Sunday, August 31, 2014

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).  Presumably then, if one gives to his or her pastor and thereby demonstrates a respect for the teaching of the word, then 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 the covenant 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 precisely 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” to fall unceremoniously 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 most in this age are familiar.  In this congregation that existed very early in the infancy of the church, it is highly unlikely that there would have been a 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 today are familiar---the 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 the Christ relatively well.  It is simply to say that this is not at all the setting into which Paul wrote, which he would have had in mind as he wrote, or in which his letter would have been shared.

Binding & Loosing (part 4 of 4)

Though many believers 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 are somehow commanded by the name of Jesus, it is not at all clear that the disciples of Jesus 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 and perhaps ostracized from the community, so their unbinding would also serve to loose them from their social chains as well. 

So does one go too far when insisting 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, in turning to the eighteenth chapter of Matthew, Jesus can once again be heard 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 is it that precedes this statement?  Jesus is presented as dealing with the restoration of relationships (part and parcel of binding and loosing, as has been seen).  In the course of talking about faults and forgiveness and His followers and fellow kingdom-bringers dealing with 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 efforts towards the wayward believer and to treat him the way Jesus can be observed to 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, and its being linked with talk of earth and heaven, as Temple language and therefore applied to them as the living Temple of the body of the Christ. 

In closing, 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 this can be understood 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.  Herein one finds great power to bind or to loose.    

Friday, August 29, 2014

Binding & Loosing (part 3)

This sets the stage for what is to come, especially when one considers that it seems to have been well understood by the followers of Jesus that it was the Spirit of God at work to animate Him following His Resurrection, with that Spirit then animating His church (as evidenced by the church working to be kingdom-bringers---bringing heaven to earth---bringing to earth that which looks like the rule of the Creator God through His Messiah). 

If this is the case, then when Jesus goes on to say “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 16:19a), the kingdom of heaven being the hoped-for and expected reality of the covenant God’s rule on earth through His Messiah, which was foundational to Jesus’ message as well as that which His ministry embodied as the hoped-for reality to which it pointed, then Jesus, when speaking of the “keys,” speaks of the church.  Talk of keys is then not necessarily an abstraction.   

At the same time, believers 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 the Creator 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 can be seen in Jesus from the very beginning of His ministry?  The Gospels report 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 Jesus is acknowledged to be performing operations of binding and loosing.  It is possible to take a look at all of Jesus’ pronouncements concerning the kingdom of heaven to be found in Matthew and 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 some tend to see it only as acts of healing from physical sickness, were actually social healings as well.  This social healing allowed for the recipients of the merciful compassion of the covenant God, through Jesus, to be re-admitted as full participants in the community. 

Everywhere that Jesus enacts the kingdom of heaven, thus creating the overlap of the two realms of existence, binding and loosing is occurring.  As Jesus is heard saying “Whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven” (16:19b), He needs to be understood to be saying, “Whenever you act on earth in a way that defeat the powers that attempt to continue to mar the Creator God’s good creation, you have introduced the power of the Creator God’s realm of existence (heaven), into the world.” 

Bearing in mind that talk of heaven and earth in this context is not locative but demonstrative and practical on the part of believers, then likewise, when Jesus is heard to say things like “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, He needs to be heard 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.” 

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Binding & Loosing (part 2)

Not to get too far afield, and though Matthew is not to be interpreted 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” (John 1:51b).  

Yes, the early church clearly understood that Jesus was the true Temple.  He Himself was understood to be the house of Israel’s God.  He was the place where heaven and earth came together.  By the gifting of His Spirit (or as the evidence of the presence of the Spirit of the Creator God), His church would carry out His mission as the Temple, thus becoming the extension of His own faithfulness.  

Naturally, if talk about the church as the Temple of the Holy Spirit is taken seriously (as can be seen in the pre-Matthean letters of the Apostle Paul, though Paul would have drawn from the Jesus traditions that would eventually come to be 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 the Christ, this realization about the role of the church as the Temple (the place where heaven and earth are to come together) 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.  

Yes, the Christian is to be the place where and heaven earth come together---bringing heaven to earth as a singular purpose (and this will look a lot like caring for orphans and widows, which is the constant cry of the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures).  The church, as the collection of individual elected ones (Christians), carries out this purpose in community.    

This brings this study back to Matthew sixteen and Jesus’ statement to Peter.  Having established that the Temple was the concrete and understood 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, a great hermeneutical service has been provided.  By extension then, continuing with said hermeneutic, and doing so in line with the earliest interpreters of the Jesus’ tradition, the church (and its members), as it (and they) carries out the mission of Jesus and as it (and they) is 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 in, to, and for the world. 

Therefore, talk of earth and heaven, within an appropriate context, becomes talk of the church.  This knowledge can be employed and deployed when hearing 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 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 the Creator God, by means of His Spirit.  

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Binding & Loosing (part 1)

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 reading about earth and heaven, especially within the pages of the Gospels, one must stubbornly resist the urge to retreat into an unhelpful, Platonic-form-derived, enlightenment-driven, separation of earth from heaven.  Instead, the reader must become ensconced 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, actually operated from the point of view that the purpose of the Creator God---the God of Israel---was to bring heaven to earth. 

The disciples and the earliest followers of Jesus did not live so that they could be saved and go to heaven when they died.  Rather, they functioned with the idea that it was their responsibility to work with the Creator God 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 the reader 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 this study’s Scriptural thrust text, with their talk of earth and heaven, are directed to Peter, helps to make sense of the fact that 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.  In Matthew, this talk of heaven, earth, and Temple prompts a brief look at Matthew twenty-four.  There, 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), Jesus can be heard saying “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 would continue 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 (behind the veil---the way that Israel’s God sees things) 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 his God ascending and descending upon said ladder.  Yes, what must be recognized in that scene is that the house of God (Bethel) is where and heaven and earth came together, by the instrumentation of this ladder.  

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Good Conduct, Good Deeds, Good Works (part 17 of 17)

The one that speaks does so with sympathy, compassion, and humility, always mindful of the fact that in the kingdom of the Christ, the first shall be last and the last shall be first.  So it is with the one who serves.  As was said, service can be tiring, and yes, one is able to serve the kingdom of the Creator God through the strength that said God supplies; but in context, the strength that the covenant God supplies for service is the strength that allows the one that would generally be considered more honorable, to humbly, willfully, and lovingly serve the one that would generally be considered to be less honorable. 

It is that type of service, in which the first become last and the last become first because of an active embracing of the message of the cross inside the message of the Gospel, and not because of some type of forceful reversal in which the previously oppressed take it upon themselves to lord it over those that may or may not have had a hand in the oppression, that demonstrates true strength.  It is in this that the Creator God is glorified, as this self-abnegating service is done in deference to the kingly claim of the one to whom belongs glory and power forever and ever. 

At verse twelve, Peter begins the insertion of an interlude related to suffering on behalf of the Christ.  Much of this suffering, of course, will come about because of what it is that is learned at their meal table.  The messianic, kingly declaration of the Christian meal table will practically work itself out in a lifestyle that demonstrates one’s adherence to the Lordship of Jesus and to his claims to power, rather than any over-reaching and illegitimate claims on offer from the Caesar. 

However, because Christ’s kingdom model is one of self-sacrifice and service, the Christian, recognizing the legitimate extent of human authority, actually seeks to solidify the role of human authorities.  By taking up the cause of Christ’s kingdom and properly applying its principles of service and compassion through good works and public benefaction, the care of orphans and widows, the feeding of the hungry and thirsty, and the clothing of the naked, the Christian is able to inform the governing powers that they have a limit imposed upon them by the Creator God that they can reach, and upon reaching that limit are to be told that they are to go here and no further, for then they would be intruding on the responsibilities of those that claim to represent the world’s true imperial power. 

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

Monday, August 25, 2014

Good Conduct, Good Deeds, Good Works (part 16)

While Christ was glorified in His Resurrection, one must never forget that the near-constant rejoinder to any mention of said Resurrection is that “God raised Him.”  Jesus humbled Himself, broke religious and political custom and tradition in His shared breaking of bread, touched the outcasts, taught openly to men, women, and children, washed feet, endured rejection and persecution, and willingly went to the cross in His demonstration of the appearance that would be taken on by the kingdom of His God.  These types of things would not have been defined as “glory-seeking”.  There was no honor to be gained here. 

So though glory and authority eventually came to Him, it was not sought.  It came to Him after He had gone to the lowest place of cursing and shame.  Truly, He showed hospitality (acted out the messianic banquet) without complaining, and even more truly, served all as a good steward of the grace of the Creator God.  Indeed, the very language here employed calls attention to that which is expected of those that bear the divine covenant.  Peter writes of serving and stewardship.  These terms are only separated from the meal table with great difficulty, while the grace of the covenant God, as He calls a people to Himself without regard to race or class, is rightly put on display at the Christian meal table as it celebrates their Lord Jesus.          

To talk of service and stewardship, and in considering the setting, Peter joins together “Whoever speaks, let it be with God’s words.  Whoever serves, do so with the strength that God supplies, so that in everything God will be glorified through Jesus Christ” (4:11a).  This is then punctuated with a declaration of the Lordship of Jesus, as Peter writes “To Him belong the glory and the power forever and ever” (4:11b). 

While one would certainly agree that there is a burden on the one that speaks, and that service can be tiring, one must not drift too far from the setting into which these words were delivered and for which they provide a controlling authority and dare not become too far removed from the meal table, as it is the meal table that keeps an observer in the proper interpretive context, instead of drifting off into anachronistic ideas about what is implied by speaking and serving. 

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

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Good Conduct, Good Deeds, Good Works (part 15)

If one is completely honest, it should be possible to confess that the impact of table fellowship has not been blunted or muted over the passing years as the sands of culture have shifted and swirled.  In this modern world, though customs have changed, the table has maintained its importance.  This should be found to be the case if the kingdom of heaven, marked by the messianic feast, was inaugurated at the Resurrection and has been relentlessly advancing since that day. 

Unfortunately, it is the church that, in many ways, has failed to maintain its grasp upon the practical significance of the table of fellowship.  In many ways, the church has lost the dramatic and world-altering essence and context of the communion table.  In many ways, the church has reduced the Lord’s Supper to an intensely private, personal, spiritual experience which has as its focus the destination of the eternal soul rather than the declaration of the rule of the Creator God and the accompanying demand upon those that call Jesus Lord to show forth the cross-shaped love of that God to the world. 

When Peter tells this church to “Show hospitality to one another without complaining,” one cannot imagine that this directive was limited to “members in good standing.”  Surely, it is not difficult to imagine that those who had not yet made a confession of Jesus’ Lordship, such as are to be found in the stories of Jesus Himself, might find themselves at the church’s meal table.  If the call for hospitality is limited only to other Christians, then what is to be done with Peter (and Paul’s) insistence that good deeds of public benefaction be performed for the wider community, along with the household of faith (Galatians 6:10). 

What does Peter attach to the table-fellowship-linked “hospitality directive”?  He adds “Just as each one has received a gift, use it to serve one another as good stewards of the varied grace of God” (4:10).  This sounds suspiciously like Paul’s words that are directed to the churches at Rome and Corinth, in which he encourages unity across the church, not allowing any social stratification or honor-appropriation in accordance with spiritual gifts, but insists that the purpose of any gift is for the strengthening of the community of believers. 

Those directives from Paul, not surprisingly, were provided within the context of his own thoughts concerning the meal table (not to mention that the letter was probably first shared at a community meal), as the churches sought to model and to live out the messianic banquet.  Paul wrote, and no doubt Peter would have agreed, that the only legitimate use of spiritual gifts was for the service of others in a self-sacrificial love that did not seek honor or position.  One can surmise that the use of spiritual gifts as a way to accord honor to oneself, or in order to attain to a position of spiritual authority, would be illegitimate and entirely contrary to the spirit of the Gospel that is defined by the cross of the Christ. 

Friday, August 22, 2014

Good Conduct, Good Deeds, Good Works (part 14)

Though it may be somewhat disconnected, and though it may be a tenuous stretch, in reaching the eighteenth chapter of Genesis, it should be noted with interest that Abraham, the one that was blessed of the Creator God for the expressed purpose of exemplifying divine blessing, “looked up and saw three men standing across from him.  When he saw them he ran from the entrance of the tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.  He said, ‘My lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by and leave your servant.  Let a little water be brought so that you may all wash your feet and rest under the tree.  And let me get a bit of food so that you may refresh yourselves since you have passed by your servant’s home.  After that you may be on your way.’” (18:2-5). 

It is further reported that “They ate while he was standing near them under a tree” (18:8b).  Though one should not presume that Abraham washed the feet of his visitors, as this was most likely performed by a servant, a kingdom-of-God-minded observer should be unable to pass by such words without a contemplation of the washing of the disciples’ feet that Jesus undertook before returning to the table where He would speak of “the one who eats My bread” (John 13:18) before passing a piece of bread to Judas. 

While this action has naturally become associated with Judas’ betrayal, the record of the Gospel of John only makes this clear in retrospect.  When Jesus gave Judas the bread and accompanying instruction, “none of those present at the table understood why Jesus said this to Judas.  Some thought that, because Judas had the money box, Jesus was telling him to buy whatever they needed for the feast, or to give something to the poor” (13:28-29).    

In keeping with the theme of covenant bearers being identified with the meal table and with meal practice, especially as it relates to the identifying practice of the messianic feast (as highlighted in Luke 13:29 in a well-placed elaboration on the pronouncements of prophets like Isaiah), and in-between the use of “non-Christian” (4:3) and “Christian” (4:16), one should not be at all surprised to find Peter instructing this church to “Show hospitality to one another without complaining” (4:9).  This is the language of conduct, deeds, and works.  It is not possible to escape the implications of the meal table here, as this is yet another demand to contravene the existing customs of the table and of the existing social constructs that would be on display. 

This showing of hospitality, without concern for social rank or honor, could be quite difficult to achieve, as the corrupted nature reacts against such notions.  This is where the mysteriously transformative power of the Gospel is sorely needed, and where it and its Spirit-empowered love is most visible and achieves its greatest impact.  It is as such considerations are made, letting the implications sink deep into hearts and minds, that one is left with little wonder as to why Jesus spent so much time at banqueting tables.  Clearly, this is something to which the culture, in His time, was attuned.  Accordingly, the impact of the table fellowship that Jesus displayed as He modeled out the messianic banquet was significant.  His followers seemed to have understood this well, making it a major focal point of the life lived in accordance with confession of Jesus as Messiah. 

Good Conduct, Good Deeds, Good Works (part 13)

Christians, as would be expected, were to be different.  Their table was to represent far more.  Their table represented their Lord and their God and His rule, so it had to be different and it had to look different.  It had to (and has to) command the attention of the watching world.  Peter writes “So they are astonished when you do not rush with them into the same flood of wickedness, and they vilify you” (4:4). 

As has been noted, Christians (noting that this letter is the only New Testament letter to employ the term) were accused of heinous activity in association with their meals (e.g. cannibalism), while also being charged with atheism and with having a destructive effect on the social cohesion of their communities and of the empire itself.  Indeed, vilification took place and it did so in conjunction with the derisive name of “Christian” (kristianos as opposed to kaisarianos), so it is quite interesting that Peter takes up its usage in the sixteenth verse of this chapter, mentioning suffering “as a Christian,” as well as in the third verse, using it negatively with the term “non-Christians.” 

Based on what comes in between the use of non-Christian and Christian, it becomes strikingly clear that Christians were to be primarily identified by their meal practice.  The socially defining meal table would be the place that their sensibilities would develop, and be the place from which would stream their good works for the benefit of their communities and ultimately the world.  This would, of course, be in keeping with the fact that those with whom the Creator God has entered into covenant, have largely been identified by meal practice of some form. 

This is patently obvious when it comes to the Jews, as the major provisions of their God’s covenant with them involved keeping His Sabbaths, which were the feasts ordained in the Mosaic law.  This also included dietary laws that would come to be used as a means to readily identify an individual as being in good covenant standing and able to participate in the rule of the covenant God.  This notion, however, stretches back to the very first covenant of Scripture. 

Genesis records that “The Lord God took the man and placed him in the orchard in Eden to care for it and to maintain it.  Then the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat fruit from every tree of the orchard, but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will surely die.’” (2:15-17)  There, the bearer of the divine covenant, who was charged to represent the Creator God in and for the whole of the creation, has his covenant marked out by what could be easily termed as meal practice. 

Maintaining that position in Genesis, the next covenant, which the Creator God made with Noah when He “blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth’” (9:1), was codified with “You may eat any moving thing that lives.  As I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.  But you must not eat meat with its life (that is, its blood) in it” (9:3-4). 

Moving on to Abraham, and though one does not see any type of meal associated with the initial report of the Creator God’s covenant with him that occurs in chapter twelve of Genesis, one does find such a thing just two chapters later.  After Abraham defeats the kings that had captured his nephew, the author reports that “Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine” (14:18a), learning that “he was the priest of the Most High God” (14:18b).  

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Good Conduct, Good Deeds, Good Works (part 12)

Some would look at this as the Gospels simply putting into Jesus’ mouth that which the early church leaders desired to hear Jesus saying, so as to provide back-up to their positions and a legitimization of their authority.  However, because what Peter is insisting upon flies in the face of basic social code and of predominant Jewish sensibilities in an era of nearly constant revolutionary activity, it most certainly must go back to the lips of one that put such activity on display in willingly going to the cross, with the power of the Resurrection later serving to back-up the words that would serve to inspire actions (by the Spirit, as through such responses it is being declared that Jesus is Lord---that the Creator God rules in and through His Christ) that would transform the world. 

Beyond that, Peter insists that the focus be on blessing others---good deeds/public benefaction again---because of the blessing that was being inherited.  Does Peter here speak of heaven?  In the sense that it was the role of the covenant people of the Creator God, in participation with the Creator God by His Spirit (which is the means by which a person is able to confess that Jesus is Lord) to bring heaven to earth (the Creator God’s will being done on earth as in heaven), yes, that’s exactly what it means. 

However, it goes further than that, in that any mention of blessing automatically reverts to the concept of the Abrahamic covenant and its promise to bless Abraham for the purpose of exemplifying divine blessing, as part of the Creator God’s plan to set the world to rights (to restore it from its fallen condition, to provide justification).  Consequently then, calling attention to the Abrahamic covenant calls to mind the worldwide body of Abraham’s children coming together for the great eschatological (end times=the time of the Creator God’s rule which began with Jesus’ Resurrection) feast that would mark the covenant God’s rule. 

So, once again, this study has landed on the power and importance of the Christian meal table, as it becomes increasingly clear that it is something of a social and cultural phenomenon that cannot be ignored in an interpretation of Scripture, whether that interpretation is spoken, written, or lived.      

With that point sufficiently made, this study can continue on to the fourth chapter of this first letter of Peter.  Maintaining a position at the table of fellowship and hearing these words along with their original hearers from within the context provided by the meal culture of the ancient world and the meal culture of the church, one must continue to interpret their meaning accordingly.  Therefore, it is possible to make the intended application when hearing “For the time that has passed was sufficient for you to do what the non-Christians desire” (4:3a). 

What are those things?  In relation to the practices and customs of the banqueting tables of the ancient world and to what has been learned about them, Peter adds “You lived then in debauchery, evil desires, drunkenness, carousing, drinking bouts, and wanton idolatries” (4:3b), all of which would feature prominently in feasts and celebrations, as honor and exploitation of position was a primary pursuit. 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Good Conduct, Good Deeds, Good Works (part 11)

If asking the members of the churches to function together as a unified body independent of honor and shame constructs and always considering the body of the community and its overall health as the visual representation of the covenant God’s ruling kingdom, cannot be (based on what has been learned to this point) thoughtfully summarized as “be harmonious, sympathetic, affectionate, compassionate, and humble,” then one simply lacks the power of deductive reasoning. 

Truly, this language echoes Paul’s Rome-directed call “not to think more highly of yourself than you ought to think, but to think with sober discernment, as God has distributed to each of you a measure of faith” (Romans 12:3), as he goes on to use metaphorical terms in relation to the functioning of the body of the Christ, grounded in the operation of self-sacrificial love.  Maintaining that train of thought then, the metaphorical treatment in Romans possesses great similarity to that which is to be found in the first Corinthian letter, and can direct an approach to Peter. 

Harmony, sympathy, affection, compassion, and humility are the clarion calls of the thirteenth chapter of first Corinthians, and contrary to any and all thinking about the subject, the concept of love therein expressed is (colored by the cross) what is demanded by one’s confession of Jesus as Lord, especially given the competition for honor and shame that provides the social context in which the words are first heard. 

Across the letters, what should be noted is that preference and humility are the demands of the example of the Christ; and to what might strike most observers as an unusually high degree of repetition, the call for humility and consideration of others in the light of the cross is consistently and almost exclusively framed by references to the meal table.  This is more obvious in the letters to Rome and Corinth, and especially the latter, as the dissertation of chapters twelve through fourteen, which outline the way that the church is to behave (not in cultivation of a private spirituality or a quest for personal holiness but as the witness of a vibrant, present, and demanding kingdom), has for its foundation Paul’s treatment of the Lord’s Supper (that which, for all practical purposes, came to be the church’s representation of the messianic banquet, filtered through the prevailing sense of Greco-Roman banqueting practice, and therefore, it’s declaration that Jesus is Lord and ruler of all creation).

The next verse in this letter, after extolling Christian love, evokes the Jesus tradition in play in that day, giving a pre-written-Gospel composition voice to that which will be a cornerstone of Jesus’ truly revolutionary notions of how it is that the Creator God’s rule will come to earth.  When Peter insists that this church “not return evil for evil or insult for insult, but instead bless others because you were called to inherit a blessing” (3:9), he speaks to a group of people that were very much in line to experience evil and insults, as they refused to participate in the emperor cult or the public religion.  Naturally, this calls to mind that which would come to be codified in the Gospels, which would be “Do not resist the evildoer.  But whoever strike you on the right cheek, turn the other to him as well” (Matthew 5:39). 

Monday, August 18, 2014

Good Conduct, Good Deeds, Good Works (part 10)

It is then, when that which is considered precious by the world is put aside, what is “precious in God’s sight,” which is “the lasting beauty of a gentle and tranquil spirit,” and which can be seen in the willful sacrifice of honor and a willful, equalizing identification with those that do not posses honor or its trappings, that the Gospel is lived out before an amazed and confused world.  What will result from this? 

One can imagine that, having gone without these things of external beauty in the course of table fellowship, and undoubtedly experiencing the power of the Gospel and the presence of the Spirit because of this act of self-sacrifice, that a conclusion may be reached that such things of external beauty are not entirely necessary.  This could very well lead to an unforced and un-coerced sacrificial liquidation of assets once held so dear, so that the community might be benefited, the hungry fed, the thirsty given drink, and the naked clothed, while the widow and orphan receive the care that the Creator God demands from His people. 

Indeed, it is with such thoughts in mind that one can hear Peter go on to remind this church of their responsibility to engage in public benefaction as the kingdom of the covenant God, as he writes in reference to Abraham’s wife Sarah and the example she provided that “You become her children when you do what is good (providing food, drink, clothing---public benefaction) and have no fear in doing so” (3:6b). 

That last line is a strange addition.  Why would they have to fear doing good?  Well, those very things of which Peter speaks---the jewelry and fine clothes---represented a wife’s economic security in the event of her husband’s death or his decree of divorce.  Peter’s insistence that all engage in doing good works, and his insistence on a loving and preferring attitude that could cause a woman to forego that which may be her only means of subsistence apart from her husband in the event of death or divorce, is a radical demand upon the follower of the Christ.  It can be a cause for fear while also being an exercise in faith.  In accordance with this line of thinking then, Peter writes “Husbands, in the same way, treat your wives with consideration as the weaker partners” (3:7a), recognizing the potential hardship that they are creating for themselves as they do that which will allow them to also engage in good works. 

This use of weaker, quite naturally, is not to be understood as weak in the sense that raises the ire of feminists in the western world, but rather in the sense that, in that day (and today in many unfortunate cases and places) women were far more vulnerable and more likely to be subjected to oppression.  Peter takes this one step further, and in the midst of a culture that prized honor and shame, husbands are instructed to do that which will cause the last to be first and the first to be last, writing “show them honor as fellows heirs of the grace of life” (3:7b).  All of this would play out at the meal table.          

Summing up what he has just communicated to the gathered congregation, Peter writes “Finally, all of you be harmonious, sympathetic, affectionate, compassionate, and humble” (3:8).  With the specter of division and social stratification (always based on honor and shame, as there was no “middle class” of which to speak, though honor would naturally gravitate towards wealth and vice versa) looming large in the background, it seems reasonable to posit that the problems being experienced in the churches were nearly universal, as these words from Peter are effectively what Paul can also be heard to be saying to the churches in Rome and Corinth.  

Good Conduct, Good Deeds, Good Works (part 9)

At the same time, all of these considerations serve as a reminder of just how important a role food and considerations about food played in the ancient world (and in many parts of the world today), in which gaining one’s sustenance is actually the primary, daily concern.  When work is engaged upon primarily to obtain food for self and family, and secondarily to meet the remainder of life’s basic needs, it is not difficult to assert that a divergent set of priorities will be in effect. 

Little wonder then that the church’s meal table, open to all and for all to share equally, with the wealthier and more well-to-do providing for all while sharing equally with all with no expectation of receiving an increase in their honor standing in exchange for the provision (ideally), was a table that served to draw people in, while also being ripe for corruption and a new and more insidious form of oppression---whether wantonly or through neglect, by ingrained social forces and sensibilities.  Little wonder then, that the stories of Jesus’ miraculous feedings, with enough for all and to spare, with all sharing equally at the hand of the One that represents the church (and that the church represents) gained such prominence in the community that called Jesus Lord and for whom the meal table was a prominent feature. 

Continuing then with this Petrine analysis, maintaining an examination of the third chapter, and re-grasping the handle of mutual self-sacrificial love that undergirds the call for wives to be subject to their husbands, Peter can be heard moving to a directive to “Let your beauty not be external---the braiding of hair and wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes---but the inner person of the heart, the lasting beauty of a gentle and tranquil spirit, which is precious in God’s sight” (3:3-4).  These words are heard, of course, in the context of table fellowship.

Apart from the fact that the outward appearance can most certainly reflect the inward disposition, it is probably safe to say that Peter’s concern here is not with what appears on the surface.  What he is concerned about is the other-preferring love that is to be on display at the church’s meal table, which will then, because of the Gospel’s transformational power combined with the power and deterministic capacity of the meal table, be translated into other-preferring actions in and for the community (the world) in which the Christians find themselves. 

How can one make this conclusion? Here, Peter calls for the wealthier women in the church community---those that can avail themselves of the costly braiding of hair (in which jewels, precious metals, and other ornamentations would be woven into the hair), gold jewelry, and fine clothes---to consider those in their church community that are far less fortunate than they when it comes to such things. 

This is not a blanket directive, nor should it be considered a ban or a condemnation of these types of things.  Rather, it is an inducement from Peter to this church to act in love towards one another.  In this case, Peter is asking the wealthier women of the church---the women who would, though they had no real honor of their own, share in the honor of their husband, dressing and presenting themselves accordingly---to leave such things aside when they gather with their fellow believers and participate at meals together.  By removing the trappings of honor and dignity that garner the respect and admiration of the world, which can serve, albeit perhaps unintentionally, to keep true and undivided fellowship from taking place, the “inner person of the heart” comes to the fore, as love and respect for one’s fellow Christian is demonstrated. 

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Good Conduct, Good Deeds, Good Works (part 8)

A more minor example, in which nearly all would be able to engage and which would be instrumental in its application in an era and an area in which one’s daily food was a constant concern and in which debt and debt slavery were extraordinarily pressing and very real problems, would be something like the brother-directed insistence that “You must not lend money at interest and you must not sell him food for profit” (Leviticus 25:37). 

The need to borrow is here wrapped up with the need to purchase food, so the directive takes aim at capitalizing on misfortune in the area of life’s basic necessities, and doing so in such a way that increases the likelihood that slavery will result.  This is not a blanket statement, insisting that it is wrong to sell food or anything else for profit or that it is even necessarily wrong to charge interest, as the prohibition against charging interest is definitively linked to a brother’s ability to obtain the necessities of life (he’s not buying a new laptop or a car).  Surely, it is possible to differentiate between charging interest for that which is not wholly necessary, with ideas about that which is wholly necessary complicated by modern day cultures that are bent on acquisition and the portrayal of all things as needs. 

However, one must note that in this section of Leviticus the prohibition is provided context by “If your brother becomes impoverished and is indebted to you, you must support him… Do not take interest or profit from him, but you must fear your God and your brother must live with you” (25:35a,36).  This does not deny that some would be wealthier than others, nor does it offer up a value judgment on the mere fact or presence of wealth (wealth defined as the excess of what is needed), but it does have an underlying message that the Creator God’s people are to be conscientious of the plight of their brothers and to be ready to have their hand out to make ready assistance, though this is a matter for another dissertation. 

It would be far easier, in a manner of speaking, for Christians of the first century (and for Christians of the twenty-first century who live outside of the remarkably affluent western world) to relate to these words from Leviticus, and to engage in such activity as part of their call to be benefactors for their communities.  Imagine what would be stirred by a person, operating in the marketplace during times of scarcity and need, who, seeing all as brothers and potential brothers within the always advancing kingdom of the covenant God, sold his food at no profit to himself. 

What if that person, acting counter to the supply and demand equation in that time of scarcity, which would naturally see prices for scarce items rise, actually began selling sustenance items at below his own cost, so as to bring down the cost (at least temporarily, as that person would quickly exhaust his own supply and be unable to restock, having sold his inventory at a loss)?  What if that person did so as an obvious sacrifice on his or her part, and did so as a conscientious actor for the kingdom of God?  Would that not be a monumental display of costly love?  Would that not be living out the cross?  Would that not be the power of the resurrection and the Gospel (Jesus is Lord) at work?  Again, this is not meant to be applied at all times, as it is unsustainable in practice, but it does inform the body of Christ of its need to engage with the world at multiple levels, as the kingdom of the Creator God invades every aspect of life, never saying “I go here and no further.” 

Friday, August 15, 2014

Good Conduct, Good Deeds, Good Works (part 7)

Taking up the role of a slave, and reflecting the Creator God’s glory into the world by loving through and in spite of that role, as did Jesus, is surely a glorious representation of that which the covenant God intends for the people that have now been called by His name and who are identified by their claim that Jesus is indeed the crucified and resurrected Lord of all. 

It is with all of these things in mind that one can then hear Peter’s call to wives (though there is neither male nor female) to “be subject to your own husbands” (3:1a).  Again, the reason is not necessarily to exalt subservience for the sake of subservience, or to cause an undue pride amongst husbands, but that the Creator God might be glorified through a willful and conscientious act of love.  The purpose of the subjection of the wife was to advance the claims of the Gospel and to extend the reach of the kingdom of God on earth. 

For this reason, Peter adds, “Then, even if some are disobedient to the word,” that being the word that there is a new imperial order and that Jesus stands at its head, demanding a new way of living that is contrary to all that the world holds dear (then and now, though one should not so shortsighted as to limit this critical demand merely to the pursuit of pleasure and what are often termed “carnal” sins), “they will be won over without a word by the way you live, when they see your pure and reverent conduct” (3:1b). 

Husbands might see the meal table at which their wife participates and find themselves in a state of stunned disbelief.  They may hear the talk of a new and far more powerful and wide-ranging kingdom, but find that those who speak of such things do not take up arms or attempt direct subversion, but rather are the model citizens that are the most concerned with the welfare of all, and demonstrate this concern without regard for honor, shame, or social status.   

Before taking up what comes next in Peter’s admonition to wives, it is worthwhile to visit this idea of “social benefaction” or “good deeds.”  There may be a temptation to think that this is a new and novel concept, but upon further inspection, one would find that such practices are well rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures that codify the story of Israel and serve as the basis for the self-understanding of those that are called out as the people of the covenant God, be it Israel or the church. 

This is not the place to make an exhaustive search of the Scriptures to find this practice of social benefaction concretized, as a minor example should serve admirably.  One could consider the detailed examples of the remission of debts that are to be found in the Torah (or Pentateuch) and the practice of the Jubilee, but these would be considered grand examples that might have gone unfulfilled by Israel, merely held up as unrealized ideals.  Jesus, of course, used the language of the Jubilee (the remission of all debts) that was taken up by Isaiah as part of His personal introduction that is recorded in the fourth chapter of Luke.  If Jesus is informing the people that the Jubilee, at long last, is finally being fulfilled in Him, then it stands to reason that the Jubilee, long expected of His people by their God, had gone unobserved for centuries, if ever. 

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Good Conduct, Good Deeds, Good Works (part 6)

It is at this setting, one of a social egalitarianism represented by the church as it functions together and witnesses to the world through its table fellowship, that Peter can be heard speaking to individuals and groups seated around the meal table.  After insisting that all present need to be “subject to every human institution for the Lord’s sake” (2:13a), with the use of Lord heard in the context of the Gospel’s claim and against Caesar’s claim, Peter goes on to reaffirm, without necessarily sanctioning, that there is a prevailing social order, writing “Slaves, be subject to your masters with all reverence, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are perverse” (2:18). 

How does this fit with the leveling call of the Gospel and of the messianic banquet that communicates so much of the Gospel’s message?  If such lengths are gone to in order to show that there is neither slave nor free, why would Peter make statements that will serve to resurrect the very distinctions that the church, through the open commensality of its meal table, is tearing down? 

Naturally, the answer is to be found in love.  It is that self-sacrificial love to which Peter makes reference, as he goes on to write of enduring hardships in suffering unjustly (2:19).  Yes, Peter recognizes the injustice of the situation, but it is the call of the Christian, whether slave or free, to overcome injustice by acting in love towards the very master that may be the source of injustice (as one is careful to not retroject ideas concerning the experience of African slaves, which is quite a bit different from the slavery of the first century Roman world). 

He then draws what would be the very obvious parallel between the position of the slave and Jesus, as he references the doing good, suffering, and enduring, which finds favor with God (2:20) and writes “since Christ also suffered for you, leaving an example for you to follow in His steps” (2:21b).  Jesus provides the example of that which Peter is asking of those who find themselves as slaves, in that “When He was maligned, He did not answer back; when He suffered, He threatened no retaliation, but committed Himself to God who judges justly” (2:23). 

This could only be accomplished through a love that is phenomenal in its self-emptying and in its sacrificial preference; and indeed the meal table, in many ways, can provide a glimpse of such love, as those who would be afforded considerable honor willingly take the lowest position so that others might be exalted.  Indeed, is this not what is being said here when Peter goes on to say “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, that we may cease from sinning and live for righteousness”? (2:24a) 

The tree, of course, calls attention to the lowest and most accursed place, while the call to cease from sin and live for righteousness directs the hearer’s attention to the responsibilities of the people of the Creator God to become for the world the covenant faithfulness of that God, as had been the call of Adam, of Abraham, of Israel, and of the church through its Lord.  Lest believers allow themselves to be drawn back into a puerile individualism and subjective analysis of their own shortcomings in word and deed that are flippantly referred to as sin and that are only meager symptoms of a much greater malady, there must be a reminder that, in the context of the long-running plan of the Creator God’s covenant faithfulness and of human responsibility in and to that plan, that to cease from sinning will be to cease from the ongoing failure to rightly bear the divine image and its concordant responsibility to reflect the glory of the Creator God into the world.  

Good Conduct, Good Deeds, Good Works (part 5)

As Peter speaks through his letter to a group of people from all walks of life, consisting of slave and free, Jew and Gentile, male and female, and even those who might be attaching themselves to the Christian community because they have notions of revolution and are drawn to a community that talks about a new kingdom, a new king, and a new way of living, he goes on to say “Live as free people, not using your freedom as a pretext for evil, but as God’s slaves.  Honor all people, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the king”  (2:16-17).  Free people who are slaves?  Again, this represents a new way of living, and it is learned at the meal table of the elected family of the God of Israel. 

It is relatively easy to hear the words “Honor all people” in modern times, especially in the western world in which most people (in theory) embrace the notion that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, and in doing so to miss out on the incredibly radical and earth-shattering nature of this concept.  The use of “honor” is crucial.  With these words being spoken in a world that was attuned to the pursuit of honor as the pursuit of status in the world, with this pursuit of honor providing justification for all manner of selfish and self-centered activities, the idea of honoring all people equally, even to the point of living as slaves (the least honorable), was a foreign concept. 

Building on that sensibility, and doing so in a world in which lines were drawn between the civilized people of the Roman empire and the “barbarian” hordes of those that refused to accede to the divinely backed pretensions of Roman hegemony and the eternal nature of its presumably beneficient kingdom, the notion of honoring all people equally would have been dismissed out of hand.  Honor was too valuable to be apportioned out to those that were not truly deserving. 

Additionally, any community that hailed a different king, let alone a King that was superior to all kings of the earth, would have been hard pressed to continue honoring the Roman emperor, especially considering the fact that the Christians were undergoing much persecution owing directly to their counter-imperial claims.  Therefore, the universal directive to honor the king would necessitate a preferring love that would be difficult to manage.  Achieving this lofty ideal would be yet another evidence of the transformative power of the Gospel, so how could the church bring about such an attainment?  The answer brings one back to the table. 

The powerful social institution of the meal table, which maintains some of its power even in this day (though most tend to miss it), can be the basis for societal transformation and the establishment of the kingdom of heaven, just as it was and can also be the basis for maintaining the societal status quo.  If the idea of the messianic banquet is embraced, and if the church attempts to be the place (the overlap of heaven and earth) where “people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and take their places at the banquet table in the kingdom of God” and “some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last” (Luke 12:29-30), then Peter’s directive, which is a component of the overall Scriptural missive, will not be impossible to achieve.     

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Good Conduct, Good Deeds, Good Works (part 4)

So when Peter speaks of good conduct and good deeds, he is not necessarily speaking about refraining from activities that the Christian community looks down upon, but instead he is speaking the language of self-sacrificial love.  For that reason, as does Paul, in dealing with the ramifications of their substantial claim on Jesus’ behalf and of what is going to be learned through their table fellowship, Peter instructs this church (who are most likely hearing this letter read to them in the setting that would be most conducive to such things---the acted out messianic banquet of the church’s meal table) to “Be subject to every human institution for the Lord’s sake, whether to a king as supreme or to governors as those he commissions to punish wrongdoers and praise those who do good” (2:13-14).  This is language that is practically identical to what is to be found in the thirteenth chapter of Romans, which is highly instructive when it comes to the church’s interaction with and for the world. 

Whether Peter was influenced by Paul or Paul was influenced by Peter, the point is that both were influenced by the demands of the reality of the kingdom of Israel’s God that was actualized at the Resurrection of Jesus.  In Romans, Christian love (along with concerns about the meal table) bracket Paul’s concern for interaction with governing authorities, as the church functions in its ambassadorial role, declaring “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!” (Psalm 2:10-12a).  It is no different for Peter, with this fact continuing to demonstrate how incredibly large looms the meal table for the early Christian communities---as it should through all of time. 

Peter continues, writing “For God wants you to silence the ignorance of foolish people by doing good” (2:15).  Taken together with the “those who do good” of the fourteenth verse, Peter is here reinforcing the need for public benefaction, as this is what such words implied when used in that day.  Most believers, with the overt suggestion and experience of Christianity as intensely personal (and it is, but the only reason for it be intensely personal is so that it may be intensely social in demonstration that the kingdom of heaven has invaded this world and that Jesus is its Sovereign), are accustomed to reading “good deeds,” “good works,” and “doing good,” as either the avoidance of that which is considered to be “bad deeds,” or in the Reformation-oriented paradigm of the doing of good works for the purpose of earning salvation. 

Therefore, an over-compensating reaction attempts to smooth out this supposed wrinkle in the Scriptural witness by saying “No, we don’t do good works to earn salvation, we do good works as a response to God’s having saved us” (which is true), with all of this colored by a mis-guided notion about what is meant by the “works of the law” and the way that those “works of the law” functioned in the days of Jesus, Peter, and Paul. 

It takes a bit of work to discover that the language of good deeds, in this context, is truly about seeking to do what is best for the communities in which the believers lives.  In general, believers have no problem extending helping hands “to those who belong to the family of faith” (Galatians 6:10b), but often forget the attitude that was basic for those who understood themselves to be the harbingers and representatives of a real and present kingdom, which was that “whenever we have an opportunity, let us do good to all people” (6:10a), while finding that there is a natural inclination to do good for those with whom one shares a meal.  This is what truly allows the people of the Creator God to function as a light to all peoples, fomenting a desire to become aligned with this movement of cosmic reconciliation, and in so doing bring glory to the God of the universe. 

Good Conduct, Good Deeds, Good Works (part 3)

This behavior learned through the church’s meal table (which is representative of the messianic banquet that has been transformed into that which is commonly thought of as the Lord’s Supper) is what makes the love that is embraced and professed by the Christian community tangible and observable, as it is expressed in such ways in order to bring glory to the Creator God.  Conversely then, a church composed of believers that is not operating with such a mindset, that is turned in on itself and seeking separation from the world so as to prepare themselves for their notion of heaven (a distant isle of blessedness, which is Greek thought, not Jewish), is actually modeling something that stands in fundamental opposition to what the confession of Jesus’ Lordship demands. 

A church that is turned in on itself is most likely not learning the principles of self-sacrificial love and the preference of one another for the benefit of the body, so that the body might benefit the community in which it is located as it demonstrates Jesus’ universal Lordship over all things and all areas of life, is probably perverting the meal table (symbolic or otherwise), having turned the Lord’s Supper (which is supposed be an enactment of the messianic meal as envisioned and put into practice by Jesus) into a source of personal benefit as well. 

Accordingly then, in that environment it is likely that the Lord’s table finds itself replete with authoritarian structures based on subjective spiritual rankings.  If love is not being learned and encouraged at the meal table, so that it aspires to the Jesus-backed vision of the messianic banquet, then it is highly unlikely that the church that is not learning these things is going to be engaging in public benefaction (good conduct/works/deeds). 

Ironically then, and transposing the issue for Peter’s time, the church that is isolated essentially becomes that which the Christians were accused of being.  Since they were not seeking the good of the world by their public display of Jesus’ Lordship, then yes, widespread maladies and calamities must be laid at their feet.  If they are claiming that their King is the true King (in opposition to Caesar’s claims), but not putting that claim into practice by demonstrating the fact that said Kingship extends to all things through their seeking of good for themselves and their neighbors, then the fundamental message of the Gospel (Jesus is Lord) is brought into disrepute.  Yes, they might as well be looked upon as atheists and cannibals, for all the benefits they are bringing to their world. 

One must never for a single moment lose sight of the fact that the hope of the Christian is to be resurrected just like Jesus.  It is this that is the repeated claim of the New Testament, and it stands in a polar opposition to a desire for an escape to heaven.  As they were thoroughly steeped in Jewish expectations concerning the kingdom of their God and the hope for resurrection thereby entailed, the earliest believers understood that Jesus was resurrected into this world with a glorified physical body, with that resurrection power set to work in this world. 

This resurrection is that for which the Christian hopes.  Christians living in isolation, concerned for nothing more than their personal eternal salvation rather than embracing a full engagement with the world to which their God is reconciling Himself through their overt kingdom-conscious actions and behavior, have a wrong-headed notion about the kingdom of God, seeing it as something distant in both time and space, rather than viewing it as did Jesus and His apostles, within their (fully Jewish) claim that the kingdom of their God was both present and coming. 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Good Conduct, Good Deeds, Good Works (part 2)

Yes, the Gospel will effect transformation in the lives of its adherents, and those effects will be seen in interactive relationships, as Christians attempt to live out their ambassadorship on behalf of their Lord and their God with respect to their interaction with others and the world.  This is the love that is referenced in Romans twelve and in first Corinthians thirteen, which demonstrate the tangible working out of that love based on what appears to be primarily learned at the meal table of the body of the church (note that the talk of love in both of those letters is surrounded by considerations of the meal table). 

It is this basic demonstration of love and of preferring of one another, and of the apparently awesome transformative power of the Gospel that is then put on display by individuals (functioning as and for their communities), which is what is worked out in the thirteenth chapter of Romans.  Not that Paul’s writings are determinative for the way that one approaches the writings of Peter, but it is with such things in mind, as early evidences of the way in which Jesus (His death and Resurrection) is being interpreted and understood, that one can look to Peter and hear him being so incredibly insistent on the social nature of the Gospel. 

It is worthwhile to first understand this aspect of Peter’s first letter before moving on to what becomes the rather obvious dealings with the church’s meal table (recognizing that the church constituted itself around a meal table).  Peter insists that the church is “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (2:9a), declaring that the covenant God calls the church to be “a people of His own,” that they “may proclaim the virtues of the one who called… out of darkness into His marvelous light” (2:9b). 

Though there is certainly a mysterious and never-to-be-completely-comprehended power to be found in the very proclamation of the message that Jesus is Lord, it should be noted that the proclamation that Peter has in mind is more deed-based than word-based (though the word is not to be neglected---deeds would lead to the opportunity for words to be heard).  To this end, Peter calls this church to “maintain good conduct among the non-Christians, so that though they now malign you as wrongdoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God when He appears” (2:12). 

In that day, Christians were accused of being atheists because they did not worship Caesar or the Roman gods, of being cannibals because of what was said at their meal table (eating the body of their God that they also claimed was a man who had been killed and physically resurrected), and of being usurpers of the social order because they refused to acknowledge the standard and orderly divisions of society in their public or private gatherings. 

Eventually, Christians would become scapegoats, as blame for all manner of maladies and calamities would devolve upon them.  Peter understood that this was happening and would happen, and that much of this was owing to the fact of the radical nature of the lived-out Gospel (incredible social disruption --- women equal to men, slaves and free on equal footing in the Christian community, recognition of a power  higher than that of Caesar and a kingdom greater than that of Rome). 

For this reason, Peter, using the language of public benefaction, calls the church to be civic-minded, doing good deeds that will be recognized as beneficial for their community.  In this way, contrary to being singled out and maligned for being a negative force in society that would be specifically tied to claims about an alternative Lord and way of living, their good deeds would bring glory to the God to which their allegiance was sworn through the Christ.  As the New Testament readily demonstrates, this sense of public benefaction would be learned at the meal table.   

Good Conduct, Good Deeds, Good Works (part 1)

…maintain good conduct among the non-Christians, so that though they now malign you as wrongdoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God when He appears. – 1 Peter 2:12  (NET)

The Gospel is inherently social.  Because it is the declaration of Jesus’ Lordship, with this Lordship being the Lordship not just of individual lives and souls, but over the whole of the cosmos, it has a social element.  This is a far cry from the Gospel being reduced to a “social gospel,” but rather, it is to say that the implications of the declaration demand to be worked out in a tangible, visible way, on display for a society to see. 

Just as the worshipers or proponents of the Caesar declared his lordship, and in doing so were not asking people to make a private confession of faith in Caesar or to cultivate a personal and private holiness that would somehow be pleasing to Caesar, neither were the proponents of Jesus insisting upon such a thing.  The Gospel (Jesus is Lord) was and is public.  The reaction to the Gospel (the fact that Jesus is Lord) demanded a community context.  The presentation of Caesar’s gospel (Caesar is lord of all) resulted in certain activities (the erecting of statues, sacrifices, festivals, submission to his earthly rule, etc…) that made it clear to all that his gospel was being accepted, so it would be expected that an alternative Gospel, especially in that day and age (and of course for all time) would demonstrate the same. 

When the Gospel (Jesus is Lord) was preached into a world that was accustomed to a regular hearing of a gospel message (Caesar is lord), it was preached into a world that was prepared to hear such a message, and it was preached into a world that would have expected public, community oriented demonstrations of what it was that was being trumpeted.  Yes, the Gospel was and is meant to be transformative.  That transformation, of course, is intensely personal, but that personal transformation was and is to be manifested in positive public behavior---not simply a negative (i.e. “I don’t do” these things and neither should you).  

That public behavior is not, as is so commonly proposed, merely that which takes place in church gatherings where singing, praying, lifting up hands, and giving are taken as the evidences of the inherent power of the Gospel and of transformed lives.  Public behavior is not that which is primarily concerned with a dramatic abstention from participation in life’s pleasures, accompanied by thinking that it is by constant refraining and restraining efforts that holiness is demonstrated. 

Those things can certainly be evidentiary, but they are only the primary evidence if one exalts the individual, rather than the body (and its Lord), and if one places private spirituality in the context of a personal quest to achieve heaven upon death higher than offering tangible service as and for a community (being lights to the world).  Such a focus seems to run counter to the movement of Scripture, in which the Creator God is constantly calling a people to Himself, beginning with Abraham, so that they might exemplify divine blessing and be a blessing to the whole of the created order.  Persons are called, and they are called to be a part of a people, for the primary purpose of being a blessing to the world so that the God that calls them into covenant might be glorified. 

Monday, August 11, 2014

Why Scripture? (part 3 of 3)

Though the setting in which a preacher stands behind a pulpit while the audience listens would be foreign to the original followers of Jesus, and wouldn’t be recognizable to them as “church,”  which, for them, took place at a community meal, it is possible to generalize and say that the preacher preaches (the teacher teaches, or the prophet prophesies, or the community leader exhorts and encourages) so that the Creator God may be made known. 

This fact has always been true of the church of Christ, even if it was not done in what has become the most familiar form for most of the believing community the world over.  The preacher preaches so that his hearers can learn about the covenant God and know more about that God.  Knowledge about the Creator God is transmitted so that those that made in the image of that God, who are called to be covenant bearers, might be able to correctly and effectively bear that image and covenant, so that they might be a blessing to all peoples, and that their God may receive the glory that is due to Him for His mighty acts. 

While the Creator God is acknowledged through praises, knowledge of Him is conveyed through the preaching of the Scriptures (primarily the message of the Gospel, rooted as it is in the story of the covenant people and the narrative of the Creator’s interaction with His creation), which convey information about the Creator, His character, His means, His purposes, and His goals.  The primary subject of proclamation in the time and places of regular Christian gatherings for worship must be the Creator God as revealed in the narrative of Scripture, and the primary activity (it seems) must be proclamation. 

Yes, the primary activity that must take place at these regular appointments must be preaching and teaching (communicating knowledge of the Creator God for the purpose of rightly being His divine image-bearers and representatives, with an understanding rooted in the historical recollections of the Creator God’s activity in His world, so that kingdom work might be properly performed), for it is in the mysteriously transformative proclamation of the Gospel that the power of the Resurrection is sent forth, and it is in this that knowledge is seated. 

This instruction in knowledge, which has and always will require great discipline and diligence, is of paramount importance, and should not only inspire the hearers to a constant desire to learn more about their God, but also to live lives of praise to that God.  Also of paramount importance is the realization that living this life of praise will not result in a withdrawal from the world around them into a self-imposed and ungodly exile that has the believer erecting their own temples. 

If learning more about the God of Scripture, as revealed in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, causes the hearer to retreat from the world in separation, isolation, and condemnation fostered by an “us versus them” mentality, then that preaching has gone woefully astray from that which is modeled by Jesus, and springs not from a diligent study of Scriptures so as to learn more about the Creator God, but from a subjective and self-satisfying interpretation of Scripture designed for little more than the gaining of personal control over the lives of the hearers and the all too familiar pursuit of power. 

Instead, living a life of praise will result in the erection of a multiplicity of tabernacles, placed within a fallen world as a symbol of constant exodus, in which, like the one claimed as Lord, the believer goes out to show forth the blessings of the Creator God’s kingdom to “tax collectors and sinners,” to the sick, to the thirsty, to the hungry, to those lacking clothes, to those in prison, and to the places where pain and evil are corrupting the covenant God’s creation and thwarting the advance of His kingdom.   

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Why Scripture? (part 2)

So why do it?  What is the primary function of “going to church”?  Is it for the elevation or betterment of self?  Of course it is.  Why?  This is so for a variety of reasons.  Believers gather together as a community of faith so as to escape the pressures of the world for an hour, as something akin to a temporary rescue from the exile (keeping in historical continuity with Israel) represented by the looming specter of death and its accoutrements.  This temporary rescue takes place inside an eschatological rescue, which has been promised to the Creator God’s people because of the Resurrection of Jesus. 

Believers gather to be encouraged by a message of the Creator God’s love as demonstrated in and through His Christ.  Believers come together to sing songs of praise as a correct response to the grace of their covenant God.  Believers gather to learn about the needs of their community and the wider world, and for giving in response to the sacrificial demands that have been placed upon them by the cross.  Believers gather to hear the preached Word of the covenant God, rooted in the message of that God’s kingdom and the realization of its being set forth by the one looked to as Lord and Savior. 

First and foremost, and even though it takes a form that is quite a bit different from what is there to be recognized in the apostolic churches as seen in Acts or as historically reconstructed from the letters of the New Testament, believers gather to hear the preached Word of the Gospel (Jesus is Lord and all that is implied thereby).  All other reasons take second place, for it is the divine proclamation  that Jesus of Nazareth is the crucified and resurrected Lord of all (the Gospel), that is of paramount importance. 

It is possible to see evidence of the fundamental importance of the divine proclamation throughout Scripture.  The Creator God is said to  have brought the created order into existence through the act of speaking.  This same God speaks to Adam, to Noah, to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and so forth.  The prophets themselves make proclamations, primarily calling the leaders of God’s people to account.  John the Baptist famously proclaimed the near advent of the kingdom of Israel’s God.  Jesus Himself fused His doing with teaching, presenting Himself as the world’s true Lord (as opposed to Caesar or any other temporal ruler) and bringing about the fusion of heaven and earth (the overlap of the Creator’s realm of existence with His creation). 

Jesus sends His disciples out to tell His message and to express the same beliefs about Israel’s covenant God.  In accordance with this, the new covenant people of the church (in historical and theological continuity with Israel as the covenant people) springs into existence and thousands are ushered into the kingdom when Peter and the disciples begin to preach the message that Jesus is Lord (the Gospel). 

The Apostle Paul helpfully points out the crucial elements of hearing and preaching as the way that faith is somehow implanted and the mysterious power of the Resurrection takes root within the hearer.  Revelation is itself a series of pronouncements in the mold of the apocalyptic prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures.  One could go on and on.  It is in the proclamation of the Word of the Creator God, preaching the Gospel that somehow possesses within it the power for transformation so that the very Gospel message is lived by its proclaimers, that the Creator God is revealed; and this would seem to be the fundamental and primary purpose of the church’s gathering.