Patronage and Stewardship in the Early Church

A presentation prepared for the “Patronage Symposium” held at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary, Mansourieh, Lebanon, October 3-5, 2018.

 

The early Christian movement depended almost entirely upon the patronage and beneficence of its better-resourced converts for its growth and maintenance. Consider just the importance of hospitality in the early church, which required, first and foremost, someone to own a house of sufficient size and to be disposed to open up this house for others, as well as to supply the attendant gifts that hospitality required.

Householders supported Christian teachers and their movements. Paul might have worked with his hands for extended period of his ministry to provide himself with subsistence, but his movements from place to place required the gift of hospitality.  The Acts of the Apostles attests to the importance of hospitality for the planting of churches throughout the Pauline mission.  Lydia, an early convert in Phillipi, opens her house to Paul and Silas as their base of operations in that city (Acts 16:14-15).  Jason of Thessalonica likewise extended hospitality to Paul and Silas, giving them a base from which to conduct their mission work there.  This significantly endangered Jason and his family, for his house was attacked and he himself was dragged and accused before the city’s authorities: “These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has entertained them as guests. They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus” (Acts 17:6-7 NRSV).  Titius Justus opened his house as a missionary venue for Paul in Corinth after the latter wore out his welcome in the synagogue (Acts 18:7).

Paul’s own letters corroborate this practice.  He plants the seed among the householders in Corinth as he shares his travel plans at the close of 1 Corinthians:

I will visit you after passing through Macedonia – for I intend to pass through Macedonia – and perhaps I will stay with you or even spend the winter, so that you may send me on my way, wherever I go. (1 Cor. 16:5 NRS)

There is the clear implication here that hospitality includes provision for the next leg of the journey, however far that might be! He closes his brief letter to Philemon with similar notice of his intention to spend some time as his wealthy convert’s “guest.”

One thing more – prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you. (Phlm. 1:22 NRS)

The circle from which the Johannine Epistles arose depended similarly on the regular gift of hospitality for the movement and support of itinerant teachers.  In 3 John, the elder commends Gaius for his ongoing commitment to providing this gift:

Beloved, you do faithfully whatever you do for the brothers, especially when they are strangers to you; they have testified to your love before the church. You will do well to send them on in a manner worthy of God; for they began their journey for the sake of Christ, accepting no support from non-believers. Therefore we ought to support such people, so that we may become co-workers with the truth. (3 Jn. 1:5-8 NRS, adapted)

We note again the clear implication that the host is not only providing hospitality for the duration of the teachers’ stay, but also sending the itinerant teachers on their way with supplies and perhaps monetary assistance for the next leg of their travels, essentially getting them to the next householder.  In 2 John, on the other hand, the elder warns the reader or readers against offering this gift to those teachers promoting a different teaching:

Everyone who does not abide in the teaching of Christ, but goes beyond it, does not have God; whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. Do not receive into the house or welcome anyone who comes to you and does not bring this teaching; for to welcome is to participate in the evil deeds of such a person. (2 Jn. 1:9-11 NRS)

The elder has some hope of halting the spin-off movement by closing the doors of householders to their itinerant promoters.

The same gift of hospitality was necessary for the support and work of the local Christian congregation, first and foremost in a householder’s opening up of his or her house for the group’s meetings and rites.  Paul’s opening and closing greetings attest to this social phenomenon again and again:

Gaius, who is host to me and to the whole church, greets you. (Rom. 16:23 NRS)

Aquila and Prisca, together with the church in their house, greet you warmly in the Lord. (1 Cor. 16:19 NRS)

Give my greetings to the brothers and sisters in Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house. (Col. 4:15 NRS)

Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house…. (Phlm. 1:1-2 NRS)

It might have been very easy (and quite correct!) for the wealthy host to regard himself or herself as the patron of this local congregation.  It appears to have been easy, in Corinth at least, for the weekly gathering of the assembly for the Lord’s Supper to be handled in much the same way as a dinner for one’s clients, including the tendency to preserve the social hierarchy of friends, more noble clients, and hangers-on in the quality and quantity of fare offered at these occasions.  This practice occasioned one of Paul’s early interventions against the wholesale importation of the expectations and practices of patronage into the community of the new creation (see the second half of 1 Corinthians 11).

Paul also indicates that the better-resourced Christians regularly offered support and aid of an unspecified nature.

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, 2 so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor (προστάτις) of many and of myself as well. (Rom. 16:1-2 NRS)

I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother. (Phlm. 1:7 NRS)

We cannot overlook the generosity of Theophilus, thanks to whose literary patronage of Luke we have one of our four Gospels and our best early attempt at a narrative of the spread of the Christian movement from Jerusalem to Rome – at least, this seems to many the best explanation for the dedicatory preface that opens both Luke’s Gospel and Acts.

We can readily imagine the expectations this sort of practice would normally arouse among local patrons and beneficiaries alike.  The giving of gifts, though given purely in the interest of the recipient, nevertheless binds and obligates the recipients to the givers, particularly if the material resources tend to flow in one direction.  Householders in Corinth might naturally expect members of the congregations that they supported through their hospitality to be of use to them in other arenas of life.  Did Erastus expect Christians to help him campaign to become the city treasurer and eventually an aedile?  Did the Christians in Corinth themselves look for ways in which to enhance Gaius’s prestige as he moved through the forum in Corinth, or otherwise offer themselves as a weighty addition to his power base?

It is perhaps of greatest interest to us at this conference to consider the ways in which Paul – as well as other voices we hear in the New Testament and into the first few centuries of the Christian movement’s growth – alters the dynamics of patronage in these congregations in a number of important ways that may still have bearing on the practice of patronage and clientage in Christian communities throughout the global Church today.

 

Giving Honor Where Honor Is Due

Those who put themselves or their resources out for others within the local church or between cells of the Church universal continue to receive recognition and honor for their generosity.  When Paul writes to the Corinthian Christians to stimulate their own generosity toward the poor among the Judean churches, he praises the Macedonian Christians for their generosity (2 Cor 8:1-5).  He amplifies their virtue by stressing that they did not let their own poverty hinder their generosity.  Paul frequently gives notice to believers who have incurred expense or exercised beneficence for his good or the good of the church.  He proclaimed himself, together with “all the churches of the Gentiles,” to be indebted to Prisca and Aquila, who “risked their necks for [Paul’s] life,” thus who displayed the greatest generosity (Rom 16:3-4).  Paul calls for public honors to be given Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus for their service, coming very close to simply reinforcing the everyday expectations concerning responding to benefactors:

Now, brothers and sisters, you know that members of the household of Stephanas were the first converts in Achaia, and they have devoted themselves to the service of the saints; I urge you to put yourselves at the service of such people, and of everyone who works and toils with them. I rejoice at the coming of Stephanas and Fortunatus and Achaicus, because they have made up for your absence; for they refreshed my spirit as well as yours. So give recognition to such persons. (1 Cor. 16:15-18 NRS)

In his letter to the Philippian believers, Paul makes special mention of the service of Epaphroditus, a person who, acting as the agent or vehicle of the Philippian church’s support of Paul, spends himself to the uttermost (he endures illness even almost to death).  Such a person, Paul declares, merits honor in the community:

Welcome him then in the Lord with all joy, and honor such people, because he came close to death for the work of Christ, risking his life to make up for those services that you could not give me. (Phil. 2:29-30 NRS)

Since the letters are public documents, read before the gathered assembly of believers, such mention amounts to a public announcement of the individual’s generosity and brings him or her honor in the congregation.  A disposition to showing hospitality is a requirement for the “overseer” in 1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:8; it is not automatic that the patrons of the local congregation will become the leaders of the local congregation, but these letters represent a step in the direction of selecting leaders from among the patrons of the local congregation.

 

The Source of Every Gift

Nevertheless, Paul speaks of benefaction within the church as a specific gift of God: it is a manifestation of God’s patronage of the community, mediated through its members.

We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; … the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity. (Rom. 12:6, 8 NRS)

Alongside and among spiritual endowments and edifying services like prophecy, tongues, teaching and words of knowledge, God also bestows the gift of giving to achieve God’s purposes in the family of God. Similarly, the author of 1 Peter sets the gift of hospitality in the interpretive context of God’s giving to each person:

Be hospitable toward one another without grumbling, each person – just as he or she has received a gift – offering the same in service to each other as honorable stewards of the full spectrum of God’s gifting; if anyone speaks, as utterances from God; if anyone serves, as from the strength that God supplies, so that in all things God may receive the honor through Jesus Christ, to whom is the glory and the power into the ages of ages, Amen! (1 Peter 4:9-11, my translation)

God supplies all things, so that Christians are called to share with one another what they have received from God, and to do so as a means of discharging their own obligations to the divine Giver (using his gifts for his purposes) and their obligations to one another as God’s family.  This is a bold transformation of patronage into stewardship.

We see this transformation again in connection with Paul’s instructions concerning the collection for the Christian poor in Judea, perhaps the most prominent act of beneficence among the churches in the New Testament. Paul speaks of this, however, not as an act of human patronage, but as God’s beneficence working itself out through responsive Christians.

God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. As it is written, “He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.” He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. (2 Cor. 9:8-10 NRS)

It is God who “supplies” the resources which first meet the needs of the Corinthians fully and give them something extra, which becomes “abundance for every good deed”; it is God who so enriches as to make someone able to give.  God is the Patron over all; he entrusts additional resources to some with the expectation that they will fulfill God’s purposes with it, namely, to ensure that all have enough.  Paul uses the story of God’s provision of manna in the wilderness as an analogy:

I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written, “The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.” (2 Cor. 8:13-15 NRS)

The quotation from Exodus embedded in that passage alludes to the short shelf life of manna: if more was gathered (hoarded) than would be used in a day, it turned putrid.  There was therefore no incentive to keep more than one could use – indeed there was every disincentive not to do so.  Paul boldly applies this to material resources in general, as would James, who cries out against the gold and silver that has (inexplicably) rusted through disuse, which becomes a witness against the owners.  Woe to those who do not use what extra God has entrusted to them for God’s good purposes!

In regard to this collection project, it is ultimately God who rightly receives the thanks for the donation:

You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God. (2 Cor. 9:11-12 NRS)

Giving becomes a means by which givers, far from indebting the recipients to themselves, discharge their obligation to the Divine Giver, bringing honor and recognition to God’s goodness and generosity – one of the staple returns of clients to their patrons or beneficiaries to their benefactors! A second motive for giving is supplied by Paul in his interjection of Christ’s generous example, who “though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor” (2 Cor 8:9).  Participating in the relief effort is a means of honoring the divine benefactor (9:13) by imitating his generosity: his example should spur them on in this endeavor.  Moreover, since the Corinthians have been enriched by Christ (8:9) and by God (9:10-11) in so many ways, they are honor-bound to use the riches entrusted to them for God’s purposes, namely relieving the needs of the saints.  Patronage and benefaction are therefore removed from the realm of competition among humans for honor and accumulation of power.  Indeed, participating in relief efforts is presented as much as a favor granted the givers as a favor done by the givers: the Macedonian Christians “voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints” (2 Cor. 8:3-4 NRS).

There is, however, still some measure of reciprocity to be enjoyed between givers and recipients of material aid.  The Judean Christians reciprocate with prayer on behalf of the Gentile Christians:

Through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others, while they long for you and pray for you because of the surpassing grace of God that he has given you. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift! (2 Cor. 9:13-15 NRS)

Spiritual favors and material favors can be exchanged in the reciprocal relationships between believers and churches.  The latter is certainly not more “real” than the former, and even less glowing.  See Rom 15:26-27; Gal 6:6.  Paul asks his converts in Corinth the rhetorical question, “If we have sown spiritual good among you, is it too much if we reap your material benefits?” (1 Cor. 9:11 NRS).  This is rhetorical, as he is not looking personally for support from these problematic converts.  Or in the opening paragraphs of Romans,

I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you – or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.  I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as I have among the rest of the Gentiles. (Rom. 1:11-13 NRS)

That last bit might sound spiritual, until we remember that Paul is looking for some substantial subsidizing of his mission to Spain.  In local congregations, patrons do not “keep” teachers as clients; rather, “Those who are taught the word must share in all good things with their teacher” (Gal. 6:6 NRS).  There is reciprocity without the usual stratification and the subordination of one party.  And perhaps most explicitly, from the end of Romans 15:

Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to share their resources with the poor among the saints at Jerusalem. They were pleased to do this, and indeed they owe it to them; for if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material things. (Rom. 15:26-27 NRS)

One gets the sense that, if any party has indebted the other – has initiated grace relationships between the human parties – it is those who have offered the spiritual benefactions.

There is one more critically important dimension to the early church’s transformation of the normal expectations of patronage, and that is the “return” for which the givers are taught to look.   Jesus had much to say about beneficence toward the poor.   Charity leads to lasting (eternal) wealth (Lk 2:33; 14:12-14; 16:9; 18:22), with the result that Jesus urges all his hearers to “sell your possessions and give alms.  Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven” (Lk 12:33).  The concept that one’s true possessions are what one gives away was known to Seneca:

“‘Whatever I have given, that I still possess!’ … These are the riches that will abide and remain steadfast amid all the fickleness of our human lot; and, the greater they become, the less envy they will arouse.  Why do you spare your wealth as though it were your own?  You are but a steward…. Do you ask how you can make them your own?  By bestowing them as gifts!  Do you, therefore, make the best of your possessions, and, by making them, not only safer, but more honorable, render your own claim to them assured and inviolable” (Ben. 6.3.1, 3).

Seneca, of course, would still have advised a more “judicious” deployment of benefits than Jesus, who tells us to seek out those who have no means of repayment, so that God will repay us “at the resurrection of the righteous” (Lk 14:12-14).  The striking vision of Mt 25:31-46, in which the righteous are separated from the wicked on the basis of beneficence toward the needy, surprises the hearers and readers by asserting that providing food and clothing and comfort to the needy is the way that they either returned or failed to return the favor to the One who has given us all we need for our well-being and survival (gifts of food and clothing, for example: Mt 6:11, 25-33).  Believers have the opportunity to make a gracious return to their Lord and benefactor in the person of the poor or the oppressed.

These transformations of patronage continue to shape Christian giving in the literature of the second century church.  A landmark work in this regard is the Shepherd of Hermas.  In the first Parable, the angel advises Hermas:

Instead of fields, buy souls that are in distress, as anyone is able, and visit widows and orphans, and do not neglect them; and spend your wealth and all your possessions, which you received from God, on fields and houses of this kind.  For this is why the Master made you rich, so that you might perform these ministries for him.  It is much better to purchase fields and possessions and houses of this kind, which you will find in your own city when you go home to it. (Parable 1.8-9; Holmes translation)

Giving is the expression of obedience to the God who supplied wealth in the first place (a motif from Paul); the resources one invests in relieving the distress of others become the reward one finds in the kingdom of God (a motif from Jesus).

The second parable offers an extended reflection on the inter-relationship between – and the reciprocity among – rich and poor in the Christian community.  It is lengthy, but worth hearing almost in its entirety:

As I was walking through the country, I noticed an elm tree and a vine and was comparing them and their fruits when the shepherd appeared to me and said, “What are you thinking about?” “I am thinking, sir,” I said, “about the elm and the vine; specifically, that they are very well suited to one another.” (2) “These two trees,” he said, “are intended as a model for God’s servants…. (3) This vine bears fruit, but the elm is a fruitless tree.  But unless it climbs the elm, this vine cannot bear much fruit when it is spread out on the ground, and what fruit it does bear is rotten, because it is not suspended from the elm.  So, when the vine is attached to the elm it bears fruit both from itself and from the elm…. (4) So, this parable is applicable to God’s servants, to poor and rich alike…. (5) The rich have much wealth, but are poor in the things of the Lord, being distracted by their wealth, and they have very little confession and prayer with the Lord, and what they do have is small and weak and has no power above.  So whenever the rich go up to the poor and supply them their needs, they believe that what they do for the poor will be able to find a reward from God, because the poor are rich in intercession and confession, and their intercession has great power with God.  The rich, therefore, unhesitatingly provide the poor with everything. (6) And the poor, bring provided for by the rich, pray for them, thanking God for those who share with them…. (7) They both, then, complete their work: the poor work with prayer, in which they are rich, which they received from the Lord; this they return to the Lord who supplies them with it.  And the rich likewise unhesitatingly share with the poor the wealth that they have received from the Lord.” (Parable 2, selections; Holmes)

There is reciprocity, but it is significantly altered as the parties’ awareness of the greater Patron enters into and reshapes the relationships.  The giver’s orientation towards the “return” is altered – indeed, the giving once again becomes a return to the greater Patron who enriched the giver in the first place, while also promising further gifts from this greater Patron.  They meet the needs of their sisters and brothers not as though from their own resources, but as brokers of divine resources, honorably fulfilling the purposes of the divine Giver for the gifts of resources he has given.  In connection with their faithfulness in regard to benefits received, they may confidently anticipate future benefits from their mutual Patron.

The recipient’s orientation towards “returning” is also altered.  The socially-nurtured orientation would have been toward conspicuously bringing honor to the human benefactor and, if this is a local and ongoing relationship (as it would be in a local congregation or other consistent ministry setting), contributing to the human benefactor’s local power base.  This could easily contribute, in turn, to factionalism within the congregation or in the broader social setting. The ecclesiastically nurtured orientation is toward thanking God (perhaps in contexts that also bear witness to this God and God’s generous provision), which also includes giving good testimony concerning their generous sisters and brothers to God.  It is also oriented toward doing good to one’s generous sisters and brothers in distinctly Christian ways, e.g., interceding for them (acting as brokers of other forms of divine favor) with God.

I offer this material and these reflections not by way of prescription, but by way of resource.  Is there anything in these biblical and early ecclesiastical texts and models that offers something useful for directing more healthful local interaction between benefactors and beneficiaries in global Christian contexts, where “healthful” might be defined as promoting the cause of God, the Spirit-led transformation of human community and individual disciples, and the unity of the local Christian presence?  This is where I hope our ministry professionals in those contexts will take the conversation.

 

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Reading 1 Peter Among the Elect Resident Aliens in Sri Lanka

A paper presented at the “Letters of James, Peter, and Jude” section at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, Denver, November 19, 2018.

 

The author of 1 Peter returns repeatedly to his addressees’ experience of socially-imposed shame (1 Pet 1:6; 2:12, 19; 3:14, 16; 4:4, 12-16, 19), suggesting that this is indeed an important feature of the situation that he is addressing.[1]  It is this facet of the text and of the situation it addresses with which Sri Lankan Christians identified most readily and, indeed, drew them to desire to study this text in the first place.  This presentation represents the principal fruits of my conversations about 1 Peter with the students and faculty of Colombo Theological Seminary, whose mission is largely to provide theological education and ministry training especially to evangelical Protestant Christians throughout the island.

 

Context

Slightly more than 70% of Sri Lankans identify themselves as Buddhist. Hinduism is a distant second at 12.6%.  There is a great deal of practical overlap between popular Buddhism and Hindu practice, since the Hindu pantheon has long been part of lay Buddhist culture on the island.[2] The demographics of the two, however, are quite different. Almost all Buddhists are Sinhalese and almost all Hindus are Tamil – and, of course, the ethnic strife between these two groups has been legendary, resulting in nearly thirty years of civil war ended only by a successful, though excessively violent, stratagem in 2009.  Approximately 9.7% of the population subscribes to Islam and 7.6% to Christianity.  Of the latter, about four out of five are Roman Catholic Christians and the remainder one or another variety of Protestantism.[3]  These figures add up to almost 100%.  Sri Lanka is very much more akin to the first-century Mediterranean than the twenty-first-century Western context insofar as almost everyone on the island would claim a particular religious affiliation.  While the Sri Lankan constitution protects freedom of religion and the freedom to change religious affiliation, Buddhism is formally awarded “foremost place” among the country’s religions and is afforded more explicit protections than minority religions.[4]

The non-Christian majority and dominant cultures of Sri Lanka respond to the Christian presence there much as did the non-Christian majority and dominant cultures of Roman Anatolia in the regions addressed by 1 Peter.  Despite the legal right to freedom of religion, there exists significant prejudice against Christianity in Sri Lanka, often manifesting itself in harassment, intimidation, and even violent hostility.  A principal cause for this is the fact that the Christian gospel is seen – quite rightly – as a foreign import into Sri Lankan territory.  Indeed, although there was a small Christian presence in Sri Lanka prior to the colonization of the island by European powers,[5] “the Christianity which is found in Sri Lanka today owes its origins to the colonial rule of the past.”[6] Christianity had been an accouterment, even an instrument, of colonization for almost three centuries and, since Sri Lankan independence in 1947, has continued to be viewed as an instrument of Westernization.  Colonial rule was often brutal.  Under Portuguese domination, the colonizers confiscated sacred sites, burned the temples, and erected Roman Catholic churches in their place, sometimes slaughtering the Buddhist clergy who resisted.[7] During Dutch rule, the Dutch Reformed Church suppressed Sri Lankan Catholics while seeking to win converts from among the very poor with material support (whence the pejorative expression “rice Christians”).  The Dutch did not allow new buildings to be constructed for the worship of any other religion.[8]  Under the British Raj, Christians, especially Anglicans, enjoyed significant privilege.

Since political independence, many have promoted the view that Buddhism is the religion most proper to Sri Lanka and, indeed, central to its post-colonial recovery of a more indigenous Sri Lankan identity.  As this impetus gained ground, local toleration for other religions decreased, especially for overtly and energetically proselytizing Christian groups, which local Buddhist leaders regard as a corrosive and anti-patriotic influence.

Christians in Sri Lanka are no strangers to the social dynamics reflected in 1 Peter. Sculpted images and their veneration continue to play a prominent, even central, role in Sri Lankan Buddhism and Hinduism.  The tendency of a great many Christians to avoid the religious ceremonies valued by their non-Christian neighbors, which involve the invocation of other gods and some ritual presence of idols, is a constant reminder of the lack of unity and solidarity within a family or a community.  This is all the more problematic insofar as Buddhists and Hindus can readily participate in the religious ceremonies of their Christian family members and friends; the refusal of the latter to reciprocate exacerbates the tensions.  This is again very much akin to the first century setting – polytheists can accommodate the rites of monotheists, but the reverse is highly problematic for the monotheist. The non-Christian families and neighbors are indeed “surprised,” “estranged,” even “alienated” (xenizontai) by the anti-social behavior of former friends, associates, and otherwise reliable citizens (1 Pet 4:3-4).  Non-Christian family members often view converts as betraying the family – “forsaking father and mother” is a common idiom in this regard.

Outside of pressure within a family, the most significant and overt hostility tends to surface against evangelical Christian groups, and this particularly outside of the major urban centers.  According to the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka, there were ninety-seven “incidents of attacks on churches, intimidation, violence against pastors and their congregations, and obstruction of worship services” in 2017, an increase from eighty-nine recorded incidents in 2016.[9]  Local Buddhist monks will often be found in the forefront of a mob that gathers to confront a local Christian pastor or assembly.  These mobs, which have been known to turn violent, have numbered from the dozens to as high as two thousand on one occasion in the southern village of Devinuwara.[10] Local police and other authorities are often seen to be slow to respond or even to side with those harassing or threatening Christian leaders and their assemblies, advising against filing complaints and even urging acquiescence to the demands of non-Christian protestors for the sake of preserving the peace or the local Christians’ safety.

 

1 Peter and Responses to Harassment and Hostility

Passages like 1 Peter 3:13-17 and 4:12-16 spoke with a keen immediacy to the situation of thousands of Sri Lankan Christians. Many of my conversation partners sympathized quite personally with the challenges facing the audience of 1 Peter – either succumb to the social forces pressing for “rehabilitation” or come to grips with the experience of shame and hostility in such a way that these do not become debilitating.

An interesting development in our conversations was the recognition of the importance of thinking critically about both antagonism and rapprochement in the Sri Lankan context.  How much of the former is essential if one is to maintain one’s Christian identity and practice intact? How much of the latter can be effectively pursued without sacrificing the same, and with what hope for changed relationships?  The author of 1 Peter himself seems concerned that any experience of being slandered or otherwise shamed by non-Christians be rooted in their fidelity to the call and example of Christ, and not in any behavior to which non-Christians might legitimately object.  The principal unavoidable offenses would be those inherent in “turning to God from idols” (to borrow a phrase from 1 Thess 1:9), transferring their allegiance to this God and the kingdom of God’s Son – not the avoidable offenses of, for example, disturbing a neighborhood with excessively loud, Western-style worship bands or visiting a sacred archaeological site and failing to remove one’s shoes out of respect (or else, not to frequent such spaces in the first place).  My conversation partners also latched on to the ways in which 1 Peter suggested avenues toward rapprochement, e.g., through foregrounding the embodiment of shared ethical ideals.

  1. Shared Ethical Ideals

The author of 1 Peter exploits the substantial areas of overlap between what the Christian community and the non-Christian majority culture affirms as noble and avoids as vicious.  He calls the hearers to counter the feelings of shame evoked by their neighbors’ hostility and reproach by developing a healthy self-respect based on the embodiment of ideals and virtues they know to be held in esteem both within the Christian subculture and the dominant culture, the culture of their primary upbringing. He expresses the hope that the consonance of Christian conduct with celebrated ideals will eventually lead to acceptance of this alternative way of life, “silencing the ignorant slander of foolish people” (1 Pet 2:13-15).  If the outsiders continue to degrade and reject the Christians, however, the latter will be in a position to consider this to be a reflection of their neighbors’ ignorance – their failure to recognize virtue – and so nullify the social pressure of shame rather than internalize and act upon it.

He draws prominently on the ethical topic of mastering one’s desires and cravings, rather than being mastered by the same, so that one could live a consistently virtuous life: “I exhort you to abstain from the fleshly desires that wage war against your soul, keeping your conduct among the Gentiles honorable” (2:11-12); “don’t continue to conform yourselves to the desires of your former ignorance” (1:14).[11]  The topic of “mastery of the passions” as an ideal of philosophical ethics is widely attested in Greco-Roman and Hellenistic Jewish literature; it is also central to the Buddhist ideal.  The Buddha identified desire – “the entangling and embroiling craving” – as a principal problem at the core of human existence most diligently to be eliminated (Dhammapada 180, 359). “Just as the rain does not break through a well-thatched house, even so passion never penetrates a well-developed mind” (Dhammapada 14).[12]

Another prominently shared value is cultivating and acting upon the desire to bring benefit to others.  The author of 1 Peter urges his readers to remain steadfast in their love and hospitality toward one another (1:22; 4:8-9); other New Testament voices are more specific about the doing of good to all people beyond the household of faith (even while ensuring that they have not overlooked the needs of the household of faith).  This resonates with the Buddhist ideal of mettā, “loving-kindness through all bodily, verbal, and mental activities,” or “that which ‘promotes welfare’.”[13] This is indeed an area in which many Christian bodies in Sri Lanka have distinguished themselves, very dramatically in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, less dramatically but quite consistently through ongoing investment in coming alongside and helping the refugee, the homeless, and the displaced throughout the island.

The remaining ethical teachings that run throughout 1 Peter continued to resonate significantly with the teachings of the Buddha.  Compare, for example, Peter’s recitation from the Psalm enjoining the devotee to “turn away from evil and do good” (3:11) with the Buddha’s injunctions to “hasten to do good and restrain your mind from evil”  (Dhammapada 116), and “To avoid all evil, to cultivate good, and to cleanse one’s own mind – this is the teaching of the Buddhas” (Dhammapada 183). The Buddha identified anger, pride, jealousy, selfishness, deceit, hatred, lust, and hypocrisy as “fetters” from which to seek to free oneself (Dhammapada 7, 221, 262-63, 399-400, 407) and truthfulness, virtue, inoffensiveness, restraint, patience, and self-mastery as qualities to be cultivated (Dhammapada 10, 261, 399-400).  There is a great deal of overlap with the author of 1 Peter’s censure of wickedness, guile, hypocrisy, envy, slander and promotion of harmony, sympathy, mutual love, compassion, and humility. All of these came to be seen as bridges by means of which Christ-followers could affirm the Buddha’s ethical insights, offering honor to him and, thereby, to their Buddhist neighbors and, to the extent that they invested themselves in the realization of these ideals, quite plausibly raise the stature of Christian teaching in their neighbors’ eyes.

It is in this context that the author of 1 Peter’s directions concerning how Christians should respond to their harassers became particularly important.   Christians confronted with such attacks on their honor as verbal challenges, reproachful speech, or even physical affronts might be sorely tempted to respond in kind, playing out the challenge-riposte game before the onlookers.  Beginning with Jesus, however, Christian leaders sought to cultivate a specifically Christian riposte: “When he was reviled, he did not riposte with more reviling in kind,” but instead “committed himself to the One who judges justly,” that is, to God (2:22-23). The author calls all Christians, therefore, not to respond in kind, but rather to follow Christ’s example, “not returning injury for injury or insult for insult, but, on the contrary, extending blessing – for to this you were called, in order that you might inherit a blessing” (3:9).[14]

This response resonates especially closely with Buddhist ideals concerning the sage’s conduct in the midst of hostility: “Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world; by non-hatred alone is hatred appeased” (Dhammapada 5); “Overcome the angry by non-anger; overcome the wicked by goodness” (Dhammapada 223).[15] The Christian who remains committed to 1 Peter’s advice would be in a position to declare, along with the Buddha, “Happy indeed we live, friendly amidst the hostile! Amidst hostile people we dwell free from hatred” (Dhammapada 197).

Rather than either yield to the feelings of shame or riposte in a manner that would antagonize, the author of 1 Peter calls Christians are called to be ready to give a gentle but committed verbal defense (an apologia, 3:15) for their new commitments and practices.  In the Sri Lankan context, this defense would plausibly include the affirmation that, “without Christ, I could not be a Buddhist.”[16]

  1. Avoiding Unnecessary Offensiveness: Westernization as Skandalon

While it seemed fairly self-evident that my conversation partners would not, in fact, suffer “as murderers or thieves or evildoers or busybodies” (1 Pet 4:18), the author’s concerns that the host society not find legitimate cause for complaint against the members of the Christian movement promoted a good deal of healthy reflection on their part concerning their churches’ and their congregations’ practices.  Their attention focused on the need to reassess the degree of Westernization present in Sri Lankan Christianity in every area, since the adoption and ongoing importation of Western Christian music, theologies, worship practices, strategies for congregational growth and development, even the Bible translations employed present an unnecessary obstacle to the acceptance of Christianity as a naturalized religion.[17]

Is a more indigenous expression of Christianity possible, such that Buddhist nationalists, for example, would be less inclined to see Christianity as a force for (or, at least, vestige of) Western imperialism? My conversation partners acknowledged the call to develop ways of singing the psalms and to write new hymns that could be sung to tunes and with instrumentation more closely representative of indigenous musical practice; to continue to formulate a Christian theology that, while firmly grounded in Scripture and the global Church’s heritage, places the pressing issues of Sri Lankan existence at the center of concern to that emerging theology; to pay greater attention to the values inherent in Sri Lankan culture (e.g., community and relationship) and develop congregational life around those values rather than pattern congregations after Western patterns (which tend to be more “program-centered” than “people-centered,” which tend to think in terms of marketing the church, hence in more “commercial” than “community” terms).[18]

  1. Further Observations
  • The author’s injunctions to respect authority occasioned conversations about how to offer honor even to those impeding one’s legal access to religious freedoms and rights, honor being an important value in Sri Lankan culture, while still rigorously pursuing those freedoms and rights.
  • The author’s words to Christian wives and Christian husbands occasioned a great deal of discussion concerning gender issues in Sri Lanka, particularly the more traditional roles assigned to and expected of women in the less urbanized areas, and the importance of addressing domestic violence – particularly where this is fueled by patriarchal expectations.
  • The author’s attention throughout to nurturing Christian identity as “an elect race, a holy nation,” the formation of a people where formerly there was not a “people” (2:9-10) invited reflections on the ongoing tensions of race and nation(alism) in Sri Lanka especially between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority, and the invitation to transcend these tensions and the categories that sustain them.
  • My conversation partners were attentive to the author’s program of nurturing inner-church solidarity, urging his hearers to show one another “an unfeigned brotherly and sisterly love … constantly from the heart” (1:22; see 3:8), shaping their relationships within the church according to the ethical ideal of family at its best.[19] Internal harmony and unity (3:8), ungrudging mutual support and hospitality (4:8-11), and bearing oneself with that gentle humility that nurtures solidarity and harmony (5:3, 6) – these were greeted as much-to-be-desired qualities in the midst of a hostile environment.
  • This further stimulated their reflection on the ills of denominationalism, division, and the erosion of witness in their context – in a number of ways a direct result of the manner of Christianity’s introduction under a series of colonial powers each with their own brand of Christianity, and ongoingly the result of Western denominations staking their claim in Sri Lanka through their independent missions.
  • Despite their limited resources and local needs, my conversation partners were sensitive to the fact that, as the author of 1 Peter put it, their “sisters and brothers throughout the world are facing the same kinds of sufferings” (5:9). They were stimulated to think of ways in which they could put themselves in contact with those who faced even more stringent pressures because of their commitment to the faith, extending honor to them in their experience of being shamed and making the reality of the Church Universal as a social matrix for perseverance felt more keenly through prayer, personal support, and material assistance.

 

Why Should Western Readers of 1 Peter Care?

I would answer this from my own location for those teaching in similar locations – theological schools with a commitment to the Christian tradition and ministry.  Some of our commonly shared Scriptures speak much more directly to other bodies within the global church than to our own.  While we are still interested in these texts’ word “to us,” we will become both more globally aware and less self-centered in our engagement with Scripture as we are ourselves attentive, and teach our students to attend to, those Christian contexts to which these texts speak more immediately.  This, in turn, puts those other parts of the global church more forthrightly on our radar.  We may come to see that their challenges and needs should take priority for us over our own as we seek to discern our own response to “the word.”

At the same time, reading 1 Peter with Sri Lankan Christians cautions well-resourced and marketing-savvy Christians in the West concerning their relationship with the Church in the non-Western world.  Is it in the interests of the Sri Lankan Church (for example) for every one of our Western denominations to establish our own franchise and brand in their land, or do we need to radically re-think our missiological practice if we are not to continue to replicate the problems of former missiological practices?  Is it in their interests for us to continue to package our music, our programs, our church-growth strategies as ecclesiastical solutions for the world, and not acknowledge them more forthrightly as culture-bound and location-bound expressions that should not simply become products to export?  I also find that reading 1 Peter and other texts with Sri Lankan Christians in their contexts also assists me in the exegetical task of entering into the ancient texts themselves in their ancient contexts, for the social dynamics surrounding Sri Lankan Christians resembles those of 1 Peter’s audience much more closely than any reference points in my Western experience.

 

[1] The frequency with which an author returns to a particular topic is underscored as one indication of its importance in the landscape of the community being addressed in John M. G. Barclay, “Mirror-reading a Polemical Letter: Galatians as a Test Case” (Journal for the Study of the New Testament 31 [1987] 73-93), 73-93. Throughout this essay I will simply refer to the “author” without engaging the question of whether or not this involved the historical Peter.  Readers may review discussions of authorship in critical commentaries.  These positions and supporting literature are briefly surveyed in D. A. deSilva, An Introduction to the New Testament: Contexts, Methods & Ministry Formation (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 844-847.

[2] G. P. V. Somaratna, The Foreignness of the Christian Church in Sri Lanka (Kohuwela, Sri Lanka: CTS Publishing, 2006), 4.

[3] Total population of Sri Lanka: 20,359,439; Buddhists: 14,272,056; Hindus: 2,561,299; Muslims: 1,967,523; Roman Catholics: 1,261,194; Other Christians: 290,967; Other: 6,400.  These figures are taken from the “Census of Population and Housing 2012,” prepared by the Department of Census & Statistics: Ministry of Policy Planning and Economic Affairs, p. 163 (accessed online at http://www.statistics.gov.lk/PopHouSat/CPH2011/index.php?fileName=FinalReportE&gp=Activities&tpl=3# on November 8, 2018).

[4] United States Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor,   http://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/irf/religiousfreedom/index.htm?year=2017&dlid=281034, accessed November 3, 2018.

[5] See Prabo Mihindukulasuriya, The ‘Nestorian’ Cross and the Persian Christians of the Anuradhapura Period (Kohuwela: CTS Publishing, 2012).

[6] Somaratna, Foreignness, 7.

[7] Somaratna, Foreignness, 32-34.

[8] Somaratna, Foreignness, 34. During these centuries almost no attention was given to developing either indigenous forms or indigenous leaders (Somaratna, Foreignness, 9).

[9] “International Religious Freedom Report for 2017: Sri Lanka,” pp, 1, 9. A perusal of successive reports from the U.S. Department of State on Sri Lanka indicates continued incidents of harassment, vandalism, and assault island-wide.  The 2009 report includes the murder of a Protestant pastor and his two sons, a Jesuit relief coordinator, and (likely) a Seventh Day Adventist pastor (http://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/irf/2009/127371.htm, accessed November 9, 2018).  The 2011 report shows a slight decrease in physical violence and greater responsiveness on the part of local police (http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/193147.pdf, accessed November 9, 2018).  It is important to note that Muslim leaders, congregations, places of worship, citizens, and places of business experience the same kinds and degrees of harassment, for generally all the same reasons.

[10] “International Religious Freedom Report for 2017: Sri Lanka,” p. 10.

[11] See Plato, Resp. 431A; Gorg. 491; Phaedo 93-94; Cicero, Tusc. Disp. 2.22; 3.22; 4.10-11; Plutarch, Virt. mor. 1-4 (Mor. 440D-443D); Ep. Aristeas 221; 4 Maccabees.  This was an ideal that the Christian movement was quite intent on fulfilling (see, for example, Gal 5:13-25).

[12] Consider also the following quotations: “Just as a storm throws down a weak tree, so does Mara overpower one who lives for the pursuit of pleasures, who is uncontrolled in his senses, immoderate in eating, indolent and dissipated” (Dhammapada 7); “The wise control themselves” (Dhammapada 80); “For a person tormented by evil thoughts, who is passion-dominated and given to the pursuit of pleasure, his craving steadily grows.  He makes the fetter strong indeed” (Dhammapada 349).

[13] Acharya Buddharakkhita, Mettā: The Philosophy and Practice of Universal Love (Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 1989), 13, 22.

[14] Elliott (“Disgraced Yet Graced,” 171) helpfully compares 1 Peter’s advice to the similar course promoted by Plutarch: “‘How shall I defend myself against my enemy?’ ‘By proving yourself good and honorable’” (“How to Profit by One’s Enemies” 4; Moralia 88B).   It will distress the enemy more than being insulted, Plutarch writes, to see you bear yourself with self-control, justice, and kindness toward those with whom you come in contact.  The insulted person must use the insult as an occasion to examine his life and rid himself of any semblance of that vice (“How to Profit” 6; Moralia 89 D-E).

[15] See also Dhammapada 389: “One should not strike a holy man, nor should a holy man, when struck, give way to anger.  Shame on him who strikes a holy man, and more shame on him [that is, on the holy man] who gives way to anger.”

[16] Prabo Mihindakulasuriya, “Without Christ I Could Not Be a Buddhist: An Evangelical Response to Christian Self-Understanding in a Buddhist Context,” Current Dialogue 51 (2011): 73-87.

[17] The presence of KJV-only-ism among some Christian groups in Sri Lanka is a singular triumph for colonialism!

[18] A number of recommendations for building bridges between Christian worship and major elements of worship already familiar to Sri Lankan Buddhists can be found in G. P. V. Somaratna, Sinhala Christian Worship (Kohuwela, Sri Lanka: CTS Publishing, 2006).

[19] See, further, deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity, 165-73, 212-26 and the literature cited therein. An especially important primary text is Plutarch’s essay, “On Fraternal [and Sororal] Affection.”

Sin and Its Remedy in Galatians

A presentation given at the “Pauline Theology” seminar at the annual meeting of the Institute for Biblical Research, Denver, November 16, 2018

David A. deSilva, Ph.D.

 

Where has humanity gone wrong, necessitating God’s restorative interventions? Where does it still go wrong on this side of the coming of Christ? What forces are at work constraining humanity to continue to go wrong (and to have gone wrong hitherto)? If we approach these questions merely on the basis of an analysis of passages using the lexical terminology most fundamentally associated with the idea of “sin,” we will not find all that much with which to work in Galatians.  In Romans, “sin” is a focal topic.  The word counts make this abundantly clear: forms of the noun ἁμαρτία appear in Romans forty-eight times, but only sixteen times across the remaining twelve letters associated with Paul’s name; forms of the verb ἁμαρτάνειν appear seven times in Romans, and only sixteen times across the remainder of the Pauline corpus. Nevertheless, each of those few passages in Galatians that foreground the lexicography of sin cracks open larger conversations within Paul’s letter and the situation he addresses that can lead us toward some helpful observations.

  1. Galatians 1:4

The first relevant passage appears in the opening paragraph, within Paul’s wish for “grace and peace” upon his troubled and troublesome congregations in Galatia:

“Grace to you and peace from our Father God and the Lord Jesus Christ who gave himself for the sins we committed (ὑπὲρ τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν ἡμῶν)[1] in order that he might rescue us out from the present, evil age according to the will of our God and Father” (Gal. 1:3-4)

This is an important verse that sets the stage for much that will follow.  It provides the Galatian Christians with an essential reminder of their debt to Jesus such that they ought to take great care neither to “set aside God’s grace” (as Paul claims he is careful to avoid doing in 2:21) nor to lose Christ’s benefits by falling from this grace (a clear and present danger facing them, according to Paul’s strong declarations of the consequences that would follow upon the wrong choice in 5:3-4).  Already from the outset we find Paul concerned both with “sins” as discrete acts in regard to which some sacrificial death is necessary and with a larger cosmic framework that is experienced in some way as oppressive and from which we therefore needed “rescue.”[2]

Paul will develop quite explicitly the notion of sins as discrete acts or patterns of behavior as he speaks of the “works of the flesh” (5:19), the actions prompted by “the flesh with its passions and desires” (5:24):

“And the works born of the flesh are clearly evident: sexual immorality, impurity, shameless debauchery, idolatry, drug-induced spells, displays of enmity, strife, fanaticism, angry outbursts, self-promoting acts, dissensions, factions, acts born of envy, drunken bouts, gluttonous parties, and other things like these.” (5:19-21)

These are, moreover, acts and patterns of behavior with clear consequences: “Concerning these things I tell you in advance, just as I warned you before: Those who keep on practicing such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (5:21; see also 6:8a).

By “flesh” here, Paul does not simply mean the “meat” of our physical person…. It is the sum total of the impulses, urges, and desires that lead human beings away from virtue toward self-promotion and self-gratification, often at the expense of the interests and well-being of others, of the harmony of community, or of the accomplishing of the purposes of God in our lives, communities, and world.… It is a powerful force at work within human beings that can manifest itself in thought, word, and deed, in the yearnings of mind and soul as well as body.[3]

Paul speaks of the “flesh” as a potent force in the lives of human beings, but it is not an enslaving force.  Jurgen Becker expresses well the power of the “flesh”: “The compulsion to give in to desire is one’s own and at the same time is felt as foreign domination.”[4] What Paul calls “flesh,” however, is still at this point something internal to the person, even if it is not the person in the truest sense – that moral faculty that can recognize and resist the impulsive desires of the flesh.

At the same time, Paul gives significant attention in this letter to those forces that act upon the individual person from without to constrain his or her heart and practice to move in other than God-ward directions – and thus result in multiplying sins qua actions contrary to God’s vision for God’s creatures and their common life.  This brings us, in Galatians, chiefly to τὰ στοιχεῖα τοῦ κόσμου.  The στοιχεῖα represent the fundamental building blocks of the world, but not in the sense of the physical elements from which the physical world is constituted,[5] though this meaning does provide a close analogy. They are the organizing and regulatory principles that create the “order” that constitutes the kosmos to which Paul celebrates having been crucified so as to live no longer within its constraints (6:14) – the “world” of human systems, interaction, and activity as these have taken shape in humanity’s rebellion against, rather than submission to, God. The στοιχεῖα arise from human ordering and activity, the accumulated residue of human sin’s effects on the environment of the sinners that “twists conditions in which others must live.”[6] The represent “the systemic nature of sin,” calling us to recognize “the manner in which structures embody and perpetuate harm and wrong.”[7]

The στοιχεῖα are, especially, the categories that divide, order, and create hierarchy within social reality, as well as the rationales that undergird the same. (Paul will name and sweep away three of these paired categories that had hitherto ordered human community and assigned priority and relative value across those categories in Galatians 3:28: Jew versus Greek, slave versus free, male versus female.) They are the rules and values that each child, born into and confronted with the society that had long since taken shape on the basis of such rules and values, must inevitably internalize, accept, and live by. They are the individual parts of “the way the world works,” to which each child must adapt himself or herself, by which each child must be willingly constrained as his or her mind, practices, and life trajectory are shaped thereby. These regulatory principles begin outside of us but, at some point within the long process of our socialization into the world as kosmos, become part of us, become internal strictures within us. This is the slavery into which every person is born, and which most never recognize as such.[8]

The human predicament consists, for Paul in Galatians, of sin and slavery; thus God’s remedy must consist of the restoration of righteousness and freedom.

  1. Galatians 2:15, 17, 18

The next three occurrences of the language of “sin” and “sinner” come from the extended version of Paul’s response to Peter in Syrian Antioch:

“We, Jews by nature and not sinners (ἁμαρτωλοί) from the nations….” (Gal. 2:15)

“Now, if while seeking to be set right in Christ we were found also ourselves to be sinners (ἁμαρτωλοί), then is Christ sin’s servant (ἁμαρτίας διάκονος)?  Heck, no!” (Gal. 2:17)

This says something about what sin is not for Paul, at least not anymore.  It is not to be found in the neglect of those practices that maintain the separation of Jew from Gentile once Jew and Gentile have been reconciled to God and to one another in Christ.  We could go further: sin is to be found now, on this side of Christ’s coming, above all in the rejection of the “way out” that God the Father (1:4) has provided from this predicament through the death and resurrection of God’s Son (1:4; 2:20) and provision of God’s Spirit (3:2-5, 13-14; 5:13-25). “Sin” is now choosing not to align oneself with God’s provision for the re-alignment of human beings as individuals and humanity as community with God’s Self and God’s vision for both – refusing, that is, God’s provision for “rectification,” the setting right, of the human situation before God.  This was, far from incidentally, Paul’s understanding of his own primary sin as he reflects on his own story (Gal 1:13-16; 1 Cor 15:8-10) – it was not his sins against the Law (in regard to which he could boast to be “blameless,” Phil 3:6) but his opposition to God’s righteous One that God had to intervene to correct by “revealing his Son to me” (Gal 1:15).

In the immediate context of 2:15 and 2:17, Paul is confronting Peter in Syrian Antioch as a man who “stood condemned” (2:11) – strong language indeed, calling attention to the amplitude of Peter’s transgression.  This transgression, however, is specifically a transgression against the solution that God has put in place and is bringing about in the community of those “in Christ.” By withdrawing from table fellowship with the Gentile Christians there who had been similarly reconciled to God and cleansed from their sin by the blood of Christ, and who had been similarly received into God’s family as attested by their reception of God’s Holy Spirit, Peter has moved against God’s own currents; he has not kept walking straight in the direction of the truth that the gospel announces (2:14).[9]  He has taken a serious mis-step by returning to a practice that suggested that the boundaries between the Jew and the Greek still had value in God’s sight and needed to be observed.  Even if Peter was just “putting on a charade” for the people who came from James, his shift in practice belied what God was doing in the new community of the Jews and Gentiles sanctified together in Christ and by the Spirit. Paul provides explanatory commentary on 2:17 along these very lines in the immediately following verse.  In what does “sin” now consist as far as the question of Jew-Gentile boundaries and the Torah that legislated these boundaries are concerned?  “If I erect afresh the very things that I tore down, I establish myself to be a transgressor” (παραβάτην, 2:18).[10]

The episode in Antioch incidentally offers a good case study for the interplay between sin as discrete act and sin as the result of systemic forces and predispositions that are hostile to God’s purposes and interventions. Peter’s cowardice, as Paul interprets the situation, led him to transgress the truth that the gospel was calling into reality; the στοιχεῖα, in the person of the human beings (the “men from James”) who had been shaped by them and continued to live in line with them, created the social environment in which significant forces were being exerted upon Peter to dispose him to fail to keep walking straight in line toward the truth that the gospel was calling into reality.

  1. Galatians 3:19, 22

The next cluster of occurrences finds Paul presenting the Torah as the non-remedy for the sin that had taken root in all the nations, the Jewish nation as well as the Gentile nations:

“Why, then, the law?  It was added for the sake of transgressions (τῶν παραβάσεων χάριν) until the Seed, to whom the promise was given, should come.” (Gal. 3:19)

The terse phrase τῶν παραβάσεων χάριν has been quite variously interpreted. Paul’s own further development of this topic in 3:23-25 seems to me to point quite clearly to the Torah’s role in keeping a particular people in some degree of check in regard to transgressions, as the pedagogue kept the behavior of his minor charges in check with his close supervision and his ready stick.  It might include the view that the Torah was given to make some provision for transgressions, even as the pedagogue would teach his charges to say “I’m sorry” when they make missteps.

The more relevant component is the temporary role assigned to the law in regard to transgressions. It was not the means by which God would rectify the human predicament, but the means by which God would preserve the seedbed from which the Seed was to emerge.  At the same time, the law served to confirm the human predicament.  Paul presents life under law as life lived under the threat of a curse – a threat that came to be realized far too often in the collective life of “Israel according to the flesh.” The Law as “pedagogue” in Gal 3:23-25 – an oppressive but, at least, benevolent figure – gives way to the Law as “slavery” in 4:24-26, akin to slavery under the στοιχεῖα (a kinship already established in 4:1-11).  Pushing aside the Law as potential remedy, Paul concludes that:

“Scripture shut up everything under sin (ὑπὸ ἁμαρτίαν) in order that the promise might be given on the basis of trusting Jesus to those who trust.” (Gal. 3:22)

(Parenthetically, I do not regard this translation of Gal 3:22 to be problematically redundant since I see two questions being answered throughout the central section of Galatians: On what basis do we arrive at God’s promised, good ends for us?  To whom are God’s good ends promised?  Both answers simply involve “trust.”[11]) This is the closest Paul will come to the kinds of expressions familiar from Romans that speak of sin as a power that dominates, even subjugates, the human being, but the concept is not nearly so fully developed yet in Galatians.  Sin is here a prison, a holding cell, not a triumphant conqueror.

At the close of this verse, Paul draws attention to the remedy for the predicament of living “under sin.” We find the content of the promise to which Paul refers here earlier in Galatians, in the only other passage in the letter in which “Scripture” appears as a grammatical subject: “Scripture, seeing in advance that God would make the nations righteous on the basis of trusting” (3:8).  This was the “good news” that Scripture murkily announced ahead of time to Abraham when it was promised to him that “all the nations will be blessed in you” (3:9; Gen 12:3; 18:18). This “blessing” turns out to be none other than the Holy Spirit, which Paul identifies as the promised good that, received through trust, would make many righteous:

“Christ redeemed us from the law’s curse by becoming a curse on our behalf … in order that the blessing of Abraham might come to the nations – in order that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.” (Gal 3:14)

This verse underscores the importance both of Christ and the Spirit in God’s setting things right, and especially of the Spirit, which emerges as the divine force and provision for the “making right” of the nations in 5:13-25.

  1. Galatians 6:1

The final occurrence of a word explicitly and obviously associated with “sin” appears in Paul’s closing exhortations to his congregation:

“Brothers and sisters, even if a person should be caught in some trespass (ἔν τινι παραπτώματι), set about restoring such a person, you in-Spirited ones, in a spirit of gentleness – maintaining vigilance over yourself, lest you also be tempted.” (Gal. 6:1)

Even while Paul suggests with his language (“even if”) that trespasses should be exceptional rather than regular occurrences in the redeemed community, he makes provision for how to respond to these eventualities.  It is clear once again that Paul has not lost sight of sins as discrete acts.  Paul also presupposes a good deal of moral autonomy on this side of having trusted Christ.  As he writes at the close of this paragraph:

“Whatever a person sows, that shall he or she also reap, because the one who keeps sowing to his or her flesh will harvest destruction from the flesh, but the one who keeps sowing to the Spirit will harvest eternal life from the Spirit.” (6:7-8)

Whatever else might be said of life apart from Christ and prior to receiving the Holy Spirit, Paul addresses the Galatian Christians as people in whose power it now lay to sow to the flesh or to the Spirit.

 

God’s Remedy: Freedom and Righteousness

I fear I have spent too much time giving attention to sin to do justice to God’s remedy (and I pray that this is only true for this paper and not the fifty-one years leading up to it).  I can only put forward a few theses that, I hope, my recent commentary adequately supports:

  1. In Paul’s understanding, righteousness (δικαιοσύνη), and not merely acquittal (δικαίωσις), remains God’s goal for human beings (2:21; 3:21; 5:5). Paul forcefully asserts: “I’m not pushing God’s grace off to the side: for if righteousness[12] comes by means of the law, Christ died for no reason” (Gal 2:21). Christ died in order to make possible what the law had not made possible, namely for human beings to live righteously and, thus, to become righteous in God’s sight rather than remain sinners. “For it is we who, by the Spirit and on the basis of trusting, await the righteousness (δικαιοσύνη) for which we hope” (Gal 5:5).[13]

 

  1. This righteousness takes shape within human beings as Christ takes shape in – as Christ comes to life and increasingly lives through and among – those human beings individually and collectively (2:19-20; 4:19). The new life that Paul lives (2:20), the new life that the Law could not initiate, is the living Christ taking on flesh in, so as to live through, the redeemed person. This is the “making alive” that also brings “righteousness” (3:21).  It is the essential act of “new creation” that God is bringing about (6:15), the perfect restoration of the divine image in the redeemed by virtue of the perfect image-bearer of God, namely the Son of God, coming to life in the person.[14]

 

  1. The Holy Spirit is the agent of this transformation, the “best gift divine” secured by Jesus in his death for those who trust Jesus’ mediation. By the Spirit we participate in Christ’s death, dying both to enslaving powers and to our own “flesh with its passions and desires” (5:24); by the Spirit we come alive to God in a hitherto unimagined way. Paul describes this new life as the freedom for which Christ set us free in his death (5:1) – a freedom won for us at such cost that we dare not cast it aside. Paul is not interested merely in our deliverance from the consequences of sin, but in our deliverance from the internal bifurcation of the person that leaves us bound to continue in sin.[15] Paul is entirely optimistic about the Holy Spirit’s power to achieve God’s good ends in us: “Keep walking by the Spirit and there’s no way you’ll make what the flesh craves a reality” (5:16).

 

  1. Christ died to pull us out from the matrix – indeed, the mire – of the present evil age, the stoicheia-shaped live with its regulations and limitations, and to create for us a spiritual and social space – the space defined as “in Christ” – wherein the Spirit can bring order to our own unruly wills and affections and order our common life. Indeed, the death of Jesus is not explicated in this letter in terms of atonement, reconciliation, or cleansing; it is explicated in terms of rescue and liberation from a life defined by one set of conditions (and preconditions) for a different life defined by quite other conditions.

 

[1] I read the genitive pronoun as subjective rather than possessive: the “sins” are actions we’ve done, not items we possess.

[2] Caird and Hurst gave theologians a good lead in regard to investigating “sin”: “What sin means to those who commit it may be seen most clearly reflected in the language of redemption: for justification, consecration, reconciliation, and redemption imply a guilt to be cancelled, a stain to be erased, an enmity to be dispelled, and a servitude to be abolished” (G. B. Caird and L. D. Hurst, New Testament Theology [Oxford: Clarendon, 1994], 87).

[3] deSilva, Galatians, 447.

[4] Jurgen Becker, Paul: Apostle to the Gentiles (Louisville: WJKP, 1993), 392.

[5] Contra Dunn, Theology of Paul, 108.

[6] Mark E. Biddle, “Sin,” pp. 730-33 in Joel B. Green, et al., eds., Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 732.

[7] Biddle, “Sin,” 733.

[8] This paragraph is slightly adapted from deSilva, Galatians, 347; for a full discussion of the subject and defense of the interpretation given here, see deSilva, Galatians, 348-53.

[9] This is how I would render the phrase ὀρθοποδοῦσιν πρὸς τὴν ἀλήθειαν τοῦ εὐαγγελίου.  The preposition quite clearly indicates a direction; the genitive seems to me best understood to indicate the “producer” or “source” of the particular truth in question.

[10] Similarly, for the Gentile Galatian Christians to take on the liturgical observances of the Jewish calendar (4:9-10) – which in the first-century context was one element that clearly marked the Jew and set him or her apart from the Gentile – was, for Paul, to participate in building up again what God broke down in the sending of God’s Holy Spirit upon Jew and Gentile together in Christ.

[11] See, further, deSilva, Galatians, 229-37 on the translation of διὰ/ἐκ πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστου (Gal 2:16).

[12] Most English translations render δικαιοσύνη correctly here as “righteousness”; the NRSV for some reason renders it as “justification,” as if Paul had written δικαίωσις, but I trust the SBL review process will remedy this deficiency.

[13] I understand the genitive to express the object of the verbal noun “hope.”

[14] This lends credence to Biddle’s suggesting that “Paul’s understanding of sin involves the assertion, explicit in Rom. 3:23, that human beings universally ‘miss the mark’ (hamart-) by ‘falling short’ // (hyster-) of the ‘glory of God’ (a near synonym in Paul for ‘image of God’ [see 1 Cor. 11:7; cf. 2 Cor. 3:18; 4:4, 6])” (Biddle, “Sin,” 731-32). See also R. R. Reno, “Sin, Doctrine of,” pp. 748-51 in Kevin Vanhoozer, et al., eds., Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 750: “The universality of sin is not peripheral to human identity. Sin shapes life. To use Paul’s language, sin enslaves, dictating the direction of human life…. For this reason, the very identity of the sinner is defined by sin, and that identity must be destroyed.  Echoing Paul again, the old man must die and a new man must be born if one is to turn from a life defined by sin to a life of righteousness (Rom. 6:6-8).”

[15] This is rightly stressed by Jurgen Becker, Paul: Apostle to the Gentiles (Louisville: WJKP, 1993), 390.

The Elephant in the Room

A sermon on Romans 1:16-32 preached at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church, October 28, 2018.

[Disclaimer: I have not broken off my friendship with people who have expressed and promoted very different — and, indeed, contrary — views from my own on this subject and I offer this in the trust that people will not break off their friendship with me for standing where I do in regard to promoting an approach to ministry with persons of homosexual orientation that expresses love and acceptance of them as sisters and brothers in Christ who are also in the process of being reclaimed by God for God in every facet of their lives just as I am only part of the way along in that process, while also holding to the New Testament’s descriptions of what the “before” and “after” of the Spirit’s complete work looks like.]

 

 

It’s been kind of a game in many United Methodist Churches across the country: How close can we get to February 2019 without talking about the subject?  Well, late October finds me at my breaking point.

All of you are probably aware of the fact that, at every General Conference of the UMC since 1972, questions have been raised about the language in the Book of Discipline concerning homosexual practice in general and same-sex unions and the ordination of practicing homosexual persons in particular. A good number of you are probably aware that the UMC has invested an immense amount of time and resources in discovering “a way forward” for the denomination in regard to this question, which has become a significant impasse at general conference after general conference.  The current hope is that a special session of the general conference called for February 2019 will, by majority vote, adopt one of three plans put forward by the “Commission on a Way Forward.”

It is not my purpose to go into the particulars of these three plans, as the question I would put before us and urge us to begin discussing is not, “in what direction should the denomination go?”  That question is now largely in the hands of the delegates to the special 2019 session of General Conference.  The question I would put before us is, “how should we respond as a congregation and as individual disciples to people who identify their sexual orientation as homosexual?” – because this is a question that all three plans currently on the table will force upon us as a congregation in some way.

In my own thinking, the starting point has to be the scriptural witness.  It is commonplace to begin this survey with the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, but I am not convinced that this episode is relevant to the question, despite the popular association of Sodom with homoerotic practice. (And, just to be clear, I choose to speak of “homoerotic practice” because I in no way consider “homosexual orientation” to be sinful in and of itself; nor do I consider one or the other sexual orientation to put a person in a better or worse position in regard to a relationship with God in and of itself.) When Jude remembers Sodom, he thinks of the city’s sin as a desire to have forced intercourse with angels (“they went after a different kind of flesh,” Jude 7) in a kind of counterpart to the sin of the angels who, not long before, had sought intercourse with human females (Gen 6:1-4; Jude 6). Just reading Genesis 19 itself, it seems clear that the men who came to Lot’s door were sexual omnivores. Lot could reasonably expect the sacrifice of his daughters to save his male guests, were his fellow citizens not hell-bent on a particular delicacy that evening.

There is a single verse from Leviticus that is relevant, but Leviticus is admittedly a book from which we have been quite selective in terms of ongoing relevance for the Christian community from the very first decade (though, quite notably, the directive to love one’s neighbor as oneself comes from this book).

But Romans?  Well, Romans is different.  Romans is written by someone who encountered the glorified Christ, who possessed, relied upon, and promoted the Holy Spirit as a guiding norm for Christian disciples and Christian community.  Romans is written by someone upon whose insights and wisdom we depend to a significant extent for all that we affirm about what Christ Jesus accomplished and about the new life into which God’s Spirit would lead us.  And Romans is pretty much Paul’s most balanced, thoughtful, and mature statement on these subjects.  So I regard Romans 1 as extremely relevant and important for this question.

Paul’s announcement of his “gospel” – his good news – in Romans begins with the bad news of where all human beings find themselves in their relationships with God, with one another, and with their own bodies prior to – and apart from – God’s interventions on our behalf in Christ.  He does this first in regard to Gentiles in this first chapter, and then in regard to Jews in the second chapter, with the result that he can declare that “all have sinned and come up short of God’s glory” (Rom 3:23) prior to God’s renewed interventions in their lives in Christ.

In Romans 1, Paul is not writing the biography of particular Gentiles and their individual choices.  He is telling the collective story of the Gentiles’ alienation from God and the disorder that has resulted throughout Gentile society – a disorder into which successive generations continued to be born.  For we are, none of us, born in a condition that reflects the person God wants us to be; we are each redeemed and given the Holy Spirit so that we might eventually arrive at being the person God seeks to make of us.

The starting point of humanity’s ruin, and particularly Gentile humanity’s ruin, was our collective failure to recognize our Creator and to honor him as such.  Our primary “orientation” was corrupted – and this primary orientation was never about sexuality; it was about living as creatures aware of being creatures of the one, true God.  This God-ward orientation would have led us to use the lives, the bodies, the energies with which our Creator God graced us in ways that showed our gratitude, in ways that honored God in all that we did. The ways in which sexual orientation has been thrust to the fore in defining people, whether we exhibit a heterosexual or a homosexual orientation, strike me as nothing less and nothing other than another form of the idolatry that Paul condemns as the root cause of the disorder that has taken hold of human lives and human societies.

As a result of humanity’s refusal to acknowledge God – to order our life around God and around our identity as God’s creatures – God abandoned the ungrateful to disordered lives, to domination by our own disordered passions.  And Paul places homoerotic cravings prominently among these.

For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. (Rom 1:26-27, NRSV)

Paul does not present acting upon these cravings as a right to be defended and enjoyed; rather, he presents people acting upon these cravings, no longer having the power to overcome disordered desires, as one consequence, one expression of the penalty, of humanity’s having collectively exchanged the truth about God for a lie.  The degradation of our bodies through acting on these – and other – disorderly passions is the end result of having failed to acknowledge God.

It is, of course, vitally important that Paul does not end by pointing to homoerotic practice as the be-all and end-all of the disorder that had taken root in Gentile society.  Rather, at the climax of Paul’s portrayal of the disruption of human society resulting from the disruption of our orientation toward God as God’s creatures, we find a laundry list of practices, and of the drives that motivate these practices, before which I dare say none of us stands completely innocent.

They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.  (Rom 1:29-31, NRSV)

Whose transformation among us here is complete?  Indeed, how many of us are even actively seeking God’s transformation of our lives in all areas of our life?  Paul may give us the authority to talk about homoerotic practice as something out of line with the scriptural vision for the new person God seeks to bring to life in each one of us; only our shared and unrelenting commitment to discovering all that lies within our own hearts and practice that is out of line with that vision gives us the credibility to speak about any one such practice.

The flow of Romans itself will make this point very sharply.  While Paul at no point retracts his claims in Romans 1, he follows them up at the outset of Romans 2 by indicting the person who rails against a particular sinful practice while being immersed in sinful practices himself or herself.  Our own ongoing liability to sinful practice should rather instill humility as we encounter other recovering sinners and stand together before the God who calls us to share his holiness more and more.  There are areas within each of our hearts and within the full scope of our practice that do not yet reflect God’s holiness; homoerotic activity is but one area of such practice.  The conclusion that I draw from this, however, is not that we should therefore cease to speak of homoerotic practice as a sign of an untransformed area of a person’s life, but that we should speak of it in the context of our own deep awareness of the areas in which we continue to resist God’s transforming work in our own hearts and lives; and we should welcome and love persons of homosexual orientation who continue to engage in homoerotic practice in the context of that same awareness of the areas in which we resist God’s transforming work in our own hearts and lives.

It is just as important for me to stress “welcome and love” as to urge us to give greater weight to Paul’s wisdom concerning the edges of holiness than to our own. Our Book of Discipline makes a very important affirmation even as it presently concurs with Paul that homoerotic practice is not in line with God’s vision for the life of the redeemed.  This affirmation is simply that “all persons are individuals of sacred worth” (¶ 161).  That worth comes above all from the value that God set on each of us in the price paid for our redemption – in Paul’s words from Romans 5, “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (5:8, NRSV).  When you look at another person – whatever his or her sexual orientation, whatever his or her race, whatever his or her economic or legal station, whatever his or her level of attractiveness – be sure that you are looking at a person whom God so loved that he sent his Son to ransom that person, to draw that person fully to himself, to renew his image fully in that person.

How, then, does the coming of Christ and our coming to Christ change the situation of humanity for Paul?  Does it make it “alright” to act on the basis of these disordered passions?  Does it render these disordered passions suddenly “orderly,” to be affirmed and indulged?  Or does our reconciliation with the God from whom we were alienated mean the reversal of the sorry state of affairs Paul describes here?  Does it mean especially the reversal of our having been handed over to the power of these disorderly passions?  As I have shared before when preaching on texts from both Romans and Galatians: Now we have God’s help once again, in the person of God’s Holy Spirit, to live in line with that which will no longer degrade but rather ennoble our bodies. We have the renewed possibility of living in line with the holiness that expresses the full value of our bodies as part of God’s new creation.  We are not at the mercy of any of our previous orientations or inclinations – in whatever direction those tended.

I have spoken so far in regard to texts, but we all know that this is also all about people.  There are very few families, and even fewer circles of friends, that are not deeply touched by these questions.  Many of us know believers in Christ who, while they are also engaging in homoerotic activity, are people who dearly love God, in whom much that is reflective of the mind and heart of Jesus can be seen (that is, in whom the image of God is clearly in the process of being restored), who invest themselves marvelously in kingdom work.  But God’s progress in us with regard to some or even most facets of our being and activity does not excuse us from seeking God’s progress in us with regard to the remaining facets of our being and activity.  That is true in regard to the committed disciple who persists in homoerotic practice; it is true in regard to the committed disciple who persists in making room for pornography; it is true in regard to the committed disciple who persists in investing more in her own comfort and entertainment than in the lives of her most economically vulnerable brothers and sisters in Christ; it is true in regard to the committed disciple whose formation in Christ hasn’t yet pushed past his own pride or bigotry.

According to the very first Book of Discipline, the task of the Methodist preacher in America is “to spread Scripture holiness over these Lands.” If Methodists are about anything – if we have any justification for existing as a denomination distinct from the Anglican communion from which we originally broke away, or for not dissolving into so many other currently available denominations – it is our pursuit of entire sanctification.  It is about the relentless pursuit of seeking the full breadth and depth and height of the transformation that the Holy God would work within each one of us and among us collectively by God’s Holy Spirit.

A great deal of energy has been given in my lifetime to subjecting Scripture and its authors’ conceptions of holiness to scrutiny before contemporary knowledge and experience.  One will hear a great deal, in the contemporary debate, about Paul and other New Testament voices being bound by their culture, unable to see past their culture, with the result that their words about homoerotic practice are not reliable guides to God’s eternal standards.  Such examination is indeed an important interpretive task – one in which I engage quite regularly.  In our haste to critique the limitations that their cultural context might have put upon the biblical writers, however, I fear we have not stopped to consider adequately the critique that they level against the limitations that our cultural context puts upon us and upon the Church’s conversation about homoerotic expression.

We have carried on this debate without ever examining our assumption that sexual activity is a necessary part of, and indeed the crowning feature of, loving, intimate relationships.  We have never stopped to consider how a life without sexual activity might not be a diminished life – even though the non-sexually-active Paul values and even promotes the freedom this lifestyle has given him to serve the Lord above the alternative.  We have carried on our conversation as if the question should be driven by considerations of “rights.”  Why should we deny that certain people have a legitimate right to certain enjoyments? What oppression are we inflicting by withholding the affirmation and approval of certain practices?  But the gospel is not about my “rights” or assuring everyone the free enjoyment of what everyone else is supposedly free to enjoy.  The gospel is about God’s righting of the problem of human existence in relationship to God, to one another, and to our own selves.  It is about the new person God’s Holy Spirit seeks to form in each one of us, so that we can say, with Paul, “it’s not me living anymore, but Christ living in me” (Gal 2:20) – not about the affirmation and fulfillment of the old person from whom Christ died to save me!  The driving question for the disciple is not: Why should I not be allowed to enjoy this or that? It is: To what parts of who I am now do I need to die in order that the person God would make of me can come more to life?

As we continue to find our way forward as a denomination that values maintaining some connection with our scriptural and our particular historic roots, we should also be aware that there are many gay and lesbian Christ-followers who are not looking for affirmation of their homoerotic practice, but rather for acceptance, support, and love in the midst of their struggle with homoerotic desires.  Hear this excerpt from a friend of a friend’s letter: “Are homosexuals to be excluded from the community of faith?  Certainly not.  But anyone who joins such a community should know that it is a place of transformation, of discipline, of learning, and not merely a place to be comforted or indulged.”  It makes a great difference, as we listen to these words, to know that they came not from some judgmental heterosexual Christian, but from a man named Gary who had struggled hard with the relationship between his Christian calling and his own sexual orientation, before his own death due to AIDS.  Or as one lesbian Christian says, “If you love me, you will call me into truth.” This is our responsibility toward one another, and certainly not just in the area of homoerotic practice.  Wesley’s reform movement was all about Christian disciples calling one another more and more fully into truth and, because of their mutual commitment to live in line with God, calling one another more and more fully into holiness – together.  Amen.

 

Last Things

(The following is another lesson written for Canvas, a new series for young adults being developed by the United Methodist Publishing House.  The press decided to run with the first five, leaving this and the previous lesson on “Salvation” orphaned, so I share them here.)

DEVOTIONAL

You may be familiar with the modern proverb, “Hindsight is 20/20.”  We arrive at the end of some process, look back, and see all the things we could have done better to arrive at a better outcome.  The proverb is really born of regret that we couldn’t see the outcome before it was too late to change it, or at least change our behavior leading up to it.  A bad grade on an exam moves your GPA just below the threshold of being awarded a scholarship for college.  If I could have seen that coming, I would have studied more diligently instead of….   A friend dies from a drug overdose.  If I had only known how much she had been struggling with that, I would have….  The knowledge of where things were heading would have helped us make better choices in the moment.

The writers of the Scriptures believe that God has shown us where things are headed and what the end of the story will be. They believe that God has given us sufficient foresight that we don’t need to wait for hindsight to catch up in order to see clearly.  Knowing that Jesus Christ will return to hold all people accountable to the Father’s standards of justice and holiness; knowing that this life is not the only life there is, but that an eternity stands prepared for us beyond death; knowing that God has promised a fresh start not only to us individually but to all of creation itself – we can, in effect, look back on our life today in the light of eternity and see more clearly what we need to do with “today” so that we and those around us may arrive at God’s best outcome.  The vision of where things are going to end up helps us know what we ought to be aiming at today, how to use today strategically to move closer to that vision of the goal.

COMMENTARY

The writers of Scripture appear to have reached consensus on a few basic points.  First, God’s good creation got pretty well messed up as human disobedience increased, as violence increased, as human communities organized themselves around power and self-interest rather than justice and generosity.  Second, God wasn’t just going to give up on creation and humanity!  God was still heavily invested in bringing both humanity and creation to the place where God could look out at it and say again that it was good.

So where is “all this” heading?  And what difference does knowing the destination make for us who are still on the journey?

The Scriptures have a great deal to say about this – about “last things.”  While what they saw did not reflect God’s best desires for humanity, God was too powerful, too good, and too committed to abandon God’s best desires for us.  During the period in which many of the Old Testament prophets were writing, the people of Israel and Judah were living in the wreckage of the kingdom of David and his heirs.  Many were in fact living in exile in other lands, whether as refugees or as captives of war.  All of this was the consequence of not keeping covenant with God.

The prophets looked ahead to God remedying their dismal situation, which would have to include changing the peoples’ hearts so that they would keep covenant with God and enjoy, at last, the benefits of consistent obedience to God’s righteous laws.  The prophets thought that the “destination” was a renewed kingdom in the land of Israel.  By awakening hope among the people in regard to this destination, they wanted to awaken commitment to renewed obedience to the Law of Moses – to walk in that way of life and worship that God had wanted for them all along.  Such obedience would make the people “ready” for God’s future acts of deliverance from exile and restoration to the land of Israel, and “ready” to enjoy the covenant’s blessings when God did choose to act.  Moreover, the glorious restoration of Israel to its land would make such an impression on the non-Jewish nations around them that they would at last put away their idols and false gods and worship this amazing and powerful God of Israel.

But the problem was bigger than the prophets had initially discerned, and the “solution” of the return of the Jewish exiles to Judah accomplished far less than they had hoped.  The Gentiles did not put away their idols; the people of Israel did not walk consistently in God’s ways; God’s best desires for humanity were not yet achieved.

During the centuries between the testaments, and all the more with God’s unprecedented intrusion into the human story in the person of Jesus, God’s Word made flesh, a new understanding of “where all of this is heading” emerged.  God had set a day – the “Day of the Lord” – when he would show up to set all things right at last.  Those who had died before that day would be raised to life on that day and join those who had lived to see that day.  Death itself would not get in the way of the obedient experiencing God’s promised blessings, nor in the way of the violent, the self-serving, and the loveless experiencing God’s judgment.

Jesus’ resurrection from the dead was the overture that announced that the drama of these “last things” was beginning to unfold.  His coming again would be the denouement in that drama, when human affairs would all be set right.  As Paul would write, “We all must appear before Christ’s judgment seat, so that each might receive due recompense for what he or she did while in the body, whether good or ill” (2 Cor 5:10).  As with a great deal of the Scriptures’ appeal to “last things,” the proclamation of a day of reckoning was not merely a forecast of some future event.  It was an invitation to think about the present day in light of that future event and to live today in the way that will make for celebration on that day, and not disappointment or shame (see Rom 2:6-11).

Beyond the day of judgment, however, stretches eternity – an eternity during which God’s people will not fail to experience God’s best desires for them forever.  This future will be so different from what we experience now that the New Testament authors spoke of it as God starting from scratch, as it were.  Some expected that “the heavens would pass away with a roaring sound and the elements will be dissolved in a burning fire and the earth and all the works in it will be laid bare,” all of which would be replaced by “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness is at home” (2 Pet 3:10, 13).  Some might speak instead of the removal of the visible earth and sky in order that the way into God’s unshakable realm might be disclosed (Heb 12:25-29).

This is not God giving up on creation; this is God creating anew, setting creation right again, making a home for those who are themselves becoming “new creation” in Christ as the Holy Spirit lives and works within us to set us right before God.  “Last things” in the New Testament are once again all about putting “first things first” in the present moment, prioritizing the Holy Spirit’s work in and among us to fit us for the new creation “where righteousness feels at home.”

REFLECT

Read Matt 25:31-46. How does Jesus, through this vision of the future “Day of the Lord,” seek to change our priorities and our investments of ourselves in this present day?

Read Rom 2:5-11 and Rev 20:11-15. Two very different New Testament voices (Paul and John) paint very similar pictures of one of the most prominent “Last Things,” the day of judgment. What is going to make a difference on that last day?  How does knowing that shed light on what you’re going to do today and tomorrow?

Read 2 Pet 3:1-13. Why were people already doubting the “last things” when this letter was written? To what extent do you sympathize?  What explanations of the delay of the “last things” does the author give, what do they say about God, and how convincing do you find them?  How does the author hope that knowledge of the “last things” will shape our lives and our investments in the here and now?

Read 1 Cor 15:20-26, 50-58. How does the promise of being raised from the dead and living forever change how you think about life on this side of death? What freedoms does it give?  What pressures does it impose?

Read – and really allow yourself to imagine – Revelation 6:12-17 and 7:9-17, in which John paints two alternative pictures for how one might encounter God “at the end.” What feelings and motivations do these word pictures provoke in you? How do they change how you think about today and tomorrow?

Read 1 Thess 4:13-5:9. What does Paul say about “the day of the Lord” (the return of Christ) in these paragraphs? What is he trying to accomplish in the “now” of Thessalonica by talking about “last things” (think first about 4:13-18, then 5:1-9)?

PRAYER

The following prayer is a “collect” (KAH’-lekt) for the First Sunday of Advent from the Book of Common Prayer.  It captures the heart of the Church’s reflection on “last things” by highlighting how our hope for “last things” must drive our agenda in the midst of things present.  It also teaches us that our right and whole-hearted response in this life to the Lord who took on flesh and shared a life in the body with us is closely connected to our sharing with our Lord in the life of the resurrected body on the other side of the “last things.”

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and to put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

EXPLORE MORE

Read Revelation 14:6-20. John is writing to Christians who face significant pressure to show their solidarity and loyalty by participating in emperor worship (John’s “beast”) alongside their neighbors, as well as significant temptation to enjoy the prosperity that partnership with Rome and its economy offers. How does John, with his visions of “last things,” motivate and position his congregations to respond? What warnings might he give us concerning places where our politics and economics lead us away from wholehearted obedience to the God of Jesus Christ?

Read Revelation 21:1-14, 22-27; 22:1-5. This is John’s vision of paradise regained, the new urbanized garden of Eden in which human community is “done right” in the light of God and the Lamb. What does John’s vision say about where God desires human community to end up? What characterizes life – and political relationships – in New Jerusalem?  How does this vision of human community “done right” indict the way we currently see and experience human community (locally, domestically, globally)?  What might John’s vision of the eternal then make us think about striving for now?

 

 

Salvation

(The following is a lesson written for Canvas, a new series for young adults being developed by the United Methodist Publishing House.  The press decided to run with the first five, leaving this and another lesson orphaned, so I share them here.)

Devotional

The pilot could not avoid the flock of birds that suddenly appeared in front of him, and the birdstrike caused both engines of the small jet to fail.  The fuselage broke into several pieces as it struck the sea below.  A few of the passengers were able to make it to the inflatable life rafts, floating through the night into the next day before the search helicopter found them.  Two rescue boats were called in, and the survivors were taken on board and back to port.  At what point were they “saved”?  When they survived the crash and made it on to the life rafts? When the search and rescue operation found them and took them on board?  When they were safely reunited with their families and their lives back home?  At every step of the way, in some sense?

Charles Wesley understood that God’s plan for salvation was much bigger, much fuller, than getting into a life raft (though it is essential first to get into the life raft!).  It involved getting us all the way back home, not merely reconciled to God here in the midst of this life, but at home with God in God’s eternal realm.  It involved getting us all the way to becoming the “new creation” in which God’s image is fully restored in us because the Holy Spirit has brought Christ fully to life within us.   His hymn, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” (which you can find in the United Methodist Hymnal, #384) captures in this way the fuller, biblical vision for “salvation,” the deliverance God is working in and for each one of us as he changes us “from glory into glory,” further and further into the image of Christ, “till in heaven we take our place.”

 

Commentary: the Biblical Foundations for the Doctrine of “Salvation”

You may have heard people talk about “being saved” or “getting saved” as something that happens for them when they have an encounter with Jesus, put their trust in him, and commit their lives to him.  They might even have invited you to “get saved” in this way. This is certainly an important facet of salvation, and one that is in keeping with some of the things Scripture has to say about salvation.  We encounter it, for example, when Paul writes about Christians as already “saved” in his letter to the Christians in Ephesus: “You have been saved by grace through faith” (Eph 2:8), or in Paul’s advice to Titus: “When the goodness and beneficence of God, our Savior, manifested itself, he saved us … through the washing of a new beginning and through renewal effected by the Holy Spirit” (Tit 3:4–5).  Something important happened when Christ became a reality for us, when we first came to believe that God was reaching out to us in Christ and when we reached out in response.  We were saved from our alienation from God and invited into an intimate connection with God.  But this is only the beginning of the “salvation,” the “deliverance,” the “rescue” (all ways to translate the same Greek word), that God has set in motion for us. Salvation is much more than being forgiven and going to heaven.  Salvation is as wide and as deep as the human problem is wide and deep.

Paul also speaks of “salvation” as something that’s still out there ahead of us, something that happens at the end of the journey.  He writes to the Christians in Rome: “You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near” (Rom 13:11-12).  Paul is looking ahead here to the day of the Lord, to the day of Christ’s return, as the ultimate day of deliverance.  Other New Testament authors speak in the same vein.  The author of Hebrews affirms that “Christ … will appear a second time … for the benefit of those who are eagerly awaiting him, unto their salvation” (Heb 9:28).  The author of 1 Peter writes about Christians “being guarded by God’s power, through faith, unto salvation” (1:5), naming “the outcome of their faith” as “the salvation of your souls” (1:9), the gift that will come “at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:13).  The most dramatic “deliverance” still lies ahead – deliverance from this death-bound life for the eternal life of the resurrection, deliverance when we all “stand before the judgment seat of Christ” (2 Cor 5:10), deliverance from the world that labors under the domination of the powers that resist God for the life of the kingdom of God.

With deliverance in some sense behind us and deliverance in some sense in front of us, we might suspect that we are right now in the thick of the process of God’s delivering us.  This is exactly how Paul speaks about “salvation” to his friends in Philippi, whom he urges: “keep working out your salvation with fear and trembling, for God is the one working in your midst both to desire and to work on behalf of what pleases him” (Phil 2:12–13).  The “salvation” of the Christians in Philippi is something in which God is deeply and personally invested and something in which the Christians are to be deeply and personally invested.  God’s involvement is what makes the Christians’ investment fruitful, but Paul is not at all afraid to call for “intentional discipleship” here as playing an essential role in God’s drama of salvation.

Believing in Jesus was the essential first step in this journey of salvation – without it, there is no journey.  But just “believing” does not get us all the way to the end.  What we do as a result of believing seems to matter a great deal, that is, how we “work out our salvation” empowered by the God who “is the one working in your midst both to desire and to work on behalf of what pleases him” (Phil 2:13).  If we hope for “salvation” on the Last Day, we need to “lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light,” to “live honorably as in the day, …  and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. (Rom 13:12, 14 NRSV).  If we look forward to “deliverance” on the Day of Judgment, or the day of Christ’s visitation, the light of that Day must illumine all our steps today, tomorrow, and all our days.

In this regard, God is seeking to save us from being “what we were” (and would continue to become apart from God’s Holy Spirit’s intervention) – self-centered, self-serving, self-gratifying shadows of what human beings were meant to become – and to free us to become holy and righteous in God’s sight.  Paul urged his friends in Philippi to allow God’s work within them to achieve its full effect, focusing their daily goals toward becoming more and more like Jesus, particularly reflecting more and more the heart for God and others and the commitment to God and others that Jesus showed by giving himself over to death in obedience to God and to bring benefit to others. If we heed Paul, these will also become our driving passions and agenda as we look forward to the completion of the deliverance God is providing for us.

 

Questions for Exploration and Conversation

1. Using a Bible software program or other search utility, look up every New Testament occurrence of the word “salvation” (best to use NIV or NRSV for this). Read each in context and try to categorize each occurrence: “salvation” as something that has already happened for his hearers, is in the process of being worked out, or is something to which they still look forward (“unclear” is also an acceptable category). What kind of big picture of “salvation” might you begin to form from this survey?

2. Read Romans 13:11-14. Draw a timeline between “coming to faith” and experiencing “salvation” according to this passage. How does Paul think living within this timeline should shape our lives in the in-between? Why?

3. Read Philippians 2:1-13. Since 2:12-13 is a “wrap-up” for this section, what does 2:1-11 tell us about what it looks like to “work out our own salvation”?

4. Read Titus 2:11-14. What are the various elements of God’s “salvation” that appear in these verses? What kind of timeline (past, present, future) is suggested by the descriptions of these various facets of salvation?  How do these facets work together to articulate a “plan” of salvation, and what does the author suggest is our role in this plan as we respond to God’s grace?

5. Read Titus 3:3-4.  From what, according to this passage, did God “save” us?  How does this facet of salvation happen among us, and what does it look like when it comes about?

 

Prayer

Lord Jesus, you who loved me and gave yourself up for me, don’t let me neglect any part of this great salvation that you have secured for me.

You have saved me from alienation from God; keep me open to God’s presence and attentive to this relationship.

You are saving me from living the kind of life and being the kind of person that my own inclinations to selfishness and the powers and pressures of the world around me would make of me; keep me growing in love for you and for others; keep remaking my own attitudes and desires after the image of your own.

You will save me on the day of your coming again from all the powers of this world and the fate of those who have despised your salvation and opposed your kingdom; keep me living here and now as a loyal citizen of that kingdom, so that I may indeed “belong” there where I will live forever.

From beginning to end my salvation is in your hands; keep me living humbly, obediently, responsively under your guiding hands every day so that, at the last day, your hands will raise me up.  Amen.

 

For further reflection:

1.There are some passages that seem to suggest that salvation (“being saved”) is as easy as praying a “sinner’s prayer.” Read Acts 16:30-31; Rom 10:9-10.  There are others that suggest that arriving at salvation requires a great deal more investment than that.  Read Luke 9:23-26; 13:22-24; James 2:14-17, all of which employ the language of being “saved.”  What kind of understanding of “salvation” – and of “faith” – is required to hold these statements together, valuing each one.

2.Read Ephesians 2:1-10, paying special attention to this larger context in which the often-quoted statements in 2:6 and 2:8 appear.  According to this larger context, what are we saved “from”?  What are we saved “for”?  How do the element of a changed life and changed actions play into the vision of “salvation by faith” in this paragraph?

“Standing at Another Threshold”

A sermon on Deuteronomy 3:23-4:6, preached at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church (my last as interim pastor there)

 

If anyone had poured his life into the people of God, it was Moses.  Adopted into the highest levels of the Egyptian oppressor class, he gave up his birthright because he couldn’t stomach the injustice the Hebrew slaves were facing, and so he became the agent of their deliverance from Egypt, leading them across the threshold of Egypt’s outer boundary and, even more fabulously, across the natural threshold of the Red Sea.

But that was forty years ago.  Moses had led them, instructed them, settled disputes among them, and otherwise shepherded them for a full generation as they wandered through the desert, because God had condemned the exodus generation to die wandering in the desert because of their disobedience the first time they had arrived at the threshold of Canaan, the land God promised to give them, just two years after the Exodus.  The next thirty-eight years had been spent essentially “marking time” until that generation had died off.  Now Moses stood at this threshold again, this time with the exodus generation’s adult children and their children – and he knew that, this time, he would not be allowed to lead them one further step.  It would fall to another – to Yehoshua, or Joshua, the son of Nun – to take them forward on the next leg of their journey and into the Promised Land.

And so, as he stood at this threshold, Moses wanted to be sure that the people whom he had led would retain what he had taught them, that they would carry his instructions with them into their future and allow these instructions to continue to shape their lives, even under Joshua’s new leadership, as they continued on to the other side of this threshold.  Moses had relayed to them what he had received from God for them as clearly and as closely as he was capable, and now at the threshold he reminds them of the key elements of the Law.  And thus we have Deuteronomy – a title derived from the Greek for “a second statement of the Law.” The whole book essentially represents Moses’ farewell address, an opportunity he took to remind them of the instructions he had given them concerning how to live faithfully as God’s covenant people.

Now I know that I’m no Moses, and these nine months haven’t quite seemed like forty years to me; nor am I going to remain behind as you all move forward with a new pastor, but will simply slip back into my supporting role under his leadership.  I also trust that, unlike Moses during those thirty-eight years in the desert, we have not simply been ”marking time” during these nine months, but have made some progress together as a congregation. But I need to acknowledge that we are standing at another threshold, at another transition in the life of this congregation, and as I stand here I can sympathize most with Moses’ desire that God’s people remember the instructions that he gave them for the sake of their own flourishing in their life with God, and that they take these instructions to heart so that his ministry to them might not have been for nothing.

  • Our confession of Jesus as our Lord has meaning and impact only to the extent that we actually do – actually discover ways of living out – what he has commanded his followers to do. There is a purpose for our lives, and it is to live as he tells us, to allow Christ to accomplish his purposes through us, to establish Christ’s kingdom fully in the little space of our bodies and our spheres of activity and influence. Christ’s reign is real and visible in this world only the extent that it is real and visible in our own obedience to his commands as the guiding force in our lives.

 

  • The most needful renovation project we could undertake is the reconstruction of our lives, from the ground up, on the foundation of Jesus’ instructions. The new wine that he has for us won’t be contained in the old wineskins of the lives our society has taught us how to build and wants us to hold onto.

 

  • Remember that you’re not here as customers to be satisfied and consumers to be filled; you’re called here to be producers of all that contributes to God’s vision for the Body of Christ. Abandon the consumer mentality that leads to dissatisfaction and division, and instead take the lead in producing unity and harmony throughout the Body. Embrace your calling to ministry alongside the representative ministers (the paid staff) of the church, investing yourself in “building up the Body of Christ” both in terms of helping your sisters and brothers grow deeper in their discipleship and navigate life’s challenge and in terms of reaching out tirelessly to those people who have not yet become part of the Body of Christ – but who are needed to complete the building!

 

  • As you consider how you spend, save, and invest your resources, remember Jesus’ tip about the investment opportunities that have the longest-paying dividends. The people whose lives we have rescued from or supported in the midst of distress, whose hearts have been opened to God and God’s salvation by our outreach, whose needs we have shouldered as our own so as to help them carry their burdens – we will find these people again on the other side of death, and the love that we expressed for them here, the relief that we brought them here, the spiritual nurture and growth that we facilitated for them here will make of them our treasure in heaven forever. You don’t want to get to heaven and be surrounded for eternity by all the good you haven’t done, but by all the good to which you have contributed – in which you have invested – as fully as possible.

 

  • Remain mindful of your Christian sisters and brothers throughout the world who face harassment, dispossession, imprisonment, torture, and even death because they have put their trust in Christ and value his promises. Rally around them in prayer, through sharing of resources, even through personal contact and support, because Jesus promised them that you would be their family, and take care of them as family, now.

 

  • Die a little more today, a little more tomorrow, and a little more every day to those character traits, those knee-jerk responses, those convictions, those demands that have been formed in you by your self-centered resistance to God. Come alive a little more today, a little more tomorrow, and a little more every day to the “new you” that Jesus died to bring to life, that the Spirit labors to bring to full term in you. Leave behind those well-traveled detours and well-exercised dysfunctions, and trust God’s Spirit enough to make of you something unspeakably beautiful in God’s sight.  Trust Jesus enough to let go of that old life, that old self, knowing that it’s the person who lets go of his or her life that secures his or her life for eternity.

 

  • Learn to crave the Scripture more than you crave any and all food. It is as essential to your formation as a disciple as physical food is to your sustenance as a biological organism. Open up the Word for yourself, and open yourself before the Word, each day, so that you come to reflect God’s vision for the redeemed and regenerated person more and more fully till, after the pattern of Jesus, the word has once again taken on flesh – in you!

 

  • Exercise your ability to sense and connect with God more regularly than you exercise your body. Give yourself time each day to experience the presence of God, to learn how to discern his promptings and how to recognize his voice.

 

  • Come before the God who knows you better than you know yourself and allow him to lay bare to your own gaze what you hide even from yourself, so that you can be set free from the power of all that would hold you back from becoming the “new creation” God seeks to perfect. Practice letting in more and more of the light of God into your inmost self, until you have reserved no corner of yourself for the darkness.

 

  • At the center of our faith is Jesus, who was obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. And on that cross we do not see a man giving himself up to a torturous death to win over an angry, bloodthirsty God; we see God giving himself up to win over ungrateful, self-absorbed human beings. Jesus’ willingness to lay aside his rights and prerogatives for the sake of accomplishing God’s purposes; his willingness to go the full distance and not draw any lines in the sand; his emptying himself instead of becoming “full of himself”; his willingness to divest himself of everything, even every last shred of dignity and of life itself in order to obey God and advance God’s desire to restore people – this shows us the mindset that must guide us who follow this Jesus, who are bound to give for Jesus as he gave for us, in whom this Jesus must take shape, so as to restore in us the image of God.  Remember how at no point along the way did Christ say “that’s far enough to go for them,” and extrapolate from that how far we, who have benefitted so greatly from Jesus’ pouring out of himself for others, ought to go to invest ourselves in one another’s good and perseverance throughout the global Body of Christ.

 

  • Jesus is widely remembered to have highlighted the command from the Torah, “you will love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18), but on the night before he gave up his life he raised the bar significantly, telling his disciples, “love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34). Jesus’ example – how Jesus loved us – takes us far beyond “Love your neighbor as yourself” and moves us to “Give yourself over to secure your neighbor’s good.” “Lay aside your own comfort, your own pursuits, your own delights, your own time and resources for the sake of meeting the very real needs of the sisters and brothers both in our midst and throughout the globe – to bestow on those most in need among Jesus’ family the love and self-investment that Jesus bestowed on you.” Following the example of our Lord and teacher, we are challenged to regard no act of loving service as below us, but rather to jump up to be the first to stoop down. We are challenged to observe no hierarchy among ourselves that does not call the most ambitious among us to the most humble service. We are challenged to allow Christ’s love for us to continue to have force in this world, by finding the ways in which we are being called to lay our own lives down for one another in love throughout the Body of Christ in response and imitation of Christ’s love.

 

  • Receive all the help that God makes available to each of us to live so fully for others and for the accomplishing of God’s good purposes for those others.  Receive the love that the historical Jesus demonstrated for you by going steadfastly to the cross and that the living, glorified Jesus continues to lavish upon those who take the time to experience it. Receive the assurance that Christ’s resurrection from the dead gives you, that this life is not all that there is, that the One whom you follow has the key to unlock your tomb as well, so that you are free to give yourself away for the good of others like a person who has an endless supply of life – because you do.  And receive the Holy Spirit.  Cultivate a sensitivity to the Holy Spirit’s voice and direction and allow the Divine Other to accomplish his complete work in and among you.  The Holy Spirit alive within us allows us to experience the intimate communion with God for which our souls yearn, into which God longs to draw us.  The Spirit also brings direction and power for living in alignment with God’s righteousness, the power for a transformed life.  The Spirit empowers us to stop contributing to the brokenness in the world because of Sin and selfishness, working through us instead to contribute to God’s redemptive activity wherever he moves us.  It is this Spirit, coming alive within us and taking over within us, who allows us to live the kind of life that God will approve as “righteous.”  The Spirit brings power to build up other Christians as you become the instruments through which God encourages, counsels, and strengthens them – and they, you!  And, of course, the Spirit brings power for effective witness.  The more we hear about the trials and tensions and tragedies besetting people throughout our world, the more we must know that the people who are not in this sanctuary with us need this witness – and we need the Holy Spirit to drive us to bold witness and to make our witness effective, for their sake.

 

  • Keep bearing this witness. If that neighbor, or that relative, or that person you come across at the store every week is going to hear God’s invitation to come back to him and to become a part of the family God’s creating, he or she will hear it because you lent God your voice.

 

Joshua would indeed lead Israel into the land of Canaan, but he wouldn’t finish the job.  Throughout the period of the judges and King Saul, Israel would continue to contend with the native inhabitants of Canaan on the one hand and powerful enemies at their borders on the other.  It would not be until David’s reign, two hundred years after Joshua, that the Israelites would take possession of Jerusalem away from the native Jebusites.  Even then God’s work would not be finished, as the people would indeed forget Moses’ instructions and warnings, bringing upon themselves all the curses threatened in Deuteronomy, including expulsion from the Promised Land.  Even the coming of a new Yehoshua – Jesus – would not complete the work, for God has been sending “apostles, evangelists, pastors, and teachers” among his people and out into the world generation after generation after generation.  The United Methodist Church has institutionalized this process quite dramatically in its system of endlessly itinerating pastors from pulpit to pulpit. Many have already occupied this particular pulpit; many more will across the decades to come.  The important thing is that each one contribute to the central task laid upon each of “equipping the saints” – equipping you – “for the work of ministry, for the building up of the Body of Christ until we all attain … to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4:11-13).  I pray that anything I have contributed to this end among you will abide, and I pray that Pastor Lewis will do exponentially more among you to this same end.

 

“The ‘Method’ in ‘Methodist’”

A sermon on James 1:19-25; Ephesians 4:29-5:2, preached at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church

 

How many of you looked in a mirror before coming to church this morning?  Men, perhaps you inspected yourself as you shaved, to make sure you got everything just right – even gave a quick check on those pesky nose and ear hairs and made sure everything looked the way you know it’s supposed to look, bringing your image in the mirror in line with the standard for yourself you hold in your mind?  Women, well, don’t get me started about the care with which you bring your image in the mirror in line with the standard you hold for yourselves in your minds, and how you don’t leave that mirror until you are satisfied that what you see in the glass matches the target image in your mind.

James tells us about another mirror – the mirror of God’s Word.  This mirror works in almost the opposite way as your glass mirrors at home.  When we look into the mirror of God’s Word, we see the standard for our attitudes and interactions and practices that God holds in his mind, and we need to look within ourselves and work within ourselves until our inner person and our impact on the world around us are brought in line with God’s standard – until we reflect what we see in the Word.

Receive with humble hearts the implanted word that is able to save your souls.  And become people who put the word into practice, and not merely people who listen, deceiving yourselves – because if anyone merely listens to the word and doesn’t put it into practice, that person is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror: he observed himself, walked away, and immediately forgot what sort of person he was.  But the person who carefully inspects the perfect law that brings freedom not becoming a forgetful listener but a doer of the word, this person will be blessed in what he does. (James 1:21-25, DSV)

I actually am prone to walking away from a mirror and forgetting what I look like.  I’m not particularly troubled by that.  Indeed, our youngest son would probably say that this is just a survival instinct I’ve developed.  James would caution me to be far more concerned about looking into God’s Word and not putting it into practice, so that I am not looking more and more like the reflection that I must come to resemble – the image of the new person, renewed in the image of our Creator, that the Word holds before me from every angle.

What’s most on my heart today is what you all do in this regard when you’re not here in the sanctuary with me. This morning you looked into your mirror at home, and you’ve come here to look into the mirror of God’s Word together.  But today is not the only day you’ll look into your glass mirror at home. I imagine that almost all of us look into our glass mirrors every day, perhaps even a few times in the course of each day.  But how many of us look into the mirror of God’s Word each day, let alone a few times in the course of each day?  How many of us keep before us each day another facet of that image that we are to grow to reflect back more and more?  How many of us work as intently to bring our reflection in line with the image we see in God’s Word each day, as we will work on our faces and hair in our glass mirrors each day?

I don’t ask these questions in order to raise your level of guilt – though I’m not averse to guilt if it advances God’s purposes for each of our lives! I do raise these questions in order to impress upon all of us the importance of holy habits.  We all cultivate habits.  There are things that we are careful to do every day: brushing our teeth to maintain dental health; flossing to attain and maintain gum health (let’s just all pretend that we do this conscientiously); popping vitamins and other supplements to maintain the proper levels of nutrients available to our bodies; taking showers to maintain the willingness of other people to be around us. J There are probably other things in our lives that have the quality of “habits” – checking e-mail every evening, watching a particular show that’s on at the same time every day or every week, undertaking some kind of physical exercise. How many of us have applied ourselves with the same intentionality to form those habits that will allow God’s Holy Spirit to take us far in the direction of reflecting God’s righteousness and holiness?

I suppose that, first, we would have to agree that this is a goal we really desire for ourselves.  We would need that “holy discontent” that shakes us of being satisfied to remain where we are in our journey toward Christ-likeness, where we might have been stuck, truth be told, for decades.  We would need that “holy desire” to discover just how far God’s Spirit could take us toward Christ-likeness, how real God could make the faith we profess in the person we become. I have sought, in several of the sermons I have prepared during this interim, to stimulate that holy discontent and those holy desires by holding up for you what God’s Word claims that God can do and yearns to do in and among us.  Today I hope to contribute to our thinking about the “holy discipline” that will help us arrive there.

Holy discipline stands at the foundational core of Methodism.  The renewal movement that would become known as Methodism began with John Wesley, his brother Charles, and a few other like-minded men dedicating themselves to “intentional discipleship” by means of a daily and weekly discipline that they formulated together.  This involved looking daily into the mirror of Scripture and engaging in prayerful conversation with God to bring to light what in their hearts and lives needed explicit attention and transformation, such that they would come to reflect God’s holiness and righteousness more completely.  It involved focused conversation with one another on a weekly basis, sharing discoveries and struggles, helping one another search each one’s soul most fully, encouraging and praying for one another and holding one another’s gaze and aspirations fixed on the prize of their sanctification.  It involved giving up a greater part of themselves weekly to service on Jesus’ behalf, visiting those in prison (which included not only criminals, but debtors), bringing education and basic health care to the very poor, investing themselves in what would improve their physical, social, and spiritual conditions.  What was astounding about their disciplined practice is that it allowed them to make such measurable and visible progress toward holiness that others quickly, even exponentially, joined them.  This holy discipline opened up our founders, and then dozens, and then hundreds, and then thousands of our spiritual forebears in this denomination to the amazing, fulfilling, inviting work of God in their midst.

I’d like to suggest a path, based on Wesley’s path, to a holy discipline.  I’ve created an outline for this path, which all of you received along with today’s bulletin. It begins, of course, with daily attention to Scripture.  Some of you may be thinking, “I’ve already read the Bible; I know what’s in there.”  I’m glad that you do.  You also looked in your glass mirror last year, so you know what you look like, but you keep looking at the mirror every day to make sure what you see stays in line with that mental standard.  It’s the same with Scripture.  There are two ways of reading Scripture.  The first is “informational,” and it is indeed possible to get so familiar with the contents of Scripture that you do indeed know what is in there.  I will confess a degree of skepticism that any of you are so fully there yet that you don’t need to keep refreshing your knowledge of Scripture – because I know that I’m not there yet, and I live in the informational reading of these texts.  But even if you are well advanced in the first way of reading Scripture, the informational way, you’re never so far advanced that you won’t benefit from the second way of reading Scripture, the formational way.  This is where you’re not reading Scripture so much as you’re letting Scripture read you, where you look into Scripture like a mirror, and see what it can show you about yourself, where you are in the process of coming to reflect God’s vision for you fully, where Scripture shows you, like your glass mirror, where you need to give some attention to your person to get the reflection right.

I’d like to lead you all through an exercise in formational reading right now, an exercise that you can continue practicing at home for the rest of the week, for the rest of your life.  For this purpose I’ve selected Ephesians 4:29-5:2, which you’ll find printed on that handout. We’re going to practice letting Scripture read us.  To start off, please take a moment and pray that God would use these minutes to reveal something that will illumine a path by which you can move closer to God’s vision for the new person he wants to shape in you.

[Take a few seconds, really]

Keep every toxic word from leaving your mouth – only those good words that are constructive, in line with the need of the situation, in order that it might give grace to those who hear. 

Speech can cause harm; speech can add to the toxins that make a situation more poisonous for those involved.  Speech can also help others stay or get on course with where God would lead them.  Think about your words (and I suppose we need to include texting and e-mails these days!) yesterday, the day before, this morning.  To what extent have you added to the toxins?  To what extent did you contribute to God’s construction?

[Reflect for a minute or so]

Think about interactions you’re going to have today and tomorrow, about conversations you anticipate will take place and even need to take place.  Ask God to help you discern how to frame your words such as will contribute to God’s constructive purposes, and avoid adding to the toxins.

[Reflect for a minute or so]

Don’t bring sorrow to the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were all sealed for the day of redemption.  Let all bitterness, seething rage, anger, clamor, and back-stabbing – along with all malice – be removed from among you. 

God the Holy Spirit is with us.  Just as the Old Covenant taught us that the Holy Spirit cannot abide the presence of defilement, the New Covenant teaches us that the Holy Spirit cannot abide the presence of bitterness, grudges and anger, the harboring of malice – the things that defile and pollute the Body of Christ that the Holy Spirit animates.  Toward whom in the Body of Christ are you harboring bitterness in your heart?  Against whom have you harbored anger?  Toward whom do you bear malice?

[Reflect for a minute or so]

Take another moment and pray to God about those feelings and for the people toward whom they are directed.

[Reflect for a minute or so]

Be of service to one another and tenderhearted toward one another, forgiving each other even as God forgave all of you in Christ. 

Do any of your brothers or sisters in Christ here or elsewhere have needs that you can meet?  Do you have a tender, responsive heart toward them, or a heart that has become calloused to their needs?  Thank God to the extent that he has given you a tender, responsive heart – as measured in your actions – and pray that God will break up any hardness.

[Reflect for a minute or so]

Whom do you need to forgive?  From whom do you need to seek forgiveness?  Ask God to reveal these places of broken relationship and to make opportunities for reconciliation.

[Reflect for a minute or so]

Be imitators of God, then, as well-loved children, and keep conducting yourselves in a loving manner, even as Christ loved us and handed himself over for us as an offering and sacrifice to God, for a fragrant aroma.  (Eph 4:29-5:2, DSV)

Take a moment and allow yourself to consider afresh Christ’s love for you, for all of us together.  It’s in your awareness of being thus loved that you find the transforming power to love others thus.

[Reflect for a minute or so]

Ask God to protect, tend, and bring to fruit the seeds that he has planted in you during this exercise.

[Really]

Did that short exercise bring something to light for you and bring some spiritual direction from God?  Can you begin to extrapolate from this how much closer your walk with God would be, how much more closely aligned with God’s vision your heart and practices would be, after three-hundred-and-sixty-five such exercises with Scripture over the course of a year?

Now add to this the three further layers that I’ve outlined in your handout (SEE BELOW for text of handout): daily intercessory prayer with God, through which the scope of our own concern and care is daily broadened; weekly conversation with a core group of committed spiritual friends, who will help you see more past your own blind spots and encourage you to keep pressing on; and weekly participation in some venue for witness and service, which gives feet to your faith. It’s like any exercise regimen: visible change and maintaining the “new you” requires consistent, daily investment. It’s a simple plan – a set of holy disciplines – that will take from your life less time than you probably currently give to the television or to playing around on the internet, but will give to your life incomparably more and increase your impact for God’s kingdom exponentially.  I would encourage each one of you, then, to recover the method that makes a vital Methodist.

 

A “Method” for “Methodists”: Suggestions for Intentional Discipleship

David A. deSilva, Ph.D.

1.Look in the Mirror: the importance of daily Scripture reading

You reading Scripture – informational engagement

Questions to ask as you read the Scripture:

  1. What does this passage show me in regard to God’s character and heart – particularly God’s heart for human beings?
  2. What does this passage show me in regard to God’s vision for our living in righteousness and holiness as part of a redeemed, covenant community?
  3. What does this passage show me in regard to the forces and impulses that get in the way of living in righteousness and holiness in community?
  4. What does this passage tell me about God’s provisions for our attaining the first and overcoming the second, and about other strategies for the same?
  5. What does this passage tell me about the stakes involved?

Very few passages will actually speak to all of these focal points.

Scripture reading you – formational engagement

Questions to ask as you allow the Scriptures to read you:

  1. Where do I see attitudes I have had, words I have spoken, interactions I have had, and actions I have taken positively reflected in the things commended in this passage?
  2. Where do I see attitudes I have had, words I have spoken, interactions I have had, and actions I have taken reflected in the things this passage warns or advises against?
  3. What steps do I need to take to move closer to the positive ideals commended here, and to leave behind further the negative traits and practices identified here?

Weave prayer – conversation with God – into this daily exercise, and close with prayer concerning whatever the Holy Spirit has shown you.

 

2.A pattern for daily prayer and intercession:

A fairly comprehensive schema for praying might include spending time with God allowing him to raise to awareness particulars under each of the following headings and lifting up those prayer to him.  (Note: you don’t have to tell God what he should do in every situation – it’s alright just to hold it before him and ask him to intervene in the way he knows to be best.)

(1) the church in every place, its witness and mission, its solidarity and courage; pray especially for sisters and brothers in environments hostile to Christian faith;[1]

(2) our nation and the challenges that beset it at every level;

(3) the nations of the world and the cries for peace with justice;

(4) the needs and concerns of our church family, including your own prayer concerns;

(5) the needs of our local community and our witness and service in its midst;

(6) a friend, relative, associate, or neighbor who is not yet connected to Christ and his church.

Close by praying the Lord’s Prayer thoughtfully and meditatively.

 

3.A holiness support group (Wesley’s “Band Meetings”):

Who are three or four people sharing your gender whom you might identify as prayer and accountability partners as you seek to make progress growing into the new person that will fulfill God’s vision for our living in righteousness and holiness as part of a redeemed, covenant community?

Consider organizing a “band” that will meet weekly for the purpose of sharing one another’s discoveries and struggles on the road to Christ-likeness, to “Christ living in me,” and keeping one another moving forward through prayer and encouragement.[2]

 

4.Spreading Scriptural holiness: work and witness

 

Identify at least one ministry in which you can be involved on a regular basis, preferably weekly.  This could be something you pursue individually; it could be something that your “band” discerns together.  Show love and share Christ in some context of meeting a need.  Mentoring a young person, sponsoring an addict, visiting a prisoner, assisting a shut-in, helping a single parent – there is no end to the possibilities of what God might bring to your attention and lay upon your heart.  Work and witness.  Methodists have historically not been ashamed to tell other people the difference Christ has made in their own lives and can make in the other person’s life, and to invite them to “come and see.”

 

Appendix: Wesley’s Rules for Band-Societies (drawn up December 25, 1738).

The design of our meeting is to obey that command of God, “Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed.

To this end, we intend:

  1. To meet once a week.
  2. To come punctually and to begin (those of us who are present) exactly at the hour, with singing or prayer.
  3. To speak each of us in order, freely and plainly, the true state of our souls, with the faults we have committed in thought, word, or deed, and the temptations we have felt, since our last meeting.
  4. To end every meeting with prayer, suited to the state of each person present.
  5. To desire some person among us to speak his own state first, and then to ask the rest, in order, as many and as searching questions as may be, concerning their state, sins, and temptations.

Any of the preceding questions may be asked as often as occasion others; the four following at every meeting.

  1. What known sins have you committed since our last meeting.
  2. What temptations have you met with.
  3. How were you delivered.
  4. What have you thought, said, or done, of which you doubt whether it be sin or not.

[The agreement among band members was that each should speak the whole truth, in love, concerning what each sees and discerns in the other, always as an aid to “search your heart to the bottom” and find fuller freedom thereby from all that holds each back from pervasive holiness.]

 

[1] Consider using the prayer calendars and other aids for praying for persecuted Christians in an informed and specific way found online at http://www.opendoorsusa.org/take-action/pray/ and barnabasfund.org/us/get-involved/pray.

[2] One promising resource on the purpose for and organization of the “band meeting” can be found here: https://store.seedbed.com/products/the-band-meeting.

“Faith is Just the Beginning”

A sermon preached on 2 Peter 1:3-11; Mark 4:1-20 at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church

 

The winds were already exceeding gale force, blowing dead fronds and empty bins across yards and streets, causing palm trees to bend and sway like participants in an aerobics class.  Sheets of rain were slapping the car as its driver strained through the overtaxed wipers to spot the next arrow pointing to the hurricane evacuation route.  She finally saw one, pointing her to the right, then another telling her to continue straight, then another signaling her to turn left onto the northbound interstate.  She pulled onto the entrance ramp, emerged on the broad space of the highway, pulled over to the shoulder, turned off her engine, and fell back into her seat.  “Thank God! I made it!” she said, as she sat there, watching the other traffic press on by, wondering what their hurry was.

It’s an admittedly ridiculous story.  And yet, this is essentially how the author of 2 Peter would view the person who said that she “got saved” when she made a public confession of Jesus at a revival or church camp or altar call some twenty years ago, but who hadn’t traveled any distance up the highway toward Christ-likeness, toward living for others, toward giving herself over more and more fully to allowing God to accomplish his purposes for who she would become and what fruit she would bear for him over the rest of the course of her life. For the author of 2 Peter, “salvation” isn’t just a matter of an isolated decision.  It’s a matter of following an evacuation route.  Decision is important, but it has to be a decision to follow the evacuation route, because “salvation” – safety – lies at the end of an evacuation route, not at its beginning.

John Wesley and the people called Methodists shared this author’s view of salvation to a great extent.  Among the early Methodists, the principal entrance requirement to the group was a “desire to flee from the wrath to come,” and the nature of that flight was a lifelong commitment to use all the help that God had provided, all of “the means of grace,” to grow in holiness and righteousness.  The movement’s members sought, and encouraged one another, to exercise all diligence in discovering how to withdraw themselves from doing any harm and how to invest themselves in doing all the good they could, all the while seeking that “second rest” that was believed to be the Holy Spirit’s goal for each and every Christian, namely, arrival at that place where love for God and love for neighbor drove all of one’s actions and interactions.  Following Christ entailed a “long obedience in the same direction” (Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil 5.188), not “a long inertia in the same pew.”

Do you understand that you are still in the process of “fleeing”?  Or have you stopped running away from the direction of what is harmful and in the direction of safety – of salvation — too soon?

The author of 2 Peter begins his portrait of the Christian’s life by talking not only about God’s astounding gifting, but also by giving some clear definition to the purposes behind God’s gifting of those who came to acknowledge the Lord who was calling them:

Insofar as his divine power has given us all things with a view to life and piety through the acknowledgment of the One who called us by his own glory and virtue, through which he has given to us the precious and very great promises, in order that, through these, you might become participants in the divine nature, fleeing from the corruption that is in the world through desire…. (2 Pet 1:3-4, DSV)

This is a portrait of a God who has invested heavily in us.  The author shows us a God who has supplied us with all that we need to arrive at “life and piety,” an expression that might be better taken to mean, in English, “a pious life,” “a life of godliness” – a life reshaped with concern for God and for what is due God as the center and organizing principle of this new life.  Our acknowledging Jesus as our Lord and Savior is indeed important here, as is our acknowledgment that we have been called and selected not on the basis of any merit or value that we brought to the table, but rather on the basis of “his own glory and virtue” – because providing for us the way back to God’s embrace and the way forward to the kingdom of God’s Son seemed to God to be most in keeping with God’s generous, noble, redemptive character.  But, says our author, God’s investment in delivering us for that kingdom was not in the nature of some instantaneous teleportation, but rather in the nature of equipping us for pilgrimage, empowering us to make a long journey of obedience in the direction of that kingdom.

It is a journey of slogging through and leaving behind “the corruption” – the decay, the ruin, the rot – “that is in the world” – more to the point, that is in us, to the extent that we have been shaped by our society – “because of desire” (2 Pet 1:4). It’s quite countercultural for me as an American to think about “desire” as something negative.  I encounter all kinds of encouragement to “dream big” in terms of enjoying the goods and pleasures of this life, even in terms of achieving great things in this life as my society-shaped peers define “great things.”  I encounter all manner of enticements seeking to stimulate my desire, whether for a new appliance, a new car, a new medication, a new drink, a new snack, a new restaurant, a new beach resort, a new movie, a new computer, new kitchen cabinets, a new vehicle.  Wanting seems to be as normal, as necessary, as breathing in the world that I know.

Our author speaks to us from a distant culture – one that knew just as well as we do what it was to “desire” but that was also more critical, more suspicious, when it came to “desire” and its effects on a human life. A commonplace of ethics throughout the Greek and Roman periods was this: in order to arrive at a consistently virtues life, reason had always and consistently to maintain the upper hand over one’s desires.  To give free reign to one’s impulses, desires, and feelings, however, was to abandon the pursuit of the virtues that made a life worth having lived.  Early Christian ethics would be no less rigorous.

Our author warns us that desire has contributed to the corruption of God’s good world and God’s good vision for life in this world in so many ways.  Consider greed, which leads to ecologically unsustainable practices, to oppression of the weak so as to enjoy a larger share of coveted goods, to withholding other people’s access to “enough” so that I can have access to “more.” Or consider sexual desire, leading to the warping of relationships, the breaking of relationships, even to systematic or even violent victimization of people who are transformed into objects of lust.  But “desire” doesn’t have to lead to such obvious evils to contribute to the “corruption,” the “ruin,” that is in the world.  I suspect that, for most of us here, the greatest threat comes from vanilla desires that simply distract us, occupy us, siphon off our time, attention, and energy from pressing on along the evacuation route that God has laid out for us and for which God has equipped us, with the result that we run the risk of being found still puttering around uselessly at ground zero when the hurricane strikes.

But there is also holy desire. God has given us “precious and very great promises,” and the author would only encourage us to desire these things.  What would these promises include?  Surely that we might become reflections of God’s own righteousness in this world by the working of his Spirit within and among us; that we might be elevated to participate in the divine nature, sharing in God’s virtue and goodness rather than this world’s corruption; that we might be given lavish entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ, a place in God’s unfiltered presence forever.  God’s promises hold before us that which is indeed worth desiring.  If we train our desires on what God has promised us, “desire” will work for us instead of against us; we will put aside being self-directed unto distraction at best and destruction at worst, and allow ourselves to be impelled in the direction of salvation.

The author lays out a path – an escape plan, an evacuation plan – by which to keep putting the world that is subject to decay and ruin further behind us and to keep moving forward in the direction of the “entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ” that shall mark our arrival in the safe, everlasting harbor.

Bringing all diligence indeed to bear in respect of this very thing, supply, in your faith, virtue in addition; and in your virtue, knowledge; and in your knowledge, self-control; and in your self-control, endurance; and in your endurance, godliness; and in your godliness, love for the brothers and sisters; and in your love for the brothers and sisters, love without boundaries (agapē).  For as these things belong to and abound among you, they will ensure that you are not unproductive or unfruitful in regard to your acknowledgment of our Lord Jesus Christ.  (2 Pet 1:5-8, DSV)

“Bring all diligence to bear,” the author says.  “Make every effort; invest yourself in this path that God has opened up for you, and do so in such a manner and to such an extent that shows that you understand its value!”

Coming to faith is just the beginning, the starting point for this evacuation plan: “in the midst of your faith, provide yourself also with virtue.”  Reflect more and more the character of the Lord you have acknowledged.  In the midst of growing in virtue, provide yourself with knowledge. Keep learning; keep yourself in the Word until the Word has fully infiltrated you; keep exerting yourself to understand more and more fully the contours of the life to which Jesus has called you, the life for your living of which he handed over his own life!  In the midst of growing in knowledge, provide yourself with self-control – the natural and key quality to seek and attain where “desire” is the principal source of the corruption, the decay, the ruin from which we are escaping.  In the midst of growing in self-control, provide yourself with endurance. Keep up the energy for this flight over the long haul, maintaining resistance in the face of every enticement and distraction, pushing back against the astounding cultural forces at work against our commitment to self-control – the forces daily preaching self-gratification, self-indulgence, self-centered investment.  In the midst of endurance, provide yourself with godliness, living a life that has God at its center, that places giving to God what is God’s due as the highest priority.  In the midst of such God-centered living, cultivate a love for your sisters and brothers.  Invest yourself in building up relationships of deep caring and mutual commitment among the family that God has called together and created by virtue of giving us all – all in the global Church – new birth into God’s own family, with Jesus as the firstborn of many sisters and brothers.  In the midst of loving your sisters and brothers, cultivate that love that knows no boundaries, the love that depends on nothing external, no kinship bond whether natural or spiritual, but simply springs from a character that has at last arrived at the place where it shares in the divine nature of which the author was speaking, the divine nature of the God who is love, according to another New Testament voice (1 John 4:8, 16).  The author assures us that, “as these things belong to and abound among you, they will ensure that you are not unproductive or unfruitful in regard to your acknowledgment of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Pet 1:8).

Is it so vitally important to be productive, to be fruitful? Can’t I just believe and add “salvation” to all the other goodies I’m accumulating in this life?  Can’t I just hold onto my “faith” while investing the lion’s share of my energy, time, and attention in things in the world that appeal to me at the moment? I don’t find Scripture answering those questions in the affirmative.  Some preachers and theologians sometimes will (though perhaps not when the questions are posed so bluntly), but it strikes me as really important that Scripture doesn’t.  Consider that very familiar parable that Jesus spoke concerning seeds and soils (Mark 4:1-20).  Bearing fruit – being productive of the qualities and of the good consequences that are to characterize the new life – seems to be the decisive issue.  If the pressures of one’s peers or if the worries and interests of the world prevent that seed from reaching maturity and fruit-bearing, Jesus writes off those seeds as a loss.

The author of 2 Peter answers these questions even more sharply: “For the people in whom these things are lacking are so short-sighted as to be blind, putting out of their minds the cleansing of their past sins” (2 Pet 1:9, DSV).  It’s not the kindest image to use – “so shortsighted as to be blind” – but it’s an apt image nonetheless.  One of the greatest threats to our ability to “bring all diligence to bear” on cultivating the life that Christ died to free us to live is the business of today, day after day (and, truth be told, the non-business of today, day after day, for which we throw away each day just the same). We’re called to be farsighted people, people that live with our eyes on the horizon of the dawning day of Christ’s appearing.  And people who live with their eyes fixed there arrange their whole lives so as to be found blameless, and even to be celebrated, on that day – to hear the words known from another familiar parable, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” (Matt 25:21, 23).  To keep investing the lion’s share of our attention and efforts today on pursuits and distractions that will not matter on that day – what better label could the author give this than the severest form of myopia.

The author adds a further indictment, however.  To fail to move forward along this evacuation route and instead to splash around in the puddles along the roadside is to forget the costly investment that Jesus made in you to set you on this path in the first place.  Forgetfulness of the benefits one had been given was considered a deplorable failure in the author’s world.  Cicero, a Roman senator and statesman from the mid-first-century BC, wrote: “All people despise forgetfulness of benefactions, thinking it to be a personal injury against themselves since it discourages generosity; they regard the ingrate as an enemy to everyone who stands in need” (De officiis 2.63).  Similarly Seneca, writing a century later: “the person who fails to make a return for a gift is ungrateful, but the person who has forgotten a gift once given is the most ungrateful of all…. Who is more ungrateful than the person who has so fully put out of his mind the gift that ought to have remained foremost on his mind, that he has lost all knowledge of it?” (De beneficiis 3.1.3, 3.2.1).

For the author of 2 Peter, there’s really only one response to God’s gifting that makes any sense, one response that springs from keeping firmly in mind our past cleansing from sin, that great gift that calls for great gratitude in response, for living the life for which that cleansing was provided:

Therefore, brothers and sisters, invest yourself fully in making your calling and selection certain.  For by doing these things you will certainly never trip up.  For in this way entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be richly supplied to you.  (2 Pet 1:10-11, DSV)

Rather than asking the graceless question, “How much or how little do I have to do to really be saved,” live the grace-full response.  Make your calling and selection by God “secure” not by some lazy theological argument by which you think to excuse yourself from pursuing God’s evacuation route, but by that embodied response to God’s calling and selection that makes of you a person who belongs in the eternal kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ, in that place where “righteousness is at home” (2 Pet 3:13), by giving yourself over to pursuing the path along which all the provisions of “his divine power” naturally and rightly impel you.  Here, for the author, is the surest foundation for any doctrine of assurance: “By doing these things you will surely not trip up” on the way to that kingdom.