Saturday, December 31, 2011

Believing In Him (part 51)

Lest we surmise that a revival of talk of justification and its requisite accompaniment of the family of God is not applicable to this portion of Paul’s letter, we need only skip down to verse twelve, where we hear “So then, brothers and sisters, we are under obligation” (8:12a).  To whom or to what?  “Not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh” (8:12a), for that is the old age of division and a fractured humanity.  Emphasizing the seriousness of the new obligation of the new covenant, Paul expands upon and punctuates that statement with “(for if you live according to the flesh, you will die)” (8:13a).  Further elaboration has Paul offering the contrasting position: “but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live” (8:13b).  This business of God’s kingdom come to earth is a matter of life and death. 

Without getting sidetracked into an examination of what Paul may mean with verse thirteen, we find him quickly returning to the familial theme with verse fourteen and “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are the sons of God” (8:14).  What is the evidence of being led by the Spirit?  Again, it is belief in Jesus as Lord (the mark of justification/participation in the Creator God’s covenant people), and the resultant participation in His kingdom purposes (with its promises, cross-shaped responsibilities, and blessings).  Further extending the family metaphor, and perhaps offering a suggestion as to the nature of the composition of the congregation of believers to which he writes, Paul goes on to adapt the language of, and rely upon familiarity with, the practices surrounding the act of adoption in that day, writing “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery leading again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’” (8:15) 

Though there are numerous ways to hear these words, and while it certainly is suggestive of the type of relationship that can be individually enjoyed with the Creator God, it is important to keep this in line with what we have learned to this point in the letter, and to assert that this ability to cry out to God is about Paul’s continued insistence that all peoples can now rightly cry out to the God of Israel as their Father.  Before now, in their role as the covenant people, which we realize had degenerated into a defensive, protective, and excluding stance, it was only Israel that could rightly and justly cry out to their Father God and expect to be heard.  This is no longer the case.  Paul declares that “The Spirit Himself bears witness to our spirit that we are God’s children.  And if children, then heirs (namely, heirs of God and also fellow heirs with Christ)---if indeed we suffer with Him so we may also be glorified with Him” (8:16-17). 

Talk of heirs reaches back to what was suggested in the fourth chapter, being firmly ensconced within the world of the Abrahamic covenant and the inheritance to be had by all those that are his children, by a faith like that which he exercised.  Here again, Paul reaches out to the four corners of the world, suggesting a united, renewed humanity under the new covenant and in the new age that has dawned in the Resurrection, with that humanity joined together with the Christ, and called to a kingdom-oriented life that takes its cues from the suffering and shame of the cross.  This suffering, which we can certainly equate with conceptions of honor and shame as the implications of a willful journey to the cross are explored and embraced, is efficacious as the means by which Jesus’ Lordship is proclaimed and by which the kingdom of God is advanced. 

Because every act that would, in that day and age, bring shame upon the believer (at least as understood by the world and the court of public opinion), was an embracing of the cross and of the tenets of a Lord and a kingdom that is manifest in such ways, and because every shame-embracing act is performed because of the hope of resurrection and the renewal of creation, Paul cannot help but say “For I consider that our present sufferings cannot even be compared to the glory that will be revealed to us” (8:18).  For those that believe in Jesus, behind every kingdom-directed thought and every kingdom-inspired action lies the idea that just as Jesus was raised from the dead into a glorious existence of a glorified body here in a creation that has begun to experience its renewal through the resurrecting power of the Spirit, so too shall all those that believe in Him (with that belief the evidence of the Spirit’s present work and evidence that the power of the new creation is at work) experience the same.  

Friday, December 30, 2011

Believing In Him (part 50)

Continuing in his train of thought, and highlighting the struggle of the old age, Paul writes “For I don’t understand what I am doing.  For I do not do what I want---instead, I do what I hate.  But if I do what I don’t want, I agree that the law is good.  But now it is no longer me doing it, but sin that lives in me.  For I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh.  For I want to do the good, but I cannot do it.  For I do not do the good I want, but I do the very evil I do not want.  Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer me doing it but sin that lives in me” (7:15-20). 

We must resist the temptation to reductionism, hearing this as Paul’s personal, spiritual experience.  Instead, because Paul operates within a story that shapes his theology, his soteriology, his ecclesiology, his sociology, his politics, his economics, his psychology, his philosophy, and his missiology (though we don’t pretend that these are necessarily separate categories for Paul), we must hear Paul echoing the plaintive cry of all those, prior to the cross and against the powers at work in the old age, that have been called to carry the covenant and to reflect God’s glory into the world. 

Understanding the voice by which he cries, we hear him continue on to say “So, I find the law that when I want to do good, evil is present with me.  For I delight in the law of God in my inner being.  But I see a different law in my members waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that is in my members.  Wretched man that I am!  Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (7:21-24)  The answer, not just for Paul as an individual, but for all that have been called to bear the divine image and to carry the covenant banner, comes with the Christ and the cross, as Paul (as we are continually mindful of who it was that carried the title of Lord, along with the city to which Paul sends this letter) exclaims: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!  So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin” (7:25). 

The true self, which is the true human being of a renewed humanity animated by the Spirit of God, has come to life with Christ in the new age of the Spirit, in which the true law of God (as manifested by Jesus) is served.  The flesh of the old age died with Christ on the cross.  This epic struggle, though it may not always appear to be the case, has now been set right in the new age of life in the Spirit, which, among other things, does away with the law and its covenant boundaries and creates a united humanity as a new family of God, capable of rightly bearing the divine image and of reflecting the glory of God into the world.  As we attempt to understand the various components of Paul’s thinking, picking apart various statements so as to gain an appreciation of Paul’s insights into what is accomplished by the work of God in Christ, we do not lose sight of the bigger picture that is being conveyed to the body of believers, which is the wholesale unity of those believers under one Lord as they serve as ambassadors of the kingdom of God.

This brief foray into the seventh chapter, as we have continued to find Paul encouraging a unified family of God, facilitates a more nuanced (and perhaps better appreciated) understanding of what we now read in the eighth chapter.  While we consider the over-riding corporate (people of God) application as opposed to the individual (person of God) application of Paul’s communication, along with Paul’s giving voice to the failed covenant bearers from the beginning, the contrasting presentation of the ways of the old age versus that of the new age allows us to make eminently more sense of “For those who live according to the flesh have their outlook shaped by the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit have their outlook shaped by the things of the Spirit.  For the outlook of the flesh is death, but the outlook of the Spirit is life and peace, because the outlook of the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to the law of God, nor is it able to do so.  Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (8:5-8). 

With this being said and now better understood, we again hear Paul addressing the congregation, saying “You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you” (8:9a).  What will be the evidence that the Spirit of God is living in them corporately?  One such piece of evidence will be the lack of any division between Jew and Gentile.  Those who want to continue to maintain these divisions, continuing to insist on adherence to certain traditional provisions as marks of justification (covenant participation), rather than recognizing belief in Jesus as the sole necessity for covenant participation (justification), and thus perpetuate a divided humanity (and ultimately a fractured messianic banqueting table) are those that maintain the outlook of the flesh.  Those that rightly embrace the sole covenant provision that brings and indicates justification, are those that have the outlook of the Spirit, and are participants in the kingdom of God (life and peace).  Consequently, “if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, this person does not belong to Him” (8:9b).  Those that want to hold to old covenant markers (old age/flesh/death) do not participate in the kingdom whose head is Christ the Lord.    

Believing In Him (part 49)

From here, we jump to the eighth chapter of Romans, though this will entail a necessary regression into chapter seven.  There, in the first verse, and in his continuation of the narrative construct of the letter, Paul picks up on that which closed out the fifth chapter, while also folding in the union with Christ theme that we saw in the sixth chapter and writes “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (8:1).  With what comes in verses three and four, Paul emphasizes the contrast between the old age (flesh) and the new age (spirit)---the old age prior to the Christ-event in which Jew and Gentile were separated by covenant boundaries (law) and the new age after the Christ-event in which Jew and Gentile are joined together as the family of God and in union with Christ, writing “For God achieved what the law could not do” (8:3a). 

What could the law not do?  It could not generate a covenant family of divine image-bearers to represent the Creator God throughout the whole of His creation.  Why could it not do this?  Because it had enemies and adversaries.  “Because it was weakened through the flesh” (8:3b).  It was weakened by that which marked the old age, which was sin and death. 

Indeed, relying on chapter seven of Romans, it was weakened through distinctly non-divine-image-bearing characteristics such as covetousness (7:9).  Certainly, if one is consumed by covetousness, one can hardly be in a position to embody the cross of Christ in and for the world through self-sacrifice and preference of others.  The law and its commandments, which Paul believes to be “holy, righteous, and good” (7:12b), when placed in human hands, were simply overwhelmed by the powers at work in the world, that had not yet been conquered by the cross and the Resurrection.  Their application led to the division of humanity in a way that was far afield of God’s intentions for those created in His image and those that were tasked to carry His covenant.  In Jesus, and in God’s covenant faithfulness therein represented, this division is dismissed.  As a new Adam, Jesus marks a new beginning for a new type of people---those that are animated by the Spirit, which is the power of the Resurrection in the world in which the kingdom of God is a reality.    

This struggle in the old age, even with the law and its commandments as a guide to proper image-bearing, which was perhaps intended to be a sign-post (much like the ministry of Jesus and His church following Him) of the in-breaking of the always-expected age of God’s proper rule over creation, is well-articulated by Paul’s famous and much-debated words in chapter seven of Romans.  He writes “For we know that the law is spiritual” (7:14a).  That is, at least according to the construct that has been created in this study and recently reiterated, the law is related to the new age and expectation of God’s kingdom and God’s rule, “but I am unspiritual, sold into slavery to sin” (7:14b). 

Paul, speaking on behalf of and embodying all those that had failed to rightly bear the covenant (from Adam to Israel), indicates that the law is wholly unsuited to the people of the old age (people of the flesh).  This, of course, is a component of Paul’s ongoing insistence that the law has been put aside by the grace of God, especially in light of the use of the law to create boundaries around covenant participation, in a manner that was antithetical to God’s ultimate purposes, which was the redemption of all of humanity and all of His creation, rather than just one particular group of privileged people.  Whatever stands in the way of creating a single family of God---a new humanity, must be set aside, with the life of Jesus, as He represents and acts our God’s covenant faithfulness, the new law of life.  Those who believe in Jesus are to be like Him as they take up the command to “present yourselves to God as those who are alive from the dead and your members to God as instruments to be used for righteousness” (6:13b).  As Jesus was (and is), so is His church called to be and to do.   

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Love & The Public Good (part 2 of 2)

If a government, on this side of the cross, has become oppressive, with oppression generally linked to high levels of taxation (while we understand that the average person under the Roman empire paid well over half of their income---in the course of a subsistence lifestyle---in taxes, with this often leading to debt and ultimately slavery, which brings in the issue of “owe no one anything”), then the church of Christ need only look at itself and its failure to remain true to Jesus’ message of the advent of the kingdom of God, and of God’s desire to bring the rule of heaven to earth, as it has most likely retreated into an escapist fixation that limits the acceptance of Jesus’ challenging and world-altering message to going to heaven when one dies. 

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

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

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

From here, Paul advances towards the meal table, which it is clear that he has in mind, as he goes on to write “Let us live decently as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in discord and jealousy” (13:13).  Though it is not meant to serve as an accusation, this is language of the portion of the Hellenistic meal referred to as the “symposium” (period of revelry---singing of songs, debates, speeches, etc…---following a meal), and as it is possible that this church is hearing this letter while gathered for fellowship that will include a meal, the language would not be lost on them either.  It is to this then that Paul adds “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to arouse its desires” (13:14).  We do a great disservice to the apostle if we simply substitute personal and subjective notions of “the flesh” here, rather than considering “the flesh” within the context of the potential for disunity, division, stratification, and unwarranted authoritarianism within the church, as well as its connotations of the old age prior to the Resurrection, the inauguration of the new creation, and of the kingdom of God, in which preferring others above oneself is to be the norm. 

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

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

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Love & The Public Good (part 1 of 2)

Owe no one anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. – Romans 13:8  (NET)

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

The Christian, Paul would surely insist, is to be the patron of only one benefactor, that being Jesus, thus allowing the Christian to take the position of being a loving and altruistic benefactor to his community, his country, and to the world, as an enthusiastic representative of the kingdom of God.  When we consider the context in which Paul delivers the statement of verse eight, we see that he began with “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.  For there is no authority except by God’s appointment, and the authorities that exist have been instituted by God” (13:1).  This is the paradoxical situation of the Christian. 

Yes, the confessed member of the body of Christ owes his allegiance to the kingdom of God, and yes, the Christian message is quite subversive in that it recognizes Jesus as the King of kings.  However, the Christian lives with a tension, recognizing “God’s appointment” of authorities.  That paradoxical tension of respectful subversiveness is well explicated by the second Psalm, which provides an example to be followed by the people of God and the nature of their interaction with governing authorities.  There we find God’s people, via the Psalmist, saying “So now, you kings, do what is wise; you rulers of the earth, submit to correction!  Serve the Lord in fear!  Repent in terror.  Give sincere homage!  Otherwise He will be angry, and you will die because of your behavior, when His anger quickly ignites” (2:10-12a).  While this can also be taken as words of warning to those that God intends to be His kings and rulers in this world---His divine image bearers, it is well-understood to be directed to human authority figures.

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

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

Of course, this also bears on the responsibility of the church to communicate the words of one who preached the kingdom of God, as in the Gospel of Luke we find it recorded of John the Baptist that “Tax collectors also came to be baptized, and they said to him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’  He told them, ‘Collect no more than you are required to.’” (3:12-13).  The idea that tax collectors would collect only that which they were required to collect would have been quite the radical notion in that day, as it was well understood that tax collectors, quite simply, collected more than what was required, lining their pockets and enriching themselves with the excess.  Yes, this issue of government and taxes, as presented by Paul, must be understood within the context of the church’s responsibility to embody the love of God by effectively preaching the Gospel of the kingdom and living out in their own community the principles of that kingdom.  

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Communion & The Kingdom Of God (part 2 of 2)

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 26, 2011

Communion & The Kingdom of God (part 1 and 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 24, 2011


Woe to you Pharisees!  You love the best seats in the synagogues and elaborate greetings in the marketplaces!  Woe to you!  You are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without realizing it! - Luke 11:43-44  (NET)

Though one of the “experts in religious law” (11:45a) spoke up to let Jesus know that He was being remarkably offensive with His words, Jesus continued on in a way that let these men know, in no uncertain terms, that He found their kingdom-and-light-withholding ways offensive.  He goes on to say, “Woe to you experts in religious law as well!  You load people down with burdens difficult to bear, yet you yourselves refuse to touch the burdens with even one of your fingers!  Woe to you!   You build the tombs of the prophets whom your ancestors killed.  So you testify that you approve of the deeds of your ancestors, because they killed the prophets and you build their tombs!” (11:46-48) 

As we read these words, let us not fall back into the long-placed trap of imagining that Jesus is railing against their “works-based” religion, whereas He was attempting to bring forth a faith based upon a recognition of grace.  This is not, nor was it ever the issue at hand.  By mentioning the prophets, Jesus calls their attention to the underlying message of the prophets, primarily directed at the leaders of the people, which called attention to the failure to properly bear the covenant with which they had been charged, usually by entering into idolatry, and thereby failing to serve as a light to the nations that would draw people to the recognition and worship of Israel’s God---the Creator God.  An inescapable and prominent component of this charge was the neglect of orphans and widows, and it would not be a stretch to say that the elevation of idols went hand in hand with such neglect, as one almost necessarily included the other.  Now that idolatry in the traditional sense had been effectively put away and was no longer a problem, intensification of the demands of the law so as to bring about the establishment of the kingdom of heaven was a new form of idolatry that served to create more and more barriers to a widespread awareness of God, leading to the same type of neglect. 

The issue was not one of works of the law versus grace and faith, but rather, exclusivism and isolation in an attempt to keep God’s covenantal promises for themselves versus truly functioning as lights for the world and extenders of the Abrahamic covenant.  Truly, if one is so caught up in and astonished by a lack of ceremonial hand-washing and conformity to certain irrelevant sectarian prescriptions, how concerned is one going to be share the grand blessings of the Abrahamic covenant with a Gentile “sinner”?  It is with such thoughts reverberating in our minds that we now go on to hear Jesus saying, “For this reason also the wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ so that this generation may be held accountable for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary.  Yes, I tell you, it will be charged against this generation” (11:49-51). 

This is not to be taken lightly.  Without delving into the “wisdom” traditions of Israel, not only do we see this as a stinging rebuke, but we must imagine the shock that would be felt as Jesus uttered these words.  Whereas they believed that they were doing what was necessary to cause their God to embody the messiah and resoundingly act within history to defeat their enemies, rescue them from foreign subjugation, and install blessed Israel as the exalted nation of the world, Jesus informs them of His opinion that their isolating and excluding actions are productive of a mindset (revolution and rebellion?) that is going to bring yet another reckoning of judgment upon the nation. 

He concludes by saying “Woe to you experts in religious law!  You have taken away the key to knowledge!  You did not go in yourselves, and you hindered those who were going in” (11:52).  Talk of “going in” would have to be related to the coming kingdom of heaven that was going to be manifest on earth through their God acting through messiah.  So with all of this, Jesus has effectively challenged the basis of their power structure amongst the people, which was the idea that they held the keys for the manifestation of the kingdom of heaven.  If the masses were to continue listening to Jesus, and if they were to take up His way of neighborly and selfless acts done to and for all without limitation as the means of representing, ushering in, and making manifest the kingdom of God, then it would seem to be impossible to foster any type of movement to drive out the Romans so as to reclaim the covenantal land and enjoy the related promises.  So we do not wonder at the fact that “When He went out from there, the experts in the law and the Pharisees began to oppose Him bitterly, and to ask Him hostile questions about many things, plotting against Him, to catch Him in something He might say” (11:53-54).  Their desire to discredit Jesus would have been palpable and understandable.   

Friday, December 23, 2011

Believing In Him (part 48)

Keeping in mind Paul’s definition of sin, which is failing to bear the divine image that God has provided to the various covenant bearers whose stories comprise the salvation history within which Paul works and from which he takes his direction, and also keeping in mind the gracious activity of God, as in Christ as the new Adam the covenant fold is reopened to include the entire world, we transition into the sixth chapter, where Paul writes “What shall we say then?  Are we to remain in sin so that grace may increase?  Absolutely not!  How can we who died to sin still live in it?  Or do you not know that as many as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?  Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too may live a new life” (6:1-4).  Without here attempting an exegesis of this passage, but maintaining a “big picture” outlook, can we see what Paul is doing?

Continuing: “For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, we will certainly also be united in the likeness of His Resurrection.  We know that our old man was crucified with Him so that the body of sin would no longer dominate us, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.  (For someone who has died has been freed from sin.)” (6:5-7)  The “likeness” imagery is intriguing, especially as we are mindful of “image-bearing” in relation to covenant participation.  Also, Paul appears to be creating a contrast between the old age of sin and death, and the new age of life and resurrection, as a component of the move that he is here making.  On to verse eight and we hear “Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with Him.  We know that since Christ has been raised from the dead, He is never going to die again; death no longer has mastery over Him.  For the death He died, He died to sin once for all, but the life He lives, He lives to God.  So you too consider yourselves dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (6:8-11).

If we are paying close enough attention, we can ascertain what Paul has here achieved.  Prior to this, and if we were to retrace our steps through the first five chapters of Romans, we can see that Paul has successfully united Jews and Gentiles (all peoples) under one Lord, under the covenant, based on belief in Jesus.  He has also managed to creatively fold Gentiles into the story of Israel, going all the way back to Adam (though Adam was not a member of Israel, the story of Israel as God’s covenant people, and as known by Jesus and Paul, begins with Adam), particularly highlighting Abraham, and reaching out to include Moses (the calling of Israel as a peculiar covenant people).  This provides Jews and Gentiles with a shared history, which goes a long way towards the creation of a covenant family that will share in the responsibilities of Adam (stewardship of creation), in the blessings of Abraham (as reflected in the announcement of the Abrahamic covenant in Genesis chapter twelve), and even the experience of the Levitical/Deuteronomic curses of Israel and its exile that was so crucial to Israel’s own identity and sense of place in the world.

Now, here in chapter six, Paul takes that group of people, a unified humanity that comprises the church that is to be the face (and voice, hands, and feet) of the inaugurated kingdom of God, and unites them with the person of Jesus, the embodied God that is also the crucified and resurrected one.  Not only are Jews and Gentiles now one people in covenant, indistinct from each other because of a shared faith, but those peoples are now united with the Creator God, in and through the Messiah.  This union creates a marked contrast between the old age, in which all could not help but fail to rightly bear the divine image, and the new age, in which a new and different form of life (successful image-bearing) is now a possibility, made available to all and sundry as an act of God’s grace.  Thus, as humanity enjoys and indeed exploits this union for the benefit of the world, Paul writes “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its desires” (6:12).  That would be a sign of the old age.  To that is added “and do not present your members to sin as instruments to be used for unrighteousness” (6:13a).  This would be more of the old age.  Rather, in union with Jesus (in much the same way as humanity has been united), and like Him, as the harbinger of the new age of the kingdom of God, “present yourselves to God as those who are alive from the dead and your members to God as instruments to be used for righteousness” (6:13b). 

Jesus was the demonstration of God’s covenant faithfulness (righteousness), announcing, representing, and making present God’s kingdom wherever He went, as should be those who call Him Lord.  How and why can this take place?  As Paul says, again contrasting the old age of covenant failure (as humanity, including Israel, voiced a resounding “no” to their call to bear the divine image) with the new age of covenant success (humanity, composing a renewed Israel, voicing a collective “yes” to God’s command to bear His image as shown forth through Jesus), as God’s intentions are made manifest through those that believe in Jesus, “For sin will have no mastery over you, because you are not under law but under grace” (6:14).      

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Believing In Him (part 47)

Paul operates with a fellowship-driven mentality, as Israel’s history, defined by God’s covenant dealings with them, looms large in his thinking.  So as we see him, because of God’s justifying activity, incorporating Gentiles into the stories of Adam and Moses to go along with their being incorporated in the story of Abraham, with each story marking the creation of a covenant people (which is also taking place in the church, through the covenant that is marked by belief in Jesus), a demand is placed upon us to continue to allow these thoughts to resonate as we progress through the chapter. 

The boundlessness of the covenant and of the grace of God (with that boundlessness not being undefinable or unobservable, but substantively demonstrated through the inclusion of Gentiles within that covenant) is set forth as Paul writes “But the gracious gift is not like the transgression” (5:15a).  Remember, because Adam and Israel (Moses) are in view, “transgression” can be understood on multiple levels.  Those multiple transgressions are overcome, however, “For if the many died through the transgression of the one man, how much more did the grace of the one man Jesus Christ multiply to the many!” (5:15b).  We can point out that Paul believed Jesus, as Messiah (King/Christ), embodied Israel (it was a common understanding that the King stood in for the people), which allows for the transition from Adam to Jesus, encompassing Moses (who was standing in for Israel in this construct) in the process.  Thus, we can see the movement from Adam, through Jesus, to the many---the Gentile nations. 

Effectively, the covenant had been provided to all people through Adam, who represents all of humanity.  Though this is probably an uncommon way of looking at God’s covenant dealings, and though it seems somewhat counter-intuitive on its surface, we can actually insist that God’s original covenant had been made with the whole of humanity, with Adam representing the whole.  That covenant was eventually localized to Abraham and his descendants.  This includes a number of nations, as we consider the very basic fact that Abraham had two sons, Ishmael and Isaac, both of which had a number of descendants.  The covenant with Israel represents a further localizing, as the descendants of Jacob, one of the numerous grandsons of Abraham, are chosen as God’s covenant people.  According to the historical narrative on offer in Scripture, we see an ongoing narrowing of the covenant.  What at first looks like an expansion, from Adam, to Abraham’s household, to Israel, is actually an ongoing process of restriction.  The intentions always remained the same, however, which was to reflect God’s glory into the world and to gather up the praises of God’s creation and return them back to Him. 

With the Assyrian conquest of Israel, and the dispersion of the northern ten tribes of the twelve tribes of Israel and their being scattered to the four winds, Judah remains on the playing field as the carriers of the covenant.  This is yet another restriction.  As we get closer to the time of Jesus, there is an even further narrowing of covenant participants, with groups within the land of Israel creating lines of demarcation that will determine which members of God’s historical covenant people are actually continuing to participate in God’s covenant.  From the record of the Gospels, it is the opinion of Jesus that those who are the primarily self-appointed arbiters of covenant in His day have gone horribly astray, are missing the mark, and are presenting a picture of the covenant and Creator God that was set at quite a distance from the God that revealed Himself through Adam, Abraham, Moses, and the prophets.  It is from these people that Jesus seizes the role of arbitrator, taking it upon Himself to demonstrate God’s intentions in regards to His covenant with His creation and His image-bearers, doing much to bear this out with His meal practice. 

By doing this, Jesus actually represents the final step in this long-running narrowing process.  While this means that the covenant has finally moved from the whole of humanity (Adam) to “one man,” Jesus’ re-shaping of the covenant, and His re-structuring of the covenant around Himself, restarts the process.  Jesus is the second Adam (or the last Adam), and God’s covenant is now thrown open “to the many,”  to all of humanity, as had been the case with Adam.  There is, of course, a major difference, in that “the gift is not like the one who sinned,” Adam, “For judgment, resulting from the one transgression, led to condemnation, but the gracious gift from the many failures,” that line of Adam, Abraham, Jacob, Israel, Judah, and the Pharisees, “led to justification” (5:16). 

Summing up this section then, and doing so with the entire scope of covenant and salvation history in mind, Paul writes “For if, by the transgression of the one man, death reigned through the one, how much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one, Jesus Christ!” (5:17)  Jesus marks the transition of the ages.  Whereas death reigned because of the covenant transgression of the first Adam, that age has been brought to an end.  Life now reigns through the covenant faithfulness of the second Adam.  In Him, a new creation has begun.  A new humanity has been brought into existence, and this humanity, through the grace of God, shares in the gift of righteousness (they are justified, experiencing God’s covenant faithfulness by participating in the new covenant for the new age) by believing in Jesus and His Gospel. 

Paul’s “all peoples” focus, which has seen him sharing the history of Israel with Gentiles and in which the covenant moves outward from Israel to take in the whole of creation and all of its peoples, which has been resonant from the beginning of his communication and stands in contrast to any notion that Gentiles needed to move towards Israel so as to participate in the covenant (by adopting its covenant markers), rings out as he moves to the close of the fifth chapter.  He writes “Consequently, just as condemnation for all people came through one transgression, so too through the one righteous act came righteousness for all people” (5:18).  Covenant participation is for all people, and it comes through belief in Jesus, graciously and faithfully orchestrated by the Creator God.  There is not a limited group of covenant participants.  God’s redemptive purposes and plans extend to “all,” which he also refers to as the “many,” as opposed to “the few.”  Consequently, and we almost find Paul repeating himself as he explores the angles of his thinking and stresses the significance and scope of God’s cosmic plans and the dramatic re-write (according to then-current thinking) that is taking place in Jesus, we read “For just as through the disobedience of the one man many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of one man many will be made righteous” (5:19).     

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Believing In Him (part 46)

We can hear the language of an internationally inclusive redemption from exile flowing heavily from Paul: “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, how much more, since we have been reconciled, will we be saved by His life?” (5:10)  Reconciliation and salvation, from out of exile, are components of the language of justification, and Paul continues to apply it liberally to all peoples, as he also continues his self-identification with Gentiles.  As always, he re-centers his thoughts on Jesus and the belief in Him that provides said justification, writing “Not only this, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ,” another thumb in the eye to “lord” Caesar as he writes to this assembly of believing kingdom representatives in Rome, “through whom we have now received the reconciliation” (5:11).  Yes, it is through the instrumentality of the cross of Christ, and the belief in Jesus that centers on that event that did so very much to reveal God and His radical kingdom principles to the world, that God grants the exodus from out of exile that seemed to have been specifically and previously reserved to the designated covenant people that had begun with Abraham. 

Even “exile” itself was being broadened to encompass the nations.  Though it had been a source of shame for Israel, Israel could no longer keep exile to itself, as a paradoxical badge of honor and privilege.  All peoples could now understand themselves to have stood in exile from the Creator God, in need of reconciliation, and this recognition is what would allow them to participate in their own exodus, thus finding yet another way to join up with Israel’s self-defining story and to relate to the covenant God.  As we have seen, Paul understands that God has kicked down the doors and broken down the walls that had been used to restrict entrance into the household of Abraham, now offering His reconciliation to all peoples and folding them in to His covenant and kingdom purposes. 

In a patriarchy and head-of- household oriented society, rooted in honor and shame constructs that incorporated patronage and benefaction, along with a heightened sense of connection to certain people by which one’s status could be elevated, we should not discount this sense of inclusiveness and dynamic of lineage that seems to be one of the apostle’s filters.  With these thoughts, expressed so early in chapter five, coming on the heels of a chapter dedicated to an exploration of the faith and covenant standing of Abraham, and with this placed alongside a recognition of the importance that Jews and Jewish believers attached to the ability to lay claim to Abraham as their father, we do ourselves a tremendous service to keep these particular cultural, historical, and sociological underpinnings in mind. 

Of course, the Jewish covenant narrative did not include only Abraham.  Indeed, the story of Abraham only made sense because of its precursor, which was the story of Adam.  The Genesis narrative demonstrates that God’s covenant with Abraham only becomes necessary because of the failure of Adam, the original covenant and image bearer.  Conversely, the story of Abraham, to which Gentiles are being attached through belief in Jesus, which is the means by which they are entering into covenant with the Creator God and doing so in the mold of Abraham, moves along to become the story of Israel.  Though the story of Abraham moves from Isaac to Jacob, Jacob to Joseph, and Joseph to Egypt, and though these stories are certainly important and wonderfully instructive, they are the means by which we meet up with Israel.  

The story of Israel essentially begins with Moses, the exodus, Sinai, and the giving of the instrument by which Israel would define itself and by which God intended them to reflect His glory to the nations, which was the law.  Naturally then, Paul, having effectively and persuasively incorporated Gentiles into God’s covenant family by convincingly demonstrating that justification (covenant inclusion) comes to them through belief in Jesus as Lord (believing the Gospel---believing in the decree of the Creator God and acting accordingly, as did Abraham), now does business with the other major components of the story that Israel told about itself, which would be the Adam/Creation narrative, and the birth/election of the people of Israel.  We see this as he writes “So then, just as sin entered the world through one man and death through sin, so death spread to all people because all sinned---for before the law was given, sin was in the world, but there is no accounting for sin where there is no law” (5:12-13).  While in these verses we are hearing allusions to Adam and Moses, we are forced to note Paul’s equation of sin with death, doing so in light of his belief that Jesus (and God as and through His Messiah) conquered sin and death by the cross and the Resurrection. 

Staying focused on Paul’s incorporation of Israel’s narrative though, we continue to read “Yet death reigned from Adam until Moses even over those who did not sin in the same way that Adam (who is a type of the coming one) transgressed” (5:14).  Keeping in mind the possibility of Paul’s use of exilic language, we here consider that even though Adam earned for himself a specific exile for specific transgressions of his covenant with God, all humanity, though they do not recognize Adam in their origin narrative and do not ideologically, traditionally, mentally or conceptually share in his specific covenant failures, experiences the reign of death because of their own failures to rightly bear the divine image with which they were created (sin).   

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Believing In Him (part 45)

It has become clear that the pouring out of the Holy Spirit (5:5) has created a unified family of God that lacks any and all national distinctions.  The family of God is a new humanity, empowered to live and worship together by the very Spirit that raised Christ from the dead.  They are “spiritual people,” as opposed to being “fleshly” people, as the power of the new age and the new creation (spiritual) has overcome, in their lives and in the sacrificial demonstrations of the fellowshipping community, the power of the old age and the old creation (the flesh).  As has been repeatedly indicated, Paul unites all peoples together in Christ, and now, when speaking of the church, speaks of them as a people in which there are no longer any divisions or separations---the “we” becoming ever more prominent.  Thus we hear him say “For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly… But God demonstrates His own love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (5:6,8). 

The “we” and the “us” of Paul’s way of thinking is the result of justification.  We would not be mistaken then, to hear Paul referring to all, whether Jew or Gentile, in order to make his inclusive point, as “ungodly” and “sinners.”  As he has said, “Christ died for us”---the ungodly and sinners, with this encompassing the whole of humanity.  Though there is much to be gleaned from this profoundly loaded statement, the underlying message is that Jesus the Messiah is the focal point.  Indeed, “He was given over because of our transgressions and was raised for the sake of our justification” (4:25).  The death of Jesus, the Christ of God, which gains its full meaning by the Resurrection, is of fundamental import for the inclusion of all peoples under the covenant.  Therefore, revisiting the thought which began the fifth chapter, Paul reiterates and adds “Much more then, because we have been now declared righteous by His blood, we will be saved through Him from God’s wrath” (5:9). 

We once again resist any temptation to consider “righteousness” in detached, spiritual terms, keeping the concept within the realm of covenant inclusion (declared righteous=in covenant), and recognize Paul’s employing of historically rooted theological terminology and ideology that is drafted from Israel’s history, further demonstrating that Paul insists that Gentiles now share in the history of Israel just as they share in the history and lineage of Abraham via faith.  The historically tinged terminology is that of exile and exodus, and it is here subtly deployed.  According to the Scriptures, Israel, as the covenant people of God, was given instructions as to how to represent themselves and their God. 

If they represented Him correctly, adhering to a few basic principles, which were avoiding idolatry, keeping God’s Sabbaths, and reverencing God’s sanctuary---His Temple and His cosmic sanctuary, which is the creation, the place where God rested on the seventh day (in the ancient world, a temple was understood to be the resting place of a god), all would go well for them and they would be blessed.   If they failed in these areas, God would send His people into exile, the primary manifestation of which would be oppression by foreign rulers.  Sometimes this would be inside their promised land, but the ultimate exile would see the people removed from their land (primarily effected by the removal of the rulers, the nobility, and the priests, while the poor, which would make up the majority of the population, would be left in the land). 

If the people of God were in exile, it was well understood that they were not in covenant (not in right standing, not righteous).  A people in exile, or a people experiencing the Levitical/Deuteronomic curses that accompanied exile, were understood to be experiencing God’s wrath.  When a time of exile was brought to an end and the people were restored to their right standing according to God’s covenant with them, they were then thought to have escaped (having endured) God’s wrath.  It was also understood that God Himself would intervene to end the exile of His people, and this was very much the hope of Israel in the days of Jesus (though they were in their land, they were under the heel of Rome).  However, the oppression went much further than that of Rome. 

Owing to the understanding of the world’s oppressive powers/kingdoms that was provided by the visions of the book of Daniel (a popular book in the days of Jesus, and a book on which He relied quite heavily, as evidenced by His employment of the title and imagery of the Son of Man), the people of God were under the impression (quite rightly it seems) that the true oppressor was not the kingdom of man that happened to be the prevailing world power under which they labored and to whom they paid tribute, but was actually the power of death that stood behind and animated those kingdoms.  Post-cross, towards the end of the first century, and drawing heavily from the imagery on display in Daniel and the popular prophetic genre of apocalyptic, this understanding of the nature of power in the world is given voice by the book of Revelation. 

What has this to do with what Paul writes in Romans?  Well, it goes hand in hand with the drawing together of all peoples, as they share in Israel’s covenant and Israel’s history.  In this sense then, all peoples, being ungodly and sinners, are in exile, rightly experiencing God’s wrath.  It is belief in Jesus, which provides justification and therefore induces right standing with God, that delivers all people from their long-standing exile, and so saves (justifies) from God’s wrath.  God’s wrath, of course, is generally reserved for His people that are failing to live up to their covenant responsibilities.  By extending this to all peoples, Paul makes the point that it has always been God’s intention to encompass all peoples within His covenant family, doing so on the basis of belief in Him that produces an unswerving loyalty to Him and His ways.  Therefore, this saving from God’s wrath informs the reader/hearer that God does indeed view all of humanity as being His covenant people.  This goes a long way in informing beleivers that God intends His redemption to be cosmically holistic.     

Monday, December 19, 2011

Luke & Jesus' Kingdom Banquets (part 3 of 3)

It is not until the eleventh chapter of Luke, as we pass over the feeding of the five thousand, that we once again see Jesus at a meal.  In the thirty-seventh verse, we read “As He spoke, a Pharisee invited Jesus to have a meal with him” (11:37a).  As Jesus is rarely in the habit of turning down these meal invitations, regardless of who is making the request, “He went in and took His place at the table” (11:37b).  We are left only to wonder which position at the table has been taken by Jesus.  Does He take the position of most honored guest, sitting immediately to the right or left of His host, who would be seated in the protoklisian (chief seat), or would Jesus position Himself at the lowest place, that being the seat known as the “eschaton”?  It is not important to settle this question here, as the fourteenth chapter of Luke will give us a greater insight into a potential answer. 

As is common, Jesus is immediately questioned.  It is not presented as an outright question, though we can imagine something being said by the Pharisee that would engender the response that is forthcoming from Jesus.  We read that “The Pharisee was astonished when he saw that Jesus did not first wash His hands before the meal” (11:38).  We can read this as being akin to the hushed murmuring that so often accompanied Jesus, which was “He eats with tax collectors and sinners.”  This act of “negligence” on Jesus’ part becomes yet another charge against the possibility of Jesus being the messiah---an ever growing litany of factors, in the minds of some, weighing against this possibility.  In response, Jesus is somewhat less cordial than we have seen Him be in the past. 

When He was subtly accused of impropriety when it came to the woman that washed His feet with her tears and hair, Jesus offered up a question of His own to His concerned host.  However, Jesus does not here propose a question, nor does He offer up a parable.  Rather, He lets loose upon this Pharisee, and presumably, upon other Pharisees in attendance at this meal, saying “Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness” (11:39).  A stinging rebuke indeed!  He does not let that stand on its own, adding “You fools!  Didn’t the one who made the outside make the inside as well?” (11:40)  With this, Jesus reminds them of their Creator---the God of Israel.  Jesus, operating inside Jewish custom, indicates that the purpose of the washing of hands was the remembrance of God and His covenant, but this washing had been reduced to a mere formality and custom.  One can imagine that it was used as yet one more barrier, separating the chosen ones of God from the “tax collectors and sinners” that stood outside of the covenant. 

How can this be imagined?  Well, it is not difficult to surmise that Jesus, Who is routinely concerned with the kingdom of heaven and its practical outworking, has that inclusive kingdom in mind when He says, “Woe to you Pharisees!  You give a tenth of your mint, rue, and every herb, yet you neglect justice and love for God!  But you should have done these things without neglecting the others” (11:42).  This follows His insistence to “give from your heart to those in need, and then everything will be clean for you” (11:41).  Beyond that, we cannot fail to assess the placement of the record of this meal within the overall narrative structure of Luke.  In this telling of the life of Jesus, that could very well be designed to be read or recited as a performance piece in a single sitting, we are not far removed from the parable of the “Good Samaritan.”  That parable is prefaced by an expert in religious law standing to test Jesus, just as He is being tested at this meal with this Pharisee, and saying “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (10:25b)  Jesus asks for this expert’s opinion, which comes back as “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself” (10:27).  Jesus acknowledges His answer by saying “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live” (10:28). 

When pressed by the expert as to who would be his neighbor, Jesus responds with the familiar parable of the good Samaritan.  The parable closes with Jesus asking the expert to identify the neighbor in the parable.  “The expert in the religious law said, ‘The one who showed mercy on him” (10:37a), that “him” being the wounded man.  To this, Jesus replied “Go and do the same” (10:37b).  With this parable, Jesus presented His expectations concerning the kingdom of God and its requirements for costly acts of sacrificial love that show little concern for self, as demonstrated by the Samaritan.  We have not traveled very far from that telling within Luke’s Gospel before we hear Jesus again speaking of love and a need for just actions, as in His first pronouncing of “woe” to the Pharisees that are present.  Indeed, there is a nearly direct parallel with the parable.  In addition, we note that the Samaritan gives, and Jesus, unsurprisingly, speaks of a need to give from the heart to those in need.  This is unlikely to happen as long as we are overly concerned with the desire for conformity to communal norms that have little or nothing to do with the manifestation and advance of the kingdom.   

Luke & Jesus' Kingdom Banquet (part 2 of 3)

Having dealt with that transition, we now move on to an examination of Jesus at a meal at the house of a Pharisee.  At this particular meal, we learn that “a woman of that town, who was a sinner, learned that Jesus was dining at the Pharisee’s house,” and that “she brought an alabaster jar of perfumed oil” (7:37) to this house.  Jesus, of course, was in the customary reclined position on the dining couch, with His feet away from the table, and this woman “As she stood behind Him at His feet, weeping… began to wet His feet with her tears.  She wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with the perfumed oil” (7:38).  At first glance, this may seem to be a repetitive presentation, as we have already encountered a similar story of perfumed anointing in our examinations of the meals of Matthew and Mark.  However, this is clearly a different function and a different woman, with this event taking place well ahead of the anointing story chronicled in Mark and Matthew.  As a matter of fact, Luke omits the particular anointing story found in Matthew and Mark, providing this one instead.    

There are a lot of very interesting things that could be said concerning what this woman is reported to have done.  She wet Jesus’ feet with her tears, and wipes His feet with her hair (7:38).  Jesus calls attention to this when He speaks to the Pharisee, pointing out the fact that she is now doing that which the Pharisee had failed to do when Jesus entered his house, which was wash Jesus’ feet (7:45).  We need not dwell too long on this one point, but for a woman to take her hair down and to use it in this way would bring much reproach.  Clearly, this woman is unconcerned with the reproach and shame that she is bringing on herself, and is only concerned with honoring Jesus and making up for the dishonor that was extended to Him when He did not receive the customary foot-washing.  She is more than willing to take shame upon herself so that the one that she obviously looks to as Lord might be honored, which is a cruciform expression of love. 

In addition, she was said to have kissed Jesus’ feet and anointed them with oil (7:38), whereas Jesus did not receive this courtesy from His host (7:46).  Though Jesus saw these acts as expressions of love, the Pharisee looked upon them quite differently, saying to himself, “If this man were a prophet, He would know who and what kind of woman this is who is touching Him, that she is a sinner” (7:39).  As Jesus was quite familiar with the responses that He received in association with His dining with “tax collectors and sinners,” we can imagine that He was sensitive to the demeanor of His host.  Being obviously aware of what was being thought of Him, Jesus proffers a short parable to the Pharisee, posing a question concerning the forgiveness of debts, to which the Pharisee responds correctly.  It is upon receiving an appropriate response that Jesus turns the tables on the one that had been subjecting Him to such critical thoughts.  When He calls attention to her acts, not only does Jesus honor this woman, but in the process, He shames the negligent Pharisee.  The Pharisee had sought to shame Jesus and the woman, but Jesus reverses the situation. 

Jesus says: “Do you see this woman?  I entered your house.  You gave me no water for My feet, but she has wet My feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair.  You gave Me no kiss of greeting, but from the time I entered she has not stopped kissing My feet.  You did not anoint My head with oil, but she has anointed My feet with perfumed oil” (7:44-46). By this, Jesus makes it clear that this man had acted improperly towards Him, and that the woman was making up for the slighting.  In a sense, it can be said that by shaming herself at Jesus’ expense, she was attempting to enter into the indignities to which Jesus was being subjected.  As we consider this, it is almost impossible to not think of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Colossian church, in which he writes, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for you, and I fill up in my physical body---for the sake of His body, the church---what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ” (1:24). 

Jesus then provides proof that He knew precisely what type of woman this was that was touching Him, by going on to say, “Therefore I tell you, her sins, which were many, are forgiven, thus she loved much” (7:47a).  This did not call for supernatural insight.  Her expression of love was all He needed to see to confirm the forgiveness which she felt.  Much is spoken in these words.  We must notice that Jesus provides us with a sense of time and distance with His words.  Even though we immediately go on to read “Then Jesus said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven’” (7:48), His words concerning her response indicate that this was a reiteration of something that she had already experienced.  In regards to what she had done at the feet of Jesus, He said that “she loved much,” indicating that the acts of love (as we do not forget the suffering and shame associated with those acts) were in response to the fact that she had already had a sense of forgiveness, and had already passed into the kingdom of God.  Jesus did not need to inform her that her sins were forgiven, as she already knew. 

Clearly then, the words were spoken for the benefit of those in attendance at the meal, and who were surrounding Him at the table.  We apprehend this when we go on to read “But those who were at the table with Him began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this, who even forgives sins?’” (7:49)  Why would this be said?  It would be said because forgiveness of sins was provided at the Temple and was the domain of the Temple.  One could be absolved of sin, but only by presenting a sacrifice at and for the Temple.  With these simple words, Jesus shows us that He believes Himself to be Messiah---the embodiment of Israel’s God, and therefore the true Temple.  By extension then, this woman’s costly act of sacrifice was, in fact, performed at and for the Temple.  This allows us to understand the full import and impact of His words when He says to the woman that “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (7:50).  Were not these words the words that would be spoken to those who had brought their sacrifices to the Temple, so as to receive confirmation of their forgiveness and right-standing before God there? 

Understood in this way, this story of a woman anointing Jesus’ feet with costly perfumed oil lines up quite well with the other record of the same (in Matthew and Mark), in that both women, as far as Jesus is concerned, are performing sacrificial acts towards the true and lasting Temple.  With all of this, Jesus provides further demonstration of His Messianic self-understanding; and it does not escape our notice that this straightforward and dramatic presentation of Himself as Messiah has yet again taken place at a meal.               

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Luke & Jesus' Kingdom Banquet (part 1 of 3)

The Gospel of Luke, while it does many things in relation to Jesus ministry, provides us with a firmly rooted understanding of the significance of meals, not only within the communities, but also within Jesus’ ministry.  Because of what they demonstrate, and because of what they allow to be demonstrated, Jesus consistently seizes upon these occasions to teach and to make points about the nature of the kingdom of heaven.  We can also see that they become the source of ongoing controversies concerning Jesus. 

Engaging with Luke, we find a perfect example of that in the seventh chapter, as Jesus is following up on inquiries made of Him by disciples of John the Baptist, and speaking about him to the assembled crowds, doing so in the context of the kingdom of God (7:28).  At the close of this dissertation about John, Jesus references the controversial nature of His meal practice (and even that of John in a roundabout way), by saying “For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon!’  The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at Him, a glutton and a drunk, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” (7:33-34)  We cannot take lightly the importance that Jesus and the Gospel authors attribute to meals.  We must allow our hermeneutic to be fundamentally influenced by this meal dynamic.

Both Luke and Matthew have Jesus closing out His discourse on John the Baptist by adding, “But wisdom is vindicated by all her children” (7:35).  Though there is an implied break in the narrative following these words from Jesus, with the words of the thirty-sixth verse of Luke seeming to present a new situation, it is noteworthy that Luke immediately moves to inform the reader that “one of the Pharisees asked Jesus to have dinner with him” (7:36a).  With this, the author appears to be communicating the importance of meals, as even though there is a break in the action, so to speak, the theological narrative continues, with Jesus being moved directly from His statement about wisdom and her children (which follows a statement about eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners), to the acceptance of an invitation to dine at the house of a Pharisee. 

If we keep ourselves within a mental framework that does not have Jesus or Luke diverging from speaking from a context of meals and their importance, then it is quite possible to hear Jesus speaking in that context when He says that “wisdom is vindicated by her children.”  This, then, is not a disconnected aphorism recorded by Luke and randomly placed within the text, but rather, a transition that maintains the meal-related motif.  Of course, this cannot be asserted without addressing the fact that Matthew places Jesus’ speech about John within a different sequence of events, and does not move from the wisdom and children statement to Jesus’ meal in the house of the Pharisee.  Without attempting to rectify or harmonize the chronological conflicts, the difference can be explained by noting Luke’s greater emphasis on Jesus’ meals.  Though Matthew certainly holds Jesus’ participation at various meals in high regard, rightly signifying their importance for understanding Jesus and their significance for the communication of His mission, it is Luke that has Jesus spending more time at meals, while also sharing some of His most impactful parables (the parable of the prodigal chief among these as one of Jesus’ most important, elaborate, and impactful parables) while at a banqueting table. 

One may wonder why this is so.  However, our wondering is blunted when we consider the joint-authorship of both Luke and Acts, with Acts forming the second half of what is effectively a single discourse.  As Acts is a record of the earliest activities of the apostles of Jesus, and because table fellowship was an important and unfortunately contentious issue in some of the earliest church communities (witness the confrontation between Peter and Paul in Antioch over the subject of table fellowship, as recorded in Paul’s letter to the Galatian church), it is understandable to find Luke more inclined to share more table stories, and to create a narratival construct that will make the record of meals and Jesus’ participation and teaching at these meals, a more prominent feature of his biographical and theological presentation of Jesus.  

If taken within the context of meals---a context which has been arranged by Jesus’ reference to the eating and drinking in which both He and John are said to engage, then we can hear Jesus speaking of Himself within the long-standing wisdom tradition within Israel that is associated with the Messiah.  Though it is the Gospel of John that makes a more prevalent use of the highly-developed wisdom tradition, there is no reason to preclude Luke from making use of it as well, as he makes his report on Jesus’ words and deeds.  If the messiah-associated wisdom tradition is in play here, then it is conceivable that there are messianic banquet considerations to be taken from the words of Jesus. 

Is this a bit of a stretch to hear Jesus making messiah and messianic banquet references in this short little statement?  Probably not, especially in light of His making mention of eating and drinking, and then Luke’s transition to Jesus’ presence at the dinner at the house of a Pharisee.  The use of “wisdom” as a clearly self-referential statement at this point in the narrative, when both Jesus’ hearers and Luke’s readers have been thrust into a meal-related mindset, clearly ushers us into a messianic context.  With thoughts of both messiah and meal at play, along with talk of vindication (an incredibly important concept for Israel especially in relation to messiah), it would not be difficult to find Jesus’ hearers associating words such as “all her children,” when used in this context, entertaining thoughts of the great messianic banquet. 

What we get here is a glimpse into Jesus’ mindset as it relates to this banquet in Matthew, when we hear Him say “I tell you, many will come from the east and west to share the banquet with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, but the sons of the kingdom will be thrown out into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (8:11-12).  Clearly, if we ever find ourselves thinking that any of the Gospel authors are offering up anything less than complex theological constructs in narrative and biographical form based upon the fact of a resurrected Christ that demanded their full allegiance, then we do them a tremendous disservice.