share all good things with the one who teaches it. – Galatians 6:6  (NET)

The sixth verse of the sixth chapter of Galatians.  It is a verse that has been held up as the basis for giving to one’s church, or specifically, one’s pastor.  More than that, it has been used as a veritable theological brickbat for many years, and by many people, justifying the demand that Christians pay the people that instruct them in the Christian faith, presuming that this was the Apostle Paul’s demand as well.  More than that, verse seven is brought into play, adding the insistence “Do not be deceived.  God will not be made a fool.  For a person will reap what he sows” (6:7), and presumably, if one gives to his or her pastor, thereby demonstrating a respect for the teaching of the word, that said person is one “who sows to the Spirit,” and therefore, “will reap eternal life from the Spirit” (6:8b).  Alternatively, if a person does not give to their teacher, presumably disrespecting the teaching of the word and the man (or woman) of God that delivers it, that person “sows to his own flesh,” and will therefore “reap corruption from the flesh” (6:8a). 

Inevitably, verse nine is brought into play, insisting that even in times of struggle, when it may seem difficult to tithe or to give in any way, “we must not grow weary in doing good, for in due time we will reap, if we do not give up” (6:9).  The fact that this is the language of public benefaction is usually ignored, even though Paul follows up with “So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who belong to the family of faith” (6:10).  Some even use the language of verse ten to justify giving exclusively within one’s particular congregation, putting undue weight on the “especially” of the verse, while allowing “let us do good to all people” fall to the wayside. 

While it is undeniable that Paul is here insisting that respect be given to those who offer instruction in the words of faith, what is also undeniable is that he writes to a congregation that does not at all reflect the type of church structure with which we are all familiar.  In this congregation, existing very early in the era of the church, there would be no particular pastor who was primarily responsible for the instruction of the congregation.  Teaching would most definitely not have taken place in a setting with which most of us are familiar, which is a setting in which a single person, usually the same person week in and week out (with the occasional guest speaker or associate pastor mixed in) stands at the head of a gathered crowd, with said crowd dutifully listening to the instruction week in and week out, nodding their heads in agreement and offering up the occasional “amen” in support of the teacher’s assertions.  Now, this is not to say that there is anything wrong with such a setting, and it must be said that the setting to which the vast majority of Christendom has grown accustomed has served the church of Christ relatively well.  It is simply to say that this is not the setting into which Paul wrote, or which he would have had in mind as he wrote. 

The setting into which Paul wrote, and in which his letter would be read aloud to the assembled congregation, would be that of a meal.  Paul makes clear the primacy of the meal table in his dealings with the Galatian church, utilizing the example of his experience in Antioch because it would most likely resound with them.  Hearing Paul’s letter read to them while they were at their standard gathering around the meal table would heighten the sensitivity to the issues that he is addressing in this church---with their giving practices being ancillary to the larger issues at hand.  Surely, we cannot imagine Paul employing an example that had no bearing on the issue with which he deals in this letter to the church of Galatia. 

In the second chapter, Paul writes “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 Gentiles.  But when they arrived, he stopped doing this and separated himself because he was afraid of those who were pro-circumcision” (2:11-12).  As was the case at Antioch, this church must have been failing to come together at an undivided meal table, as they continued to recognize the distinctions between Jew and Gentile, and therefore allowing for the upholding of the covenantal markers of Judaism (dietary laws denoting clean and unclean, circumcision, and Sabbath-keeping).  Paul saw this as highly problematic and will use the dichotomy to make his points concerning what is meant by justification.  More on this anon. 

We need to spend a bit more time recognizing the structure of the church’s gathering.  In their adherence to the Jesus tradition, and very much in tune with prevailing custom and culture, the earliest Christian assemblies were centered on the meal table.  In this respect, they would have looked very much like the familiar associations of the day.  The major difference for the Christians would be (or ideally, should be) the fact that the table was not stratified according to the social order of honor and shame.  There was to be no distinction between Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, rich or poor, but all were to share equally in status at the table and in the food and wine that was available for consumption.  Paul calls the Corinthian church to account for their failure to live out the model of the meal demonstrated by Jesus, pointing out their failure to have all at the table share in the same food and drink, in both quantity and quality. 

This shared meal would consist of two parts, the first of which was the deipnon, the second part of which was the symposium.  The deipnon is where the meal would be shared and where bread would be broken.  At the close of the deipnon, a libation would be presented in honor of the god of the association.  For the Christians, who were those who looked to Jesus as King rather than Caesar (the Caesareans), the libation would be presented, poured out, or consumed in honor of Jesus (think of Jesus and His taking of the cup “after supper”).  With this portion of the meal complete, they would move on to the symposium.  The symposium was the part of the event of the meal in which discussions were to be had, songs could be sung, people could speak in tongues, messages could be delivered, etc…  We see Paul speaking to this situation in the first letter to Corinth. 

He writes “When you come together, each one has a song, has a lesson, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation.  Let all these things be done for the strengthening of the church” (14:26b).  He goes on to offer some helpful guidelines for how the symposium should be conducted, but at no point can we insert any ideas of a single person always presiding over the service or being the primary, regular teacher in the mold of our current conceptions of a pastor.  All were to be equal participants, and in fact, it was most likely the case, in accordance with standard association customs in those days, that the presidency of the meal (the one who presided over the meal) was a shared responsibility, rotating amongst the members of the group.  We can imagine that this would be even more prevalent in the churches, especially as they were to prefer one another and serve one another in a spirit of humility with a consciousness of the cross of Christ, so that one person could never be in a position to dominate another or dominate the group.    

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Binding & Loosing (part 2 of 2)

This brings us back to Matthew sixteen and Jesus’ statement to Peter.  With our having established that the Temple was the point of reference with talk of earth and heaven (throughout the New Testament and demonstrably so in Matthew and all of the Gospels), while also establishing that Jesus sees Himself as the new Temple, we have done ourselves a great hermeneutical service.  By extension then, continuing with said hermeneutic, in line with the earliest interpreters of the Jesus’ tradition, the church, as it carries out the mission of Jesus, infused with the same Spirit by which Jesus was raised up from the dead, is to be conceived of as the Temple in so far as it represents Jesus. 

Therefore, talk of earth and heaven, within an appropriate context, becomes talk of the church.  We can use this knowledge as we hear Jesus speak to Peter.  Peter has just insisted that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (16:16b).  Part of Jesus’ response to this declaration is to tell Peter that “flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father in heaven!” (16:17b)  The use of flesh and blood presents us with an unspoken contrast of revelation by a means other than flesh and blood.  When Jesus says “My Father in heaven” revealed this to Peter, having set “flesh and blood” in juxtaposition, He is making an obvious reference to the activity of God, by means of His Spirit.  This sets the stage for what is to come, especially as we consider that it was understood by the followers of Christ that it was the Spirit of God at work to animate Jesus following His Resurrection, with that Spirit then animating His church.  If this is the case, when Jesus goes on to say “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (16:19a), the kingdom of heaven being the hoped-for and expected reality of God’s rule on earth through His Messiah, which was foundational to Jesus’ message as well as that which His ministry embodies the hoped-for reality to which it pointed, then Jesus, when speaking of the “keys,” speaks of the church. 

We must always be careful to not confuse the church with the kingdom of heaven.  Those who compose the church are the representatives of the kingdom of heaven, but the church is never to be thought of as the kingdom of heaven itself.  The church is to be the herald of God’s kingdom come to earth, and is to be the place of the overlap of heaven and earth.  It is to be the locus of binding and loosing.  That binding is the binding of the operative powers of death and the many forms that it takes in this world, whereas that loosing is the loosing of people and the creation from those same destructive powers.  Can such an assertion be made? 

What do we see from Jesus from the very beginning of His ministry?  We see that He “went throughout all of Galilee… preaching the Gospel of the kingdom, and healing all kinds of diseases and sickness among the people” (4:23).  Here we see Jesus performing operations of binding and loosing.  We could take a look at all of Jesus’ pronouncements concerning the kingdom of heaven to be found in Matthew, drawing out the analogies of binding and loosing, but rather than do that, it would be more worthwhile to point out that such binding and loosing, though we tend to see it only as acts of healing from physical sickness, were actually social healings as well, allowing for the recipients of the merciful compassion of God, through Jesus, to be re-admitted as full participants in the community. 

Everywhere that Jesus enacts the kingdom of heaven, creating the overlap of the two realms of existence, there is binding and loosing occurring.  As we hear Jesus say “Whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven” (16:19b), we need to understand Him to be saying, “Whenever you act on earth in a way that defeat the powers that attempt to continue to mar God’s good creation, you have introduced the power of God’s realm of existence (heaven), into the world.”  Likewise, when we hear Jesus say “and whatever you release on earth will have been released in heaven” (16:19c), rather than hear this with some sense of a vast gulf between heaven and earth, we need to hear Him saying, “Whenever you act on earth in a way in a way that liberates your fellow man, affirming their humanity and bringing them closer to rightly bearing the divine image in which they were created, you enact the power of heaven in the world.” 

Though we have been trained, perhaps unfortunately, to hear or to speak these words of binding and loosing in a spiritual sense, doing so in some sort of reference to the realm of the operation of supernatural powers that we somehow command by the name of Jesus, it is not at all clear that the disciples would have been so restricted in their hearing.  There would most certainly have been a general awareness of cosmic powers at work and evidenced by various forms of sickness, disease, handicaps, and the like, but it was not these powers that were to be bound or loosed.  Rather, it was the people that were subject to such powers that were said to be bound, and it was these same people that were loosed from these powers by the word and touch of Jesus.  Concurrently, these powers that kept people physically bound were the same powers that kept them socially bound, ostracized from the community, so their unbinding would also serve to loose them from their social chains as well. 

So, do we go too far if we insist that talk of binding and loosing is to be interpreted within the framework of the church, as the church serves out its mission to represent the kingdom of heaven, mimicking the message and ministry of Jesus?  It is possible.  However, if we turn to the eighteenth chapter of Matthew, we once again hear Jesus speaking and saying “I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you release on earth will have been released in heaven” (18:18).  What precedes this statement?  Jesus is presented as dealing with the restoration of relationships (part and parcel of binding and loosing, as we have seen).  In the course of talking about faults and forgiveness and dealing with our kingdom brethren, Jesus says “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.  If he refuses to listen to the church, treat him like a Gentile or a tax collector” (18:17).  As yet another aside, based upon the Gospel witness of Jesus’ ministerial efforts, this means to redouble your efforts towards him and treat him the way you see I treat Gentiles and tax collectors. 

Here, Jesus speaks about the church before speaking about binding and loosing, along with talk of heaven and earth, linking the power to bind and loose with the church.  One might attempt to argue that this talk of the church did not spring from the lips of Jesus Himself, but that it is an interpolation into the Jesus tradition by the composer of the Gospel of Matthew, as he (or she) attempts to deal with issues in the church community by placing words on Jesus’ mouth.  If this were the case, it merely serves to underscore the fact that Jesus’ disciples well understood that His talk of binding and loosing, being linked with talk of earth and heaven, was Temple language, and therefore applied to them as the living Temple of the body of Christ.  In closing, we can see that Jesus punctuates His statement here in Matthew’s eighteenth chapter with “Again, I tell you the truth, if two of you on earth agree about whatever you ask, My Father in heaven will do it for you” (18:19).  We see this as yet another overlapping of heaven and earth, which leads to an even greater example of the way that the church is to be the place of the coming together of heaven and earth, when Peter learns that he is to offer essentially unlimited forgiveness to his fellow kingdom denizens.  We find herein great power to bind or to loose.    

Saturday, August 20, 2011

On The Anniversary Of My Father's Death

Two years ago today, my father passed away. So today, I wanted to take the opportunity to share the message that I delivered at my father’s funeral.  The journey of life, with my studies and experiences over the last two years, would probably lead me to make some changes to this eulogy, but I here present it, unchanged, as a memorial.

In Proverbs 10:1 we find it said that, “A wise son makes a glad father, but a foolish son is a sorrow to his mother.” Now, I don’t know if I can be called wise, though many have told me over the last few days that my father was very proud of me and my brother. I am confident, however, that I have done many foolish things that have brought sorrow to my mother. So mom, I’m sorry.

If, in fact, there is anything in my life that made my father glad, and thus demonstrated any measure of wisdom (which I hope and pray is the case), I know that it is for one reason only. That reason is to be found in the book of Isaiah, chapter thirty-eight, verse nineteen, which says, “The father makes known to the children Your faithfulness.” More than anything else, my father made known to me, and I’m sure to most all of you as well, God’s unending faithfulness. In that same verse, Isaiah wrote, “The living, the living, he thanks You, as I do this day.” So even though I know that we are here to mourn, to grieve, and to honor, more importantly, we are all here to say “thank you” to this man, Jonathan Byrd; and most importantly, to say “thank you” to the Savior, Jesus Christ, Whom he served.

Though we are rightfully saddened at this time of loss, and though we have been understandably perplexed as to why he was allowed to linger in his disability for nearly five years, when all he wanted was to, as he put it so many times, “receive his promotion,” we now rejoice in the fact that our Lord finally and faithfully brought His servant home to Himself, that his promotion came through, and that his earthly sojourn has been brought to a blessed end. Because that blessed end was followed immediately by a glorious beginning, we are able to quote the words of the Apostle Paul, in which he says, “Give thanks in all things, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). To God be the glory, great things He has done. 

I was at the airport in Beijing, China, on my way to Singapore, when I received the news from my mom. I’m sure that I don’t have to explain the wave of emotions that was experienced in that moment. There was surprise at the fact that it came without warning, relief that the suffering and pain was finally over, thankfulness for the perfect peace and healing that had now been granted to him, and naturally, a deep sadness. 

Then, two things happened. My Bible was open on the table in front of me, so scanning the page, my eyes came to Matthew 12:18, which reads, “Behold, My servant whom I have chosen, My beloved with whom My soul is well pleased.” Though I never, not for one second, doubted that my dad had entered into an eternity with His Lord, that verse immediately became a source of great comfort for me. 

Second, I immediately thought about a man named M.A. Thomas. Dr. M.A. Thomas, the founder of Hopegivers International, was one of my father’s most dear friends. His ministry was, above all other ministries with which my father worked and supported, the one that was closest to dad’s heart. Though he gave millions throughout his lifetime, to so many ministries, and though he raised money for ministries, in amounts that, when totaled together, runs into the hundreds of millions of dollars, there was no single work to which he gave more, than the ministry of Hopegivers. I thought about Dr. Thomas, because when he would phone my father, or anyone else for that matter, he would always greet that person by saying, “Yes, my brother.” Sometimes, my dad would answer the phone, and Dr. Thomas would say, “O my brother. I have such glorious news!” When those words were spoken, my dad would cry, because he knew that Dr. Thomas was about to tell him that one of his preachers boys, in India, had been martyred, laying down his life for the sake of the Gospel. So as my mother spoke to me the words of my father’s passing, I heard the voice of Dr. Thomas, saying, “O my brother. I have such glorious news!”

Dad would not only give to ministries, and he would not only help raise money for ministries, but he would also give of his time to speak at events, large and small, in support of those works that he wanted to support. When he would do so, he would almost invariably reference the Apostle Paul’s letter to Titus. He would tell those who had gathered together that in chapter three of Titus, beginning in the third verse, we find this said: “For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasure, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another.”

Now, doesn’t that seem like a good way to start a fundraiser? Then he would add, in spite of all those things, that Paul went on to write, “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to His own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (3:4-7). 

From there, he would add the next verse, which says, “The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people” (3:8). I would ask that, if you truly desire to honor my father, his memory, and his influence in your lives, that you would prayerfully consider devoting yourself to this particular good work. Whenever my father would gather together a group of people, inevitably, he would talk about Hopegivers (, and attempt to convince as many people as possible to support an orphan child that would be raised up to become a preacher. As dad has gathered all of us together this final time, I would be remiss if I did not do the same. 

Yesterday, as I had the privilege of speaking to so many people that knew my dad, I heard about the influence that he had in their lives. I heard about so many things that he had taught them. To each of you that have been taught by my dad, I would like to add some words that the Apostle Paul wrote to Timothy, his son in the faith. He wrote, “You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2:1-3). 

Why do I speak of suffering? I do so because of dad’s physical condition even before the stroke. I don’t know how many of you know this, but for most of his life, even from his teenage days, dad had bad feet, bad knees, bad hips, and a bad back One leg was shorter than the other, and he actually walked with a limp, which he disguised very well. Most of these things were due to a degenerative spinal condition, which he had from birth. To these things, you can add chronic high blood pressure, from his teenage years, along with an early onset of arthritis.

Yes, my father lived a very blessed life, but it was tempered by a great deal of physical pain which, believe it or not, actually limited him from doing all of the things that he wanted to do. I’m sure that, well before the stroke and its complications that disabled him for these last five years, he often wondered why such pain was to be his lot in life, especially considering his service to the Lord. I am sure that he found comfort from the Apostle Paul, as he wrote to Timothy, saying, “share in suffering for the Gospel by the power of God, Who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of His own purpose and grace, which He gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began” (2 Timothy 1:8b-9). Frankly, all of the pain and all of the problems simply didn’t matter, because dad knew that he had been saved and called to a holy calling.

Over the last five years, because of all of the businesses in which our family is involved, many important decisions have had to be made. These decisions were the type that dad always seemed to make so effortlessly, though we always knew that there was great effort, thought, and prayer involved. Now, for the most part, these decisions ultimately fell to my mom. Because dad was the dynamic and powerful leader of our family, and because that leader was no longer there to lead, mom took great encouragement from the words of Joshua 1:2, which says, “Moses, My servant, is dead. Now therefore arise, go…” 

Though dad was not dead, the man that we knew was gone, and there was still work to be done. God went on to tell Joshua that “No man shall be able to stand before you all the days of your life. Just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will not leave you or forsake you” (1:5). God would later add, “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go” (1:9).

I bring this up because I thought it was so appropriate, as it relates to the night that dad died. It was a day like any other, an evening like any other. A very routine day at mom and dad’s house. When God took dad’s breath away, mom was making his dinner. As I thought about that, I thought, what a wonderful metaphor for these last five years of mom’s life. She was making his dinner. She was serving him and caring for him, not only until the very end, but literally, that’s what she was doing when the end finally came. So mom was in the kitchen, getting his dinner ready. As is usually the case, when mom went to get dinner ready, dad indicated that he was going to take a nap. When he woke up from that nap, he was with Jesus. I can’t even imagine what a glorious awakening that was. But this was mom’s prayer. Her prayer to God had been, that when He finally saw fit to take dad, that He would do so at home, at peace, while he was sleeping. 

Now, this is why I think that mom’s regular references to Moses are so appropriate. As we read through the book of Deuteronomy, we are not specifically told how Moses died. However, the Hebrew language, in which Deuteronomy was written, is a picture language. Each letter is an illustration, and taken together, the letters of the words form a picture that underlies the words of the text. So when we read, we simply read that Moses died; but the picture that is painted by the language tells us that “God leaned down over the balcony of heaven, that He kissed Moses on the cheek, and Moses fell asleep.” That’s how God took our Moses as well. Well before he was taken, however, God said to Moses, in the eleventh chapter of Numbers, “And I will take some of the Spirit that is on you and put it on them, and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, so that you may not have to bear it yourself alone” (11:17b).

As I close, I want to leave you with some final words of the Apostle Paul. He wrote, “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved His appearing” (2 Timothy 4:6-8). As we reflect on that, we do not mourn like those who have no hope, but we rejoice with my father. We celebrate his life today. Why do we celebrate? Why do we carry such a hope? There is one reason, and one reason only, which is something that my dad said never ceased to amaze him. The reason for our hope is that Jesus Christ is still the hope of the world.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Binding & Loosing (part 1 of 2)

I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.  Whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you release on earth will have been released in heaven. – Matthew 16:19  (NET)

When we read of earth and heaven, especially within the pages of the Gospels, we must stubbornly resist the urge to retreat into an unhelpful, Platonic-form-derived, enlightenment-driven, separation of earth from heaven.  Instead, we must ensconce ourselves within the notion that the disciples of Jesus and the community of believers that sprung from their sharing of the testimony of Jesus in the days, weeks, months, and years following His Resurrection, operated from the point of view that the purpose of the Creator God, the God of Israel, was to bring heaven to earth---to cause the overlap of His realm of existence with the realm of existence occupied by the creatures that He had created and empowered to bear His image. 

Accordingly then, the place that was said to be occupied by that God, which would be the Temple (the house of God), would be the primary locus of that overlapping activity.  With that said, it then greatly behooves us to realize that reference to “heaven and earth,” when made by members of the house of Israel such as Jesus, are generally references to the Temple, both specifically and in general.  As an aside, the fact that the words of our Scriptural thrust text, with their talk of earth and heaven, are directed to Peter, helps us to make sense of the fact the letters of the New Testament that are attributed to Peter also make mention of heaven and earth (especially chapter three of first Peter). 

Yes, the Temple was the place of the coming together of heaven and earth.  Any reference to “heaven and earth,” especially if it is in the context of talk of the Temple, is a reference to the Temple itself.  Since we are in Matthew, this talk of heaven, earth, and Temple prompts us to look briefly at Matthew twenty-four.  There, we hear Jesus saying, as He answers the question about when the Temple will be cast down with not one stone left upon another (with an allusion to the oft-referenced-by-Jesus-in-Matthew prophecy of Isaiah), “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken” (24:29).  Though Jesus’ allusion to Isaiah ends there, Isaiah continued on to eventually write “So I will shake the heavens, and the earth will shake loose from its foundation” (13:13a).  Isaiah was referring to Jerusalem and the Temple being overcome by Babylon, using apocalyptic language of heaven and earth that reaches beyond mere symbolism and drama, conveying Jewish opinion concerning the Temple---the place where heaven and earth came together. 

The tradition of such thinking concerning the house of God reached all the way back to Jacob, as it is when he is in Bethel (translation: the house of God), that he has the dream in which a ladder reached from earth to heaven, with the angels of God ascending and descending upon said ladder.  Yes, the house of God (Bethel) is where and heaven and earth came together, by the instrumentation of this ladder.  Not to get too far afield, and though we do not interpret Matthew by John, it is little wonder then, that the Gospel of John, in its portrayal of Jesus that reflected the development of Christian understanding about Jesus and a better grasp, in the late first century in the time period after the fall of the Temple, of Jesus’ sayings about Himself, has Jesus telling Nathanael and the other men that had been called to be His disciples, that they “will see heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (1:51b).  

Yes, the early church clearly understood that Jesus was the true Temple.  He was the house of God.  He was the place where heaven and earth came together.  By the gifting of His Spirit, His church would carry out His mission as the Temple, becoming the extension of His faithfulness.  Naturally, if talk about the church as the Temple of the Holy Spirit is taken seriously (as we can see in the pre-Matthean letters of the Apostle Paul, though Paul would have drawn from the Jesus traditions eventually concretized by Matthew and the other Gospel writers, while also having a hand in the theological shaping of those Jesus-centered narratives), in both a communal sense and in accord with the responsibility of the individuals members that compose the body of Christ, this informs the Christian as to his or her responsibilities in association with a life lived in response to the Gospel claim that Jesus is Lord.  The Christian is to be the place where and heaven earth come together---bringing heaven to earth as a singular purpose.  The church, as the collection of individual elected ones (Christians), carries out this purpose in community.