Contending for the Faith

This is a sermon by Dr. Ivor Poobalan, principal of Colombo Theological Seminary and a dear brother in the faith.  It strikes me as an important sermon both as a window into the kinds of struggles with cultish distortions of Christian faith that the Sri Lankan church encounters on a daily basis and as a reminder to my fellow clergy and other Christian leaders here in the West to be attentive to grounding their parishioners in the historic faith of the church so that they are not prey to the advances of such movements here as well.  Ivor’s closing advice to the local church, it seems to me, should become part of the “DNA” of our own ministries and our church culture — as it was for Jude himself.

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Contending for the Faith! How to Overcome Distortions of Christianity and Cultism (An Exposition on the Letter of Jude)

Ivor Poobalan, Principal, Colombo Theological Seminary

Introduction

In the last three to four years there has been a Korean movement working in Sri Lanka reaching out particularly to young, English-speaking Christians in the city. They are part of Shincheonji, a cult founded by Lee Man Hee, who imagines himself to be the “counsellor” or “advocate” promised by Jesus in the gospel of John.  “God, Jesus and Lee Man-Hee are working together to restore God’s kingdom on earth through establishing the New Heaven and the New Earth spoken about in Revelations [sic]” (Roshan Mendis).

This cult operates through one-on-one Bible studies, where they make contact with an eager young Christian and offer to provide deep and meaningful teachings from the Bible. The ‘student’ is asked to make an initial commitment of 1-3 weekly meetings for a three or four month period. During this time the mentor stays in very close touch. The student is asked not to divulge information to anyone about these meetings and to continue to be a part of the church or youth group he attends. A ‘new’ way of interpreting the Bible is carefully taught that causes the student to question all her previous assumptions about the Christian faith.  We thought that the cult had folded up until recently when our youth leaders became aware that sincere youth from several churches in Colombo were participating in these secret Bible studies!

“Shincheonji the Church of Jesus the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony” is one of the most recent distortions of the Christian faith; a tradition that goes back unbroken to the very beginning, the period of the apostles.

The Letter of Jude: A Response to Distorted Christianity or Cultism

The letter of Jude begins with this explanation:

“Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt compelled to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people. For certain individuals whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord” (Jd.3-4)

Jude says he would have preferred to write a letter to discuss the joys and the benefits of their shared salvation; to talk about the wonder of God’s grace, the assurance of his promises, and the joy of being a part of a redeemed and transformed community that love and support one another. But he has got wind of an imminent and insidious danger facing his Christians friends: “I felt compelled to write and urge you to contend for the faith”. What was the danger?

Some ungodly men have “secretly slipped in” among the believers to influence them to follow a distorted version of the Christian faith:

  1. They still talk about the grace of God, but twist it to make it a license for immorality
  2. They still talk about Jesus Christ, but deny his singular sovereignty and lordship

In the 1970s there were two very influential cults in Colombo whose influence impacted me personally. The first was the well-known Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose distinctive mark is that they “deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord”. The JWs believe that Jesus was not the Son of God, he was in fact the archangel Michael who became incarnate in order to save humanity from sin. They argue that the Church has misread the Bible, and has actually translated and interpreted the Bible wrongly. God is going to save 144,000 special Christians and take them to heaven, and the rest of those who join the JWs will live in a paradise on earth.

I was a thirteen year old Bible Quiz student when the JWs came calling at our home. Since they were all about the ‘Bible’ my dad thought I would be the best person to engage with them – “my son is very interested in the Bible” – and that way he could get away from what he felt would be a futile religious discussion! The man continued to visit me, he gave me leaflets and beautifully illustrated books, and share the JW ‘gospel’. Eventually he managed to get my whole family to come to a JW outreach programme at the Kathiresan Hall. But one factor kept me unconvinced: the things I had been taught in Sunday School, and the Bible I was studying for myself because of Bible Quiz. In a hundred years of existence the JWs have mostly misled people who once were members of churches.

The second cult that nearly got a hold of me was called the “Children of God” or the “Family of Love”. This was a movement that had been founded by David Berg, a pastor that had been disciplined by the Assemblies of God for immoral behaviour. He broke away with a group of followers and developed a distorted Christianity. They preached the importance of being born again and studying the Bible and living a radically simple lifestyle. Their followers left family and home in order to live in communes where they tried to become the true family of love, like the first Christians in the book of Acts. But at the core of David Berg’s teachings was what Jude had said: “They pervert the grace of God as a license for immorality”.

Berg taught that God is Love, and that the highest expression of love was sex. This means that when Jesus said, “A new commandment I give you that you love one another as I have loved you”, he meant that Christians should feel free to express their true love for other people through sexual means. All these boundaries and barriers that restrict people to marriage and to one sexual partner are dogmas taught by a dead, traditional church. True Christians know that Jesus has set them free to love one another.

This group lived a few doors from our home and visited us regularly because we were five church-going kids in one house. I loved their music and secretly admired their carefree lives, but again something in me was not at peace. Their persuasive leaflets and songs and preaching and kindness still didn’t harmonize with the truths that I had been privileged to learn at Sunday School and by Bible reading. God had graciously put his Word in my heart, and even though I was not obedient to him, his grace was at work protecting me from distortions of the faith.

David Berg and the “Children of God” have wreaked moral and psychological chaos on thousands of people around the world, and today the group no longer exists but their tragic legacy of pain, guilt and shame continues to impact the victims.

Four Descriptions of People who Distort Christianity or Propagate Cultism

Jude is very focused on his one theme: Christians must contend for the faith! He has warned that “certain men have secretly slipped in among you”. Jude is clear that they are destined for God’s judgment because they have dangerously violated the limits and boundaries set by God (see vv.5-7).

He now elaborates to provide four descriptions of the people that he is referring to. We can see this by noticing the repeated expression he uses: “these people”, in vv. 8, 10, 12 and 16. Following this clue we will be able to get a better understanding of the profile of the early founders of cultism.

I. They are Reckless and Arrogant (vv. 8-9)

They base their teachings on “the strength of their dreams” or their imagination, not on a careful and responsible reading of the Scriptures. They are creative people who are willing to take risks. Risks in what they say and how they do things. Risk-takers are very attractive to certain people; we instinctively feel drawn to someone who is willing to put himself out there, and wonder if perhaps he might be right.

Jude 8 tells us three things: “they pollute their own bodies, reject authority, and heap abuse on celestial beings”. They are reckless enough to challenge traditional limits and boundaries. Like David Berg they ask, who says that you should only show your deepest love to just one person? Why do you listen to your parents and your dead church? Look at how much pleasure and joy you can have by being ‘free’!

They are arrogant because they assume that the ‘final truth’ has been entrusted by God to them and to no other. Lee Man Hee claims that he is the successor to Jesus and the one who alone embodies the Holy Spirit.

A group very close to us is led by a person who claims to be a special being with a special revelation that the church has missed for two thousand years. Bishop Dr Kirby de Lanerolle and his wife are the founders of a movement called the WOW-Life Church. They say that they have discovered an energy-source that enables them to live and thrive without eating and drinking food and water.

Some years ago Kirby claimed that God sent angels to re-set his DNA and make his body capable of living without food. So now Kirby doesn’t need to eat at all, and Fiona only has three meals a week! What is this energy source? It is the elements of the Holy Communion – the wafer and the wine – when consumed with the right understanding and the right kind of faith. This ritualistic consumption of the bread and the wine transforms the human body at the “cellular level”, and because of the “vibrations of God” our bodies become younger and healthier.

This has now led to the most reckless teaching that is central to WOW-Life: the promise of immortality on earth. The followers are now promised that they are the first generation of Christians that will physically live on and not die until Jesus returns in the future. So they expect to “push” the normal boundaries of human experience and live beyond one-hundred-and-twenty years, because the “Father intends life and not death”

We all probably know someone who has been persuaded by this movement and its teachings. Unsuspecting pastors of over five hundred independent churches in Sri Lanka have signed to come under the leadership of this movement which is now registered as the Apostolic Diocese of Ceylon. On its website we are told that: “Rev. Dr. Kirby currently holds the position of Coordinator to the Ministry of Christian Religious Affairs for free and independent churches in Sri Lanka.”

II. They are Defensive and Deluded (vv. 10-11)

The second description of “these people” has to do with their teachability and understanding: “Yet these people slander whatever they do not understand and the very things they do understand by instinct – as irrational animals do – will destroy them” (v.10).

What must we do if we don’t understand something? We must adopt a position of humble teachability. We must pursue a learning posture, looking for those who can explain these difficulties to us. We must appreciate the complexity of these ideas. But some personalities don’t want to admit that they don’t understand; it makes them feel inferior to others. So they become defensive, they cut themselves off from people who are more knowledgeable than them, they criticize them and undermine them (“slander whatever they do not understand”) so that their followers see only them on the stage or the podium.

The mentors in Shincheonji are like this. They don’t want to be confronted by knowledgeable Christian teachers, so they ask for secrecy and hide their identities and meet in coffee bars using WhatsApp or other social media for communicating times and dates. Until a few years ago attendance at the WOW Life Church was only possible by invitation, and only registered members could have access to podcasts of Kirby de Lanerolle’s teachings. It’s only from 2015 that the movement has gone mainstream.

What does Jude mean by saying “they have taken the way of Cain”? Cain was the brother who couldn’t bear the fact that Abel had offered God the “better” sacrifice. So instead of humbling himself and learning from his brother’s example, Cain killed Abel to make sure there was no ‘competitor’ to him.

III. They are Insidious and Controlling (vv. 12-15)

“These people are blemishes at your love feasts, eating with you without the slightest qualm – shepherds who feed only themselves” (v.12)

One of the most distinguishing marks of the early Christians was their fellowship. The walls that had once divided them – race, status, gender – had been torn down. Christians related one with another in an exhilarating atmosphere of freedom. They often met in each other’s homes and ate together. A tradition that developed later was the ‘agape feasts’ (love feasts) where they ate together and bonded and enjoyed an openness and trust.

But these people with sinister intentions have got right into the church; in fact they are fully involved, participating in the church’s love feasts and “eating with you without the slightest qualm”

But it gets worse. Not only are they insiders, they have taken up important pastoral positions in the church. Jude calls them “shepherds”, a common term used to describe the pastor of a church. They have the reputation of being leaders of the church, but actually they have no real concern or commitment to the ‘sheep’: “Shepherds who feed only themselves”.

Those who have become part of a cult and have come out of it know how emotionally dependent they had become on their leader of the group. He is always in their consciousness, there are constant communications from him or her, and the thought of leaving the group becomes terrifying.

For a JW to leave the kingdom hall, or “Children of God” member to leave the communal home, or for a member of Shincheonji to leave the membership of what has been called the ‘true church’ of the New Heavens and New Earth, would be a terrifying thought.

IV. They are Critical and Manipulative (vv. 16)

One of the common features of a cult is their initial message about how the established church, Christian traditions, and authority figures in our lives are wrong, misdirected, and often led by Satan. Jude says, “These people are grumblers and faultfinders”. They are constantly critical of everything and everyone you are attached to; even pastors, parents, spouses, could be agents of Satan.

The “Children of God” would regularly teach us that the traditional church was dead and working against the purpose of God. God was doing a new thing.  Similarly, “WOW encourages its congregation to pursue a deeper relationship with God through the Spirit Word over learned-response religion and that God’s love and grace transforms hearts and didn’t require outward behavior modification to enter church or His presence. The WOW message endeavored to set free religiously shackled Christians, those that once felt they would never be welcome in church and those condemned and discouraged by religion” (WOW-life website, accessed July 21, 2019). Notice how the movement sets itself up as the one that cares for these people who are misunderstood, rejected, condemned, and “religiously shackled Christians.”

Jude says they are critical (“grumblers and faultfinders”) and also manipulative: “they follow their own evil desires, they boast about themselves, and flatter others for their own advantage”. Once a person is sold out on these distorted teachings, there is no limit to what can be achieved. People become willing to give up anything and anyone that was once a part of their ‘normal’ life for the sake of this experience or its promises. One sad husband of a woman who joined Shicheonji in Korea says, “She was a wonderful wife and mother, now she thinks I’m a devil”. Others give up their wealth and property almost entirely to the movement.

How can a local church overcome the influence of distorted Christianity and Cultism?

Jude ends his letter with practical guidance on how that church would be able to overcome these reckless and dangerous distortions of the “faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people”. In Jude 17 – 23 the apostle presents three helpful responses: 1) Remember that the danger of false teachings was foretold by the pioneers of the Christian faith 2) Prioritise on your essential Christian Responsibilities, and 3) Intensify the church’s Pastoral Engagement.

1) Remember that the danger of false teachings was foretold by the pioneers of the Christian Faith (17-19)

The first safeguard against distortions of Christianity is the fact that Jesus and the apostles repeatedly warned about it. Jesus said, “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ferocious wolves” (Mt. 7:15). Paul writes in Galatians 1:8 writes: “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the gospel we preached to you, let them be under a curse”. John wrote the Book of Revelation to seven churches in Turkey that were struggling because of persecution from without and heresies from within.

Distortions of Christianity and cultism are proliferating at an astounding pace because through the means of digital technology we can disseminate ideas with frightening speed. But we must remember that Jesus and his apostles foretold that this would happen.

2) Prioritise on your Essential Christian Responsibilities (20-21)

Second, Jude says, the Christian believers must take personal responsibility to pursue their essential Christian responsibilities: “But you dear friends, KEEP YOURSELVES IN GOD’S LOVE, by building yourselves up in the most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit, and waiting for the mercy of the Lord Jesus Christ to bring you into eternal life” (20-21).

So what are the responsibilities? The main thing is to “keep yourselves in God’s love”. This refers to the intimacy and trust that we continually develop in our relationship with our heavenly Father. It also suggests that the church must prioritise of living out the implications of love more than focusing on organization and programmes. What then are the means for keeping ourselves in God’s love?

Jude calls us, first, to build ourselves up in the Faith. We are not to remain static in our appreciation and application of Christian truth. We are to grow and to change through our knowledge of the Scriptures and our practise of a Christian lifestyle.  Second, we are to actively seek intimacy with God by “praying in the Holy Spirit”. Your body is the temple of God and the Holy Spirit now lives in every believer. You already have intimacy with God. Pursue and take advantage of this gift: pray in the Holy Spirit, speak simply and trust him for the daily mundane issues that face you and you will be amazed at what you will experience. Third, we are to animate our longing for the coming of Christ and the fulfilment of the promise of eternal life: “Waiting for the mercy of the Lord Jesus to bring you to eternal life”

3) Intensify the church’s Pastoral Engagement (22-23)

When members of the church are coming under the influence of false teachings and cultism, how should the church respond? There are different responses that are possible. Often the church is ignorant of these dangers, not even aware that such groups are in operation, nor about the serious damage they can cause to people, families and the Christian communities. Sometimes we can have an apathetic response: if people want to go after some new teacher or want to try a new fad, why not? They are individuals, and surely they can take responsibility for themselves.

Jude proposes a totally different response, a pastoral response. He suggests that we must become more active neither passive nor indifferent. In fact he is suggesting that we intensify our pastoral engagement. He recognizes that there are at least three different kinds of people in such a context: the doubtful, the endangered, and the defaulters.

The doubtful are those who have been challenged by this new teaching and are questioning the fundamentals of the Christian faith. We are to “be merciful”, compassionate, understanding, and sympathetic towards them, so that we can facilitate their comeback to a strong faith.

The endangered are those who are on the verge of crossing over into this group or movement. In such situations we are to go into a mode that is like that of a firefighter: “save others by snatching them from the fire”. It’s not a time to be discussing niceties but rescuing someone from something that can destroy them.

There is still another group. These are people who have defaulted and participated in the error. In the case of the “Children of God,” there were so many who had gone fully into the movement and then got disillusioned and come out. But they were so full of shame and guilt they couldn’t face family and especially church members. How are we to respond? Tell them that we told them so? No, we are to still reach out without compromising on the truth. Jude says, “to others show mercy mixed with fear – hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh”.

Conclusion

Jude has shown the importance of safeguarding the faith, contending for the faith that once for all has been entrusted to the saints. He has warned us about the danger of false teachers and cultism and described the major characteristics of false teachers. We have seen how relevant these warnings are to our time, because Jesus and the apostles have warned the church about this danger. We also know that we can do something to safeguard the church: keeping ourselves in the love of God and intensifying pastoral engagement.

So the letter ends with the benediction:

“Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy – to the only God our Saviour be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen” (24-25).

 

 

Story and Mission in Luke-Acts

A presentation prepared for the “Luke-Acts Colloquium” sponsored by the South Ohio Diocese of the Episcopal Church, delivered at St. George’s, Dayton.

 

The Gospel of Luke and its sequel, the Acts of the Apostles, together lay out the story of God’s mission in the world of the first century AD.  The story of this mission takes place in the midst of the world of the early Roman empire, beginning during the reign of Augustus and extending as far as the reign of Nero – though we only hear the names of Augustus, Tiberius, and Claudius in the course of the story, and always quite tangentially.  It is the story of a mission that is decidedly uninterested in the mission of the early Roman empire and the missions of various other groups and parties active in that world.

As we read Acts, we learn of several Jewish freedom fighters, would-be leaders of insurrections hoping to change the story of Judea and to sideline Rome’s mission in that region in favor of a nationalistic mission of independence.  Early in Acts (5:36-37), Gamaliel makes reference to the revolt led by Judas the Galilean in connection with the imperial census taken under Quirinius, the legate of Syria famous for being mispronounced in nearly every reading of the Nativity story that I’ve ever heard, and the movement led by Theudas, who led a large mass of followers to the Jordan River in the expectation of a new parting of the waters and divine conquest of the land currently under Roman domination.  Later in Acts, when Paul is arrested, the commander of the barracks in Jerusalem wondered if Paul might be the Jew from Egypt “who recently stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand assassins (Sicarii) out into the desert” (21:38), another abortive revolt quickly put down by the Roman governor just a few years prior.  These revolutionaries grounded their mission in a particular story, believing that God’s former acts of deliverance on behalf of Israel would be repeated in the present conflict against Roman domination and lead to a restored kingdom of Israel. It appears that one man formerly enamored of this story and the mission it supported – Simon, “known as the Zealot” – detached himself from it and found himself caught up in another story, another divine mission.

The chief priests and leading elites that constituted the Sanhedrin throughout the period of Jesus’ ministry and the activity of Jesus’ apostles in Judea were also people on a mission that was rooted in a particular story.  In their case, this story focused on the covenant originally forged at Sinai and on the Temple that was so central an organ for the covenant’s ongoing operation, and their mission was to preserve both Temple and covenant as the indispensable and unsurpassable venue for the mediation of God’s favor and blessings for the people.  Of all the other stories and missions, theirs is the one to which Luke gives the greatest outright attention, no doubt because the story and mission of the Jesus movement clashed so directly with theirs.  Indeed, Luke’s story from Jesus’ indictment and occupation of the Temple after his triumphal entry through the sermon of Stephen can be read as a story of the shift of divine authority from the Temple administration to the apostles and the shift of divine presence and power from the Temple to the Spirit-empowered community of Jesus’ followers.

Luke knows that, if followers of the Christ were truly and fully to invest themselves in seeking the kingdom of God and in living out their allegiance to Jesus as their Lord, they would need to divest themselves fully from their investment of themselves in alternative, essentially incompatible stories and missions.

Luke’s primary audience is none other than the members of the communities of faith whose early formation is the subject of the Acts narrative.  What are Christians in Pisidian Antioch or Ephesus or Philippi or Corinth “hearing” when they hear Luke and Acts read to them in their assemblies?  How does it transform (or, at least, reinforce for them) their identity and location in “story and mission” in their world?  How can recovering this experience help us to hear the implicit challenge of Luke and Acts in our location?  As I reflect on the dominant story about divine mission in the world of these early Christians, I read Luke’s Gospel and Acts quite differently. Luke appears to me to work to displace that dominant story to make room for the new story of how the God of Israel is accomplishing his good ends through the mission of Jesus and of the early church, inviting Christians to locate themselves in the world no longer in terms of that dominant story, but rather in terms of the story of God’s kingdom.

In what follows, I will introduce that dominant story about the divine mission in the world, the ways in which Luke may be heard to subvert that story, and finally the ways in which Luke’s agenda in this regard bequeaths an agenda to us to take up in our setting.

Rewriting the “Saecular” Ideology

I use the somewhat archaic word “saecular” to describe “ideology” here because I mean to denote “the ideology that belonged to the age in which Luke wrote and into which all his readers or hearers had been born.”  It was certainly not a “secular” ideology in the more common sense of “not religious, that which is not set apart as ‘sacred’.”  The “saecular” ideology was also a deeply religious one with its own body of faith claims, symbolically enacted in its own rites and liturgies.

The dominant story in the world of Luke’s audience is the story of the mission of Rome as the fulfillment of a divine plan for the world. One of the great evangelists of the Gospel of Rome was Virgil, a poet in Augustus’s court and author of the Aeneid, the court epic of the Augustan age.  The public story of Rome begins with the fall of Troy, from whose ashes emerges a hero, Aeneas, whose divinely-appointed mission would be to plant the seeds of a world empire.  The Aeneid celebrates the destiny of Rome, glimpses of which encourage the hero Aeneas on to the end of his quest.  Zeus, the king of the gods, promises that the Romans would “rule the sea and all the lands about it” (Aen. 1.236-37).  Zeus announces that Rome’s destiny would be to “bring the whole world under the rule of law” (Aen. 4.232), a mission that it came ever closer to fulfilling throughout the first and second centuries AD with each new conquest (and to preserving with each suppression of a new revolt). The fruits of this mission were widely celebrated as “stability and security” by creating “a single, unwavering cycle and world order of peace” (thus Plutarch, “On the Fortune of the Romans” 2 [Moralia 317]).

The power of Rome was visually portrayed in the image of the goddess Roma, the visible representation of the “order,” the “rule of law,” the “peace” and “stability” that Rome’s imperial rule brought.  She was often featured on the reverse of coins; she is more prominently visible in the cult statues throughout the Mediterranean.

Roma

Roma was given the epithet Aeterna, an epithet that persists to this day when we hear Rome called “the Eternal City.”  Thus Rome’s supporters and propagandists advanced the bold claim that Rome’s mission and destiny were unchanging and everlasting, in contradiction to all the lessons of world history.

According to this widely celebrated story, divine Providence – the provision of the gods for the good ordering of the world – was at work in the rise and reign of Rome, and it was particularly at work in the rise and reign of Augustus and his successors.  Augustus, formerly known as Octavian, the adopted son of Julius Caesar, brought an end to three major rounds of civil wars – in two of which he was a major player.  But, as the last man standing, it was he who restored “peace” to the whole world and, indeed, set in place a far more stable “peace” than had been known prior to the onset of the civil wars.

Let me take you next to the Roman province of Asia in what we would call the year 9 BC, where chance has left us a marvelous snapshot of how this dominant cultural story about a divine mission was articulated and celebrated.  I think the location of this snapshot in the Roman province of Asia – the area of what is now Western Turkey that contained cities with churches born of the Pauline mission like Ephesus, Colossae, Hierapolis, and Laodicea – is significant.  In 9 BC, the 22nd year of the reign of the emperor Augustus, the Provincial Council of Asia invited proposals for the best way to honor Augustus for the gifts he had brought to the world.  Paullus Fabius Maximus, provincial governor at the time, offered the winning proposal, namely that the birthday of Augustus should become the official “New Year’s Day” of the calendar year, since his coming marked the beginning of a new era of peace and order.  The Council agreed that this should indeed be done,

because Providence … has set all things in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom      she filled with virtue that he might benefit humankind, sending him as a savior [sōtēra], both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things well, and because he, Caesar, by his appearing [epiphaneis], … surpassed all previous benefactors and leaves posterity no hope of another surpassing what he has done, and because the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good news [euangeliōn] for the world that came by reason of him.

The word from the inscription translated as “good news” here is a form of euangelion, the same Greek word that appears no fewer than seventy-five times in the New Testament (whether translated as “good news” or “gospel”).  This inscription lauded Augustus as Providence’s provision for the “highest good” of the people, a ruler whom Providence “filled with excellence for the benefit of humanity.”  It hailed him as “savior,” one whose gifts to humankind no one would ever surpass in the future, and as a manifestation of the divine (as the verb epiphanein was typically used to speak of the appearing of a god or goddess among or to mortals).  The word “savior” here admittedly comes from a portion of the inscription that had to be reconstructed, but Augustus, like other generally beneficent emperors, was frequently hailed as “savior,” as in the inscription over the temple of Augustus and Roma on the Athenian acropolis, located just behind the great Parthenon.   The word was part of the stock repertoire of acclamations of the emperor.

Inscription

Another particularly important term in this repertoire is “son of [a] god.” After the assassination of Julius Caesar, the Roman Senate declared him to have become a god.  Their decision was based, among other things, on the testimony of reliable witnesses to have seen a new star appearing in the heavens, an image frequently represented thereafter on the coins of Julius’s adopted son and successor, Octavian – who would shortly come to be named “Augustus.” Temples were erected in Rome and throughout the eastern provinces to this new deity. Thus Octavian became “son of the divine Julius” and this title divi filius, “son of the deified one,” would be featured prominently in every inscription and on every coin connected with Octavian.  Augustus was given divine honors during his life and, predictably, officially consecrated a god after his death, allowing his own adopted son and successor, Tiberius, to continue the tradition of being styled “son of a god.”  Nero, Titus, and Domitian were all also able to make use of this title after the divinization of Claudius and of Vespasian.

 

In this inscription from a triumphal arch honoring the emperor Hadrian, he is lauded, among other things, as “son of the God Nerva Traianus.”  This particular inscription shows us something important: if there was any distinction in Latin between the deus (god) and the divus (deified one), that distinction disappeared in the Greek-speaking world, where the divus was simply rendered theos, “a god.”

Son of a god

It is in the midst of such a world that Luke’s archangel Gabriel appears to Mary to announce that she will give birth to a child who “will be called ‘Son of God’” (Luke 1:35), a status that the voice of God itself confirms at both Jesus’ baptism and transfiguration (Luke 3:22; 9:35).  It is in the midst of such a world that Luke’s anonymous angel appeared to the shepherds outside of Bethlehem to deliver an alternative announcement of good news: “The angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord’” (Luke 2:10-11 NRSV).[1] When Luke speaks of the birth of Jesus, the “son of God,” as the “good news” concerning the appearing of a “savior” who will benefit “all people” – a story in which Augustus now appears offstage merely as the person drawing up a census to make sure he can get his tribute from all the subject peoples of his empire – his readers would have understood the political implications of his proclamation of Jesus’s place in the divine scheme of things.

Very significantly, Augustus, Tiberius, and Claudius are introduced into the narrative only as background scenery, at most as part of an explanation for how the events that really matter in the divine story and mission unfolded.  Thus Augustus is named only as the cause of Joseph and Mary’s migration to Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth; Tiberius is named in connection with providing something of a date for the beginning of the ministry of John, Jesus’ forerunner; and Claudius is mentioned only as the person whose expulsion of the Jews from Rome landed Prisca and Aquila in Corinth where they would make Paul’s acquaintance (Luke 2:1; 3:1; Acts 18:2).  They are not themselves the agents of the divine, and they are themselves far removed from the arena of divine action. The Christian gospel was thus very much a counter-gospel.  It both declared how God was intervening for the benefit of all humankind and sought to correct how the majority of people in the Roman world had thought that the divine had intervened for the benefit of all humankind, through whom, and to what end.

There is a “divine Providence,” to which Luke refers most often as “the plan of God” (Luke 7:30; Acts 2:23; 4:28; 13:36; 20:27), behind the counter-gospel.  This “plan” was announced in the Scriptures of Israel and was put in effect in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and in the mission of the disciples whom he commissioned:

“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you – that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” (Luke. 24:44-47 NRSV)

It is also a divine plan with a universal scope, the goal of which is to unite people from Israel and from all the nations together into a new political entity, the “kingdom of God” that is thematic throughout Luke-Acts.[2]  Jesus had outlined the strategy by which this invasion and annexation would take place:

“What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.” (Lk. 13:18-19 NRSV)

“To what should I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” (Lk. 13:20-21 NRSV)

Unlike Rome’s forging of an empire through heavy-handed military conquest and political coercion, God’s kingdom would insinuate itself everywhere as yeast works through a lump of dough until it has taken over the whole.  And this is the process that we see beginning in the narrative of Acts as the seed is planted or the yeast injected in city after city in the northeast quadrant of the Mediterranean region.

And, of course, every kingdom has a “Lord” to whom allegiance, and to whose commands obedience, is ultimately due.  Luke proclaims the crucified and risen Jesus as this “Lord,” acting as the vice-regent of God in this kingdom – this empire that God is forming out of former subjects of “all the kingdoms of the world” (Luke 4:5) through the mission of the apostles and the sealing of the Holy Spirit.

Rewriting “Saecular” Geography

Luke’s neutralizing of Rome’s ideology – its presentation of its own role and importance in the unfolding drama of this world – is evident also in how Luke presents the geography of God’s story and mission, and particularly how he allocates “gravity” in his map.

There can be no doubt that Jerusalem stands at the center of Luke’s map.  All four Gospels, of course, place the climactic action of Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem as a matter of public record, but Luke begins Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem as early as Luke 9:51, about two-fifths into the narrative: “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.”  Luke will not let his readers lose sight of the fact that the actions of the next ten chapters occur “on the way to Jerusalem”:

“Jesus went through one town and village after another, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem.” (Luke 13:22 NRSV)

“Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.” (Luke 13:33 NRSV)

“On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee.” (Luke 17:11 NRSV)

“Then he took the twelve aside and said to them, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished’.” (Luke 18:31 NRSV)

“He went on to tell a parable, because he was near Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately.” (Luke 19:11 NRSV)

After Jesus’ resurrection, Luke departs from the tradition of the other Gospels by not speaking of the disciples returning to Galilee at any point.  In Mark, for example, the message is sent to the disciples: “Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you” (Mark 16:1 NRSV).  In Matthew, the encounter between Jesus and his disciples in Galilee is narrated.  In John’s Gospel as well the disciples are found in chapter 21 having relocated to the Sea of Galilee after the initial resurrection appearances in Jerusalem.  In Luke, however, Jesus appears to the disciples in Jerusalem and tells them: “see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49 NRSV).  The disciples must remain in Jerusalem because just as it was the focal point for Jesus’ mission of redemption, it will also be the center from which God’s mission to all nations will break forth.  Once again, in Jesus’ summary of the witness of the “hope of Israel” as attested in its Scriptures: “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46-47 NRSV).

Acts, then, opens in Jerusalem, with Luke reminding the readers why: “While staying with them, Jesus ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father” (Acts 1:4).  Immediately prior to his ascension – in Luke, from the Mount of Olives immediately across the Kidron Valley from Jerusalem – Jesus says: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8 NRSV). This programmatic statement creates an expectation in the hearers that, as Acts unfolds, this commission will be fulfilled.  The propriety of such an expectation is confirmed as the story of the apostolic mission proceeds: bold and effective witness to what God has done in Christ and the summons God has issued in Christ happens first in Jerusalem (Acts 1-7) and moves out into Judea and Samaria (Acts 8-9): “The church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was built up. Living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers” (Acts 9:31 NRSV).

From here, the witnesses begin to move out beyond Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria towards “the ends of the earth.”  What we notice as we read on, however, is that Luke does not speak of Thomas’s mission to India (if that tradition is reliable), the eunuch’s possible evangelistic activity in Ethiopia, and the like.  Rather, Luke speaks of the steady progression of the witness to God’s kingdom moving further and further out from Jerusalem in the direction of Rome – first through Syria and Cilicia, then through Cyprus and Anatolia, then through Macedonia and Greece.  And just as Luke’s Jesus began his journey to Jerusalem quite early, Paul similarly sets his face to go to Rome as early as Acts 19:21: “Paul resolved in the Spirit to go through Macedonia and Achaia, and then to go on to Jerusalem. He said, ‘After I have gone there, I must also see Rome’” (Acts 19:21 NRSV).  We are reminded of this divine necessity throughout Paul’s legal trials which, ironically, become the means by which he arrives in Rome, “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” for two whole years (Acts 28:30-31).  The expectation for the story of Acts raised by Jesus’ declaration that his witnesses would reach “the ends of the earth” is fulfilled, most ironically, as this witness proclaims the good news in Rome.

One scholar has written: “Rome was the capital of the Roman Empire—it would have been absurd to describe the power center of the Roman Empire with the label ‘end of the earth’.”[3]  This is no more absurd, I would say, than to claim that one of Rome’s crucified victims was, in fact, the agent at the center of God’s pre-determined plan for the redemption of Israel and the gathering of the Gentiles, the agent through whom and in whose name “the kingdom of God” would take shape in response to the proclamation of God’s mighty acts in Jesus Christ, beginning “in Jerusalem in all Judea and Samaria” and extending “to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8 NRS).[4]

Luke’s Challenge to Us in Regard to Story and Mission

I have dwelt on the linear stories and the horizontal maps at such length to show how Luke was hard at work making room in the Roman world for God’s story and God’s mission.  There was a lot out there in the way of Roman imperial ideology and in the way of people overtly and enthusiastically embracing and advancing that ideology.  Every last one of Luke’s readers and hearers was also nurtured in that world and had been extensively exposed to that ideology – and many if not most of them would have been among those who enthusiastically embraced it.  They had to stop believing in one gospel, one proclamation of “good news,” if they were fully to embrace and live from the other gospel proclaimed by Luke and his peers in the name of Jesus Messiah and if they were to fall in line with the One God’s mission in the world.[5]  They needed to cease to take their bearings from one story along with its preoccupations, its trajectory, its mission, and begin to take their bearings from – and live to advance – another story with its preoccupations, trajectory, and mission.

And – it also seems to me – we have to work just as hard to make room in our world, in our case the world of the United States of America, for God’s story and God’s mission.  We are bombarded with stories every day from conservative and liberal media framed from concern with our nation’s story and its contested future, stories that invade – or that we promote on, our social media feeds.  We need to think clearly about whether it is our mission to get fired up about the things that these media want to fire us up about, or whether we need to attend more conscientiously to a different mission that takes its bearings from the Holy Spirit and not the spirit of the age.

The national story of race and the various ideologies it has spawned continues to divide people from one another here, but it must cease to divide Christians of one range of colors from Christians of another range of colors here.  We are called to live from a different story, the story of a different political entity, God’s kingdom, that has made us parts together of one Body, and live into a different future together.

We are pushed – and often push those around us – into supporting the mission of one of two political parties as if either one would bring salvation to the nation.  But God’s mission is not going to be accomplished by either political party, nor advanced by our investment of ourselves in getting any political party into power.  At best, we can try with our voting to promote the conditions that will least hinder God’s mission.  God’s mission is advanced and accomplished through God’s people, the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.  Acts gives us a picture of the Church as a powerful, energetic, effective, ever-expanding body that is both the result of God’s mission and the vehicle for God’s ongoing mission.  It challenges us to stop waiting for the secular systems around us to accomplish the good we long to see and to become ever more completely that powerful, energetic, effective, ever-expanding body through which God accomplishes that good.  It calls us to stop sidelining ourselves as the Church, politely lobbying the secular powers to do what is right, and to take over the doing of what is right as we respond with our full investment of ourselves and our resources to the Holy Spirit’s direction and visions for us.

What we read of the story of God’s mission in Acts is just the beginning.  Think for just a moment about how that story has expanded – how that mission’s reach has expanded – across the centuries and across the continents to arrive at the point where we have been incorporated into that story along with our sisters and brothers ransomed, by this point indeed, from every nation, language, tribe, and people group.  Just as Acts was a sequel to Luke’s Gospel, there is a grand sequel to Acts – any good account of the history of the Church’s mission, preferably one that gives lavish attention to the work of the Holy Spirit throughout the majority world rather than one that supplies merely the “Church History” component of a Western Civilizations class.  Granted this is a story in which rulers and colonizers and venial people have coopted the Church’s mission for their own ends – and thus a story full of poignant warnings to help us become more vigilant in this regard now – but it is also a story in which the Holy Spirit has broken loose from those ends to reassert God’s mission again and again.

And in regard to maps.  We wake up, move about, and lie down to sleep in a country that is very much concerned about its borders – in the days of this particular administration, preoccupied with those borders and with inscribing those lines more concretely.  I have the distinct impression that we typically think about (and are led by most media to think about) the stories in our world in terms of how our country is impacting other nations, how what is happening in those nations is impacting our country, about our nation’s interests as the lens through which we look at what it happening globally and the filter through which our media prioritize what they put before our eyes to look at in the first place.

How radically different is the map configured in accordance with God’s interests and God’s mission in the world.  It remains a map with Jerusalem conceptually at the center – not because of any misplaced Zionist ideology, but because Jerusalem remains the historic “ground zero” of the explosion of God’s work in the world through God’s Anointed One, Jesus.  Every one of us has been invited into the people whose story began there, not here.  I suspect that a focal theater of action in that story now is far removed from Washington, DC, and from the obsession with border walls, and is to be found in spaces far removed from the center of our nation’s map of the world (that is, us!), far beyond our borders.  It is probably, rather, to be found in those places where the Church is most actively and wholeheartedly engaged in precisely the same mission of God that we see driving the plot of Acts forward from beginning to end. It is in the explosive expansion of God’s kingdom into South America, Africa, and the Far East.  It is in the courageous and costly witness of our sisters and brothers across North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia who say, with the apostles, “we must obey God rather than human authorities.”  It is in the struggle for daily survival and finding some modicum of safety that untold millions in our world face, who need to have the good news of God’s kingdom brought to them and who need to be embraced by the care of the global citizenry of that kingdom.  But if we are to be part of that effective citizenry, we will need to make a great deal of room for God’s story and God’s mission through intentional divestment of our attention and energies from the stories and missions to which we are being otherwise constantly recruited.

[1] Luke admittedly shows a preference for the verb “to announce good news” (εὐαγγελίζεσθαι) over the noun “good news” (εὐαγγέλιον), though he does use the latter one occasion.  Peter speaks of his proclamation to Cornelius as “the message of the good news (τὸν λόγον τοῦ εὐαγγελίου; Acts 15:7); Paul speaks of his being commissioned “to testify to the good news (τὸ εὐαγγέλιον) of God’s favor” (Acts 20:24).

[2] For “kingdom of God,” see Luke 4:43; 6:20; 7:28; 8:1, 10; 9:2, 11, 27, 60, 62;  10:9, 11; 11:20; 13:18, 20, 28, 29; 14:15; 16:16; 17:20-21; 18:16-17, 24-25, 29; 19:11; 21:31; 22:16, 18; 23:51; Acts 1:3; 14:22; 19:8; 28:23, 31; for “kingdom,” referring to the same, see Luke 11:2; 12:31-32; 22:30; Acts 20:25.

[3] Eckhard Schnabel, “Jesus’ Missionary Commission and the Ends of the Earth,” in Lexham Geographic Commentary: Acts through Revelation (ed. Barry Beitzel; Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2018).

[4] The Judean author of Psalms of Solomon 8 also appears to have spoken of Rome as “the end of the earth”: “He brought someone from the end of the earth, one who attacks in strength; he declared war against Jerusalem, and her land” (Psalms of Solomon 8:15), referring to Pompey the Great, the Roman senator and general who came to intervene in Judean affairs in 63 BC.

[5] Where Luke’s Gentile readers see themselves in the narrative, they are leaving behind – perhaps indeed remembering their own leaving behind of – those practices that marked their embeddedness in that alternate story of the gods who had brought about peace and order for the world in the rise of Augustus – the Savior, Lord, and divine son of a divine father – and his successors.  Paul’s messages to the people of Lystra and to the council that met on the Athenian Areopagus encapsulate this fairly well.  If Gentiles respond favorably to those who proclaim God’s mission in the world and accept the invitation to become part of that story and mission, they must cease “to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals” (Acts 17:29) and “turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them” (Acts 14:15).  Their involvement in such things no longer marks their support for and participation in the alternative story of divine providence; instead it marks their groping during “the times of human ignorance” (Acts 17:30).   There was nothing salvific in that period – quite contrary to the dominant story – apart from the traces of the providence of the One God in creation.

Easter Changes Everything

A sermon for the 2nd Sunday of Easter (Acts 5:27-32; Rev 1:4-8)

And leading the apostles forward, they made them stand before the Sanhedrin.  And the chief priest interrogated them, saying: “We strictly commanded you not to teach in this name, and now look – you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you want to bring the blood of this man down upon us.”  And Peter and the apostles said in response: “It is necessary to obey God rather than human beings.  The God of our forebears raised Jesus, upon whom you laid hands in violence, hanging him up on a tree.  This man God exalted to his right hand as leader and savior for the purpose of giving repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel.  And we are witnesses to these matters, along with the Holy Spirit which God gave to those obeying him.” (Acts 5:27-32)

 

In the ebb and flow of church attendance and energy, the Sunday after Easter tends to fare poorly.  We in the ministries of word, sacrament, and the worship arts put forth our best efforts for Holy Week and Easter, in part because we know that we will be serving our largest assembly of congregants since Christmas Eve and until the next Christmas Eve.  Then we marshal whatever is left over for the Second Sunday of Easter with the relaxation that comes from knowing church attendance will probably not merely return to normal, but will drop below normal, as many of our parishioners will go on a short diet in regard to religion after the surfeit of Holy Week.  Throughout my life, whether serving in Episcopal, Lutheran, and United Methodist congregations, I have heard this Sunday most frequently called “Low Sunday,” as if this were the official designation of the day in the liturgical calendar. Last week we sang “The Strife is O’er”; perhaps today we ought to sing “The Hype is O’er,” as we begin to slump our way back towards ordinary time.

Our Scripture readings today, however, point in an entirely different direction.  The resurrection of this Jesus has changed everything.  The implications of the resurrection are stunning, and these readings urge us to discover these implications more fully and throw ourselves into falling in line with them more fully.  Easter is not the climax of events that had been set in motion; Easter has set events in motion, and there is work now to be done – divine purposes to be fulfilled as these purposes come to drive our lives, preparations energetically to be undertaken in view of future divine encounters!

Nothing makes this clearer than the first chapters of the Acts of the Apostles.  The resurrection of Jesus, catalyzed by the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, impels Jesus’ disciples to proclamation, mission, and the organization of a new community right there in the courts and porticoes of the Jerusalem Temple – under the noses of the very people who had hoped to defuse this Jesus movement by collaborating with the Roman overlords to dispatch its leader.  Giving all credit to the Holy Spirit, Luke portrays the phenomenal consolidation and growth of the Jesus movement in response to the preaching and wonder-working of its principal leaders, particularly Peter and John.  The chief priests and ruling council of Judea – the Sanhedrin – act quickly to quash it.  After arresting the apostles and letting them spend the night in the prison, they command them to cease and desist, to which Peter and John can only reply on behalf of the group, “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20).  The apostles’ response is to pray for greater boldness and to continue their work of declaring all that God had done and was continuing to do through Jesus, which leads to their arrest a second time.  This time, however, the Lord sent an angel to open the doors of the prison.  When the Sanhedrin sent for them, the guards reported that they were back in the Temple courts proclaiming Jesus.  And so we arrive at today’s reading.

The high priest believed the apostles’ actions to be directed against them, aimed at “bringing this man’s blood upon us” (5:28), arousing popular indignation such as might lead to mob violence against the members of the Sanhedrin in retaliation. He was understandably concerned. Peter has not been at all subtle on this point in his preaching up to this point (Acts 2:23; 3:13-15, 17; 4:10-11), holding the leaders and people of Jerusalem to have been complicit with Pilate and the Gentile occupation force responsible in the execution of God’s Anointed One.  No one escapes some responsibility for the guilt of Jesus’ execution, which is only theologically proper since, to borrow from Isaiah, “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa 53:6).

Peter interrupts the high priest to clarify his aim and the aim of his apostolic colleagues.  It was not to bring down bloodguilt upon the Sanhedrin.  If Jesus’ story had ended on the cross or in the tomb, that might have been Peter’s motive, once he screwed up the courage to come out from behind his locked doors.  But the resurrection changed everything.

The God of our forebears raised Jesus, upon whom you laid hands in violence, hanging him up on a tree.  This man God exalted to his right hand as leader and savior for the purpose of giving repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel.

God’s resurrection of Jesus, while it indeed vindicated Jesus from the accusations of blasphemy and covenant disobedience heaped upon him, also meant that God was offering the crucified and risen Jesus as a great olive branch to the disobedient nation, inviting them to repent and assuring them of forgiveness if they did.  The apostolic proclamation was not a call for the condemnation of the Jewish leaders but an invitation extended to all the people to reconciliation with God and the gift of God’s Holy Spirit.  Repentance and forgiveness did not merely have in view the city’s recent rejection of Jesus and their leaders’ cooperation with the Roman occupation force to eliminate him. Israel’s experience of foreign domination, essentially since 587 BC, and the scattering of the people throughout the lands of the Gentiles was widely understood to be a consequence of Israel’s historic and persistent disobedience to the covenant as a whole.  By bringing Jesus back from the dead as “Leader and Savior,” God was generously offering Israel a fresh start, setting them “free from all those sins from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses” (Acts 13:39 NRSV), because the sacrificial system instituted by that law included no provisions for willful disobedience. At this stage in the narrative, the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection for Israel’s repentance is alone in view.  God will shortly lead Peter and the whole body of apostles to realize, however, that a similar opportunity for “repentance unto life” was being offered to the Gentiles – the other party involved in the death of the Messiah – as well (Acts 11:18).

The resurrection of Jesus speaks volumes about God’s ability to right wrongs.  The majority of the Sanhedrin and the Roman occupiers committed the quintessential wrong – brutalizing and killing God’s Anointed One.  But as Peter and the other apostles stand there before the Sanhedrin, God has already righted that wrong: God has raised Jesus from the dead, vindicating him from the disgrace of the false charges and degrading death, restoring the life that was taken from him – and then some!  As Jesus’ friends proclaim Jesus in the Temple courts and here stand before the court that handed Jesus over to Pilate, they seek only repentance and reconciliation, not revenge.  God has already reversed the wrong; now it falls to the apostles to reverse only the perceptions of Jesus that led to the wrong.

To what extent has God’s resurrection – God’s vindication – of Jesus penetrated our awareness of God’s ability and commitment to right the wrongs that we’ve suffered and that we’ve seen inflicted, such that we, too, are freed to call perpetrators to repentance and reconciliation (though, indeed, always to repentance as the path to reconciliation) rather than to call down revenge upon them?  If we can imagine extreme wrongs in regard to which we think a summons to repentance inappropriate because the wrong is so great as to be unforgivable, let us not allow those to negate the challenge that the apostles’ example here lays upon us to experience such a transformation in regard – let us be honest – to the vast majority of wrongs that we have ourselves experienced or witnessed.

The impetus for proclaiming this opportunity for repentance to all people comes not only from the past – from God’s resurrection of Jesus from the dead for this purpose – but also from the future that looms before all.  We can count on John the Visionary to bring this to the fore, as he does in this day’s reading from Revelation: “Look! He comes with the clouds, and every eye will see him, and whoever pierced him, and all the tribes of the earth will mourn for him.  Indeed, so shall it be” (Rev 1:7). But Luke does as much in Acts, particularly holding up the resurrection of Jesus from the dead as the assurance of Jesus’ future coming in judgment.  Luke’s Paul declares to an Athenian audience on the Areopagus: “While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31).  Repentance – turning our lives back toward the One God and the grateful and loyal obedience due God – is the path to survival in the face of this future judgment.  It is the means by which that future coming will be experienced as salutary, bringing “times of refreshing … from the presence of the Lord” (Acts 3:19-21 NRSV).  We see incidentally how all three elements of the mystery of faith hang consecutively and consequentially together – not just that “Christ has died” and that “Christ is risen,” but also indeed that “Christ will come again.”

Both Acts and Revelation speak about our primary loyalties during in this interim period.  In our reading from Acts, the apostles declare for the second time their commitment to obey God rather than human beings, where human beings make demands that run counter to the commission given them by God.  Their experience of the resurrected Jesus and the Holy Spirit convinced the apostles that they could know what God required of them better than the Sanhedrin could know, which the latter would have regarded as singularly presumptuous.  Nevertheless, the apostles had to risk making this affront and risk suffering the consequences in order not to offer affront to God by fearing human authorities above God.

Christians would continue to take such a bold stand throughout the ages.  Indeed, as we read about the boldness of those early apostles for whom angels threw open prison doors, we are bound to remember our sisters and brothers throughout the world today for whom prison doors do not open, but who, like the early apostles and their disciples throughout the ages, nevertheless rejoice to be “considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name” (Acts 5:41) and who, also like the early apostles, do not “cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah” (Acts 5:42), holding fast to their profession of faith and their hope in God’s reign and God’s kingdom, securing their citizenship there at the cost of their freedom, their enjoyment of all we take for granted, and often their very lives here.

They can do so, in part, because the resurrection of Jesus has changed everything.  As John described Jesus, he is “the firstborn from among the dead” (Rev 1:5); Jesus’ resurrection is the guarantee of God’s determination to raise with Jesus all who belong to Jesus and follow him in loyal obedience.  They can do so because the resurrection of Jesus is the sure sign that God has appointed him “the ruler of the kings of the earth”; God has determined that “the kingdom of the world” must cede its power and authority to “the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah” (Rev 11:15).  The resurrection of Jesus summons them to obey this higher authority, no matter the cost inflicted by the temporary powers that oppose Christ’s kingdom in the person of his devotees.

Such people are our fellow citizens in that political body to which our first allegiance is also due – the kingdom of God, the people “from every nation and language and tribe and people” redeemed by the blood of the Lamb.  Our commitment to them as they pay the cost of obeying God rather than human beings is one necessary expression of our allegiance to the kingdom of which we are fellow-citizens together.  Their experience of our love and solidarity – to the extent that they experience this – is the confirmation of Jesus’ promise to all those who have left behind “house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news” that they will “receive a hundredfold now in this age” (Mk. 10:29-30 NRSV).

The mystery of faith makes no less robust a claim upon our lives, however, as it does upon the lives of our courageous sisters and brothers advancing Christ’s kingdom and holding loyalty to Jesus dearer than life and liberty in restrictive nations around the world.  On this side of Good Friday and Easter, we cannot give our first and best attentions and efforts to getting along and getting ahead.  On the other side of Christ’s coming again in glory, we will wail for our foolishness if we have done so.  Christ’s death, resurrection, and coming again claim our highest allegiance for the kingdom that we are called to advance in the most mundane of circumstances day after day, giving our first and best attentions and efforts to the work of priestly mediators, connecting human beings in their need to the God who supplies every need, and to the duty of loyal subjects, putting ourselves first and fully at God’s disposal so as to make Christ’s lordship fully a reality in, at the very least, the little space that we occupy every day in this world.

Some contextual reservations about my bishop’s exegesis of James 5:13-16

In a pastoral letter dated March 1, 2019, Bishop Kenneth Carter quotes James 5:13-16, helpfully calling the elders in each congregation – those who are mature leaders – to be attentive to the ways in which we can work toward healing in our congregations and throughout our congregation. This is indeed an important summons. He goes on to write, “James does not call us to identify the sins of one another. He calls us to confess our sins to one another, and to pray for one another, so that we may be healed.” This statement gives me pause. While this is indeed accurate in regard to James 5:13-16, narrowly taken, it does not take into account the paragraph in James that immediately follows:
 
“My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (5:19-20, NRSV).
 
James envisions one disciple helping another disciple see that he or she has wandered from the truth and working to bring that person back to the path of living in holiness and righteousness before God. Indeed, James seems to encourage this kind of risky investment in the life of another person, because the stakes for that other person are so high if he or she “wanders from the truth” (the death of “the sinner’s soul”).
 
If we were to take the whole counsel of James in this chapter, then, we would hear James call us indeed to confess our sins to one another and call us to identify the sins of one another that lurk in our own blind spots or in those areas in which we see to protect the life and practices of the “old person” that we were rather than set those aside on our own to make room for the life and practices of the “new person” that the Holy Spirit would nurture and bring to full maturity within us.
 
In our current context, identifying one another’s sins might be seen as problematic. It gets in the way of our living as we would wish. But in the context of the first-century church, it was far from problematic. Indeed, it was regarded as salutary and necessary. Beyond James 5:19-20, it is a practice demanded of Christian community in Matthew 18:15-20; Galatians 6:1-2; Jude 22-23. (Hebrews 3:12-13 also points in this direction, as the community is called, with second person plural verbs, to “take care lest any one of you be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.”)
 
There are admittedly dangers when we spend so much of our energy in and direct so much of our attention towards identifying the sins of a sister or brother and investing ourselves in restoring them that we neglect self-examination, the recognition and confession of our own sins, and the amendment of our own lives. Paul seems to recognize this himself in Gal 6:1 when he writes, “Brothers and sisters, even if a person is overtaken in any transgression, you all who are Spirit-led are to restore such a person in a spirit of forbearance, each one of you watching yourself lest you also be tempted.” Jesus famously warned concerning imbalance here as well with his remark about specks and logs in the eyes of various parties (Matt 7:3-5), but even there one consequence of attending to the log in one’s own eye is to see clearly to remove the speck in the sister’s or brother’s eye.
 
We are all sinners on the journey of transformation. We all need the Holy Spirit’s illumination and empowerment. We all need to attend to our own progress from the flesh-driven life to the Spirit-led life. And we also need one another to help us see the sin in our blind spots, the sin we protect and refuse to name, the sin that has hardened our conscience by its deceitfulness.

Un entendimiento contextual de la gracia

Hefty thanks to Brian Roden for undertaking this!

(originalmente publicado en David A. deSilva, The Letter to the Galatians [NICNT; Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2018], pp. 254-262. Traducido al español por Brian P. Roden, MATS, con editación por Jeremiah Campbell, DMin)

Pablo desarrolló su teología de la gracia y predicaba acerca del favor generoso de Dios en Cristo en un ambiente socioeconómico muy diferente de la economía mercantil emergente del tiempo de la Reforma o de las economías modernas que han surgido desde entonces. Como resultado, los teólogos están mucho más propensos a hablar de la gracia de Dios en términos de las transacciones comerciales de una sola mano que en términos de las relaciones de reciprocidad, que fue el contexto socioeconómico nativo de Pablo, sus conversos, y sus escritos. Tales teólogos hablan de la gracia de Dios en términos de alguna transferencia de mercancía (salvación, justificación) a un recipiente humano, y allí un final, entendiendo que la acción de Dios de “dar libremente” significa “dado sin ningún costo impuesta al recipiente.” Pablo y sus oyentes hubieran entendido que el “dar libremente” de Dios significaba “sin ninguna fuerza externa forzando el acto de dar,” sin que el recipiente hiciera nada para meter palanca para obtener el regalo. Mientras los oyentes de Pablo habrían entendido que un regalo, para ser un regalo, viene “sin ningún costo,” habrían entendido que no puede ser recibido y retenido “sin ningún costo,” porque recibir algo de gran valor significaba aceptar la obligación de dar algo de gran valor de regreso. Fallar en hacerlo significaría fracturar la relación—y la relación es lo que un acto de gracia busca crear, solidificar, celebrar, o profundizar.

Por lo tanto, entender los escenarios del lenguaje de “gracia” en la vida real del Nuevo Testamento es de gran importancia si el lector entenderá la unión entre  el regalo y la respuesta, la gracia y el discipulado, la teología y la ética de Pablo y en los textos cristianos primitivos a un nivel más general.[1] Individuos situados mejores ayudaban a individuos en puestos menos estratégicos para conseguir lo que necesitaban o deseaban, y recibían honor, lealtad, y apoyo en sus propios empeños en cambio. Los del mismo nivel social se ayudaban entre sí de la misma manera. Ciudadanos ricos prodigaban beneficios sobre sus propias u otras ciudades y fueron dados honores perpetuos por su generosidad. Aldeanos pobres extendían gracia unos a otros en el curso normal de vivir la vida. Séneca observaba que el dar y recibir de tal asistencia mutua era “la práctica que constituye el enlace principal de la sociedad humana” (Sobre los Beneficios 1.4.2). Relaciones de reciprocidad formaban el tejido fundamental de la tela social del mundo grecorromano (incluyendo a sus habitantes judíos).

Resultó que en estas relaciones, y no en el vocabulario especializado de teólogos cristianos, que la palabra “gracia” (griego charis, latín gratia) estaba principalmente en casa. La palabra griega charis transmite un rango semántico que mayormente se conecta con relaciones de reciprocidad. Se usa para referirse a (1) la disposición de mostrar “favor”;[2] (2) el “don” o la “asistencia” dado;[3] (3) la respuesta al favor recibido, por consiguiente “gratitud” o “agradecimiento.”[4] Los tres sentidos básicos de la palabra ya insinúan lo que los poetas grecorromanos y moralistas hicieron explícito: un acto de gracia va de la mano con una respuesta de gratitud.

Uno de los iconos del mundo antiguo—atestiguado no solamente en Italia, sino también en Grecia, Asia Menor, y Cirenaica—fue la imagen de las Tres Gracias, tres diosas danzando mano-en-mano o brazo-sobre-hombro en un círculo. La imagen ejemplificaba el carácter distintivo de las relaciones de gracia. Como Séneca relata,

Hay una la que da los beneficios, otra la que los recibe, y otra la que los retorna. . . . ¿Por qué bailan las hermanas mano en mano en un círculo que se retorna sobre si mismo? Significa el orden con que los beneficios vuelven de las manos de los que los reciben á las de los que los dan; y si éstos se interrumpen en alguna parte, se viene á perder la hermosura del todo, que es bellísimo, mientras en él se conserva la trabazón y se guarda la alternada correspondencia. . . . Son de tierna edad, para que se entienda que la memoria de los beneficios que se reciben nunca se ha de envejecer.. . . . Y píntanlas con vestiduras desceñidas y trasparentes, porque los beneficios se han de dejar ver. (Sobre los Beneficios 1.3.3–5, adaptado de la traducción por Martín Fernández de Navarrete, http://www.ellibrototal.com/ltotal/?t=1&d=6591_6329_1_1_6591)

Esta línea de comentario ético sobre las Tres Gracias extiende por lo menos hasta Aristóteles, quien hablaba de las capillas públicas dedicadas a las Gracias como recordatorios para todos que debían de devolver bondades (Nicomachean Ethics 5.5.7).

Iniciar el baile circular con un regalo fue un asunto de elección por la parte del dador. Para que el regalo fuera un regalo, tenía que ser ofrecido principalmente en el interés del recipiente y no con una vista hacia ganar algún regalo específico devuelta. El dador noble podía esperar que se le diera gratitud,[5] pero él o ella no podía esperar poder influir hacia un retorno particular.[6] La mano que ofrecía el regalo al mismo momento extendía la invitación al baile. Aceptar el regalo, que también es un asunto de elección, significaba aceptar la relación con—y la obligación con—el dador. Si uno elige bailar, uno debe de bailar gallardamente y en paso con su socio.

Un acto de gracia fue un acto social, que naturalmente evocó la buena voluntad de la persona a la cual la gracia fue mostrada, y le puso a la persona que aceptó el regalo o la ayuda bajo obligación.[7] Por lo tanto, Sófocles podía decir que “el favor [charis] da a luz al favor [charin]” (Ajax 522) en un ciclo natural y sin coacción; a la vez, Eurípides podía afirmar que “el favor [charis] se debe por favor [anti charitos]” (Helen 1234). Ofrecer un regalo y aceptar ese regalo hacía más que efectuar el traslado de mercancía; creaba (o continuaba) una relación, un vínculo, que sería sostenida más por regresar el favor por parte del que lo acepta y por actos futuros de favor y regresar favor. Recibir y devolver con gracia implicaba expresar gratitud personalmente y dar testimonio públicamente de la generosidad y virtud del dador, así aumenta su honor.[8] Esta gracia implicaba mostrar lealtad (“fe,” griego pistis, latín fides) al dador, aun cuando tal acción se probaría costoso.[9] Dar y recibir creaban y eran sintomáticos de relación, y es a esta relación que uno tiene que mostrarle fiel. También implicaba buscar la oportunidad rendir regalos o servicios oportunos devuelta.[10] Esta respuesta no “paga” al dador ni “liquida” una deuda; es en sí un acto motivado por el deseo de ser cortés al responder.[11] No lleva un intercambio hacia un final, sino que permite que continúe una relación de gracia y de intercambio continuo.[12]

Para una persona en el Imperio romano del primer siglo—más precisamente, para un recipiente de gracia en el primer siglo—considerar un acto de gracia como una transacción de una sola vía sería inconcebible. Si tal persona lo considerara así y lo dejara así, sería más allá de reprensible. A cambio, un acto de gracia era una foto momentánea dentro de una relación que siempre estaba fluyendo y en marcha—un paso bello en un baile continuo. No se permitía pisar los pies de la pareja. Fallar en mostrar gratitud se consideraba como sumamente deshonroso, el pecado social y ético cardenal en el mundo grecorromano.[13] Podía cambiar el deseo de beneficiar a otros a un deseo para la satisfacción contra un insulto, y públicamente marcar al ingrato como una persona sobre la cual uno no debía de desperdiciar los favores.[14]

El ethos de la reciprocidad (aunque no todas sus formas) permeaba todo nivel de la sociedad, desde el gobierno público hasta el hogar, desde los senadores hasta los campesinos agrarios en las aldeas.[15] Por lo tanto no se sorprende encontrar este carácter reflejado en las cartas de Pablo a sus congregaciones, cuánto más considerando que Pablo mismo hubiera estado ubicado en los niveles medianos o altos de este espectro, y los miembros de sus congregaciones reflejarían una amplia gama de lo mismo.[16] Es particularmente evidente en sus cartas a Filemón (de quien busca ganar un favor de parte de Onésimo) y los Filipenses (quienes él considera como sus amigos en un sentido inclusivo de beneficio mutuo), aunque también surge en su promoción de la colección como un acto de reciprocidad (e.g., Rom. 15:25–27).[17] Tampoco se sorprende encontrar a Pablo compartiendo en la concepción más amplia de lo Divino como el benefactor por excelencia, un concepto compartido entre las culturas grecorromanas y judías, y de los deberes humanos hacia lo Divino como esencialmente motivados, formados, y exigidos por la gratitud.[18]

El problema fundamental de la condición humana es ingratitud hacia Dios. Dios ha dotado a todos los que están con el don de la vida y ha hecho provisión para sostenerlos, pero los seres humanos no devolvieron el honor, la lealtad, y la obediencia que se le debían a Dios, dando estos a cambio a sus ídolos, a sus propias cosas creadas en lugar de darlos al Creador, a pesar de todas la evidencias que debían de haberlos dirigido hacia Dios (Rom 1:18–21, 25; véase también Sabiduría 13:1, 5–9). Como resultado, la ira de Dios—el enojo del benefactor ofendido—flota arriba de las cabezas de la humanidad.[19] Una meta importante de la misión de Pablo es la inversión del comportamiento ingrato y altamente insultante de la población general por negarle a su Creador su debido reconocimiento, a favor de despertarlos a los dones de Dios y las obligaciones recíprocos de los seres humanos (1 Thes 1:9).

Lo sorprendente acerca de Dios y su gracia es el rango del deseo de Dios para beneficiar y de la generosidad de Dios mientras él extiende una invitación nueva para recibir y responder a su don de la vida apropiadamente. En lugar de actuar rápidamente y decisivamente para vengar su honor ofendido, como hubiera sido completamente justificado, Dios se invierte en restaurar la relación que los ingratos habían roto. En lugar de esperar para que los ingratos vuelvan a sus sentidos, Dios toma la iniciativa; en lugar de simplemente ofrecer un regalo más, Dios extiende la muestra más pródiga posible de amor y la entrega de sí mismo. En este aspecto, la gracia de Dios sigue siendo “asombrosa”—pero en rango, no en especie. Otros benefactores ofendidos de vez en cuando han extendido actos adicionales de favor para despertar la gratitud hasta en el suelo del corazón del ingrato,[20] pero Dios ha encarnado el rango más extremo de generosidad y el deseo de beneficiar.

Pablo espera, y sugiere bastante claramente que Dios espera, que este segundo acto de gracia produzca resultados diferentes que los primeros actos de gracia manifestados en la creación y la preservación de la vida. El don de Dios de la vida de su Hijo a favor de los seres humanos es para guiar esos seres humanos hacia vidas cambiadas de tal manera que ya no usen sus cuerpos para multiplicar pecado (afrentas contra el Creador) sino para hacer lo que es justo (de acuerdo con los valores y propósitos del Creador, Rom 6:1–23). La respuesta de la persona redimida a su Redentor lo alineará también con la respuesta justa de lo creado a su Creador, “uno cuya experiencia diaria es formada por el reconocimiento que él (o ella) está en deuda con Dios.”[21] Según Pablo, en verdad somos “deudores”—pero no deudores “a la carne” (Rom 8:12).[22]

Es dentro de este marco de referencia que correctamente escuchamos pasajes como 2 Cor 5:15: “Y él murió por todos, para que los que viven ya no vivan para sí, sino para el que murió por ellos y fue resucitado” (véase también Rom 6:4–5; Gál 2:19–20). El acto de gracia por parte de Dios invita una respuesta que demuestra una evaluación apropiada del valor de su regalo—en este caso, una vida por una vida. Solo una vida dada de regreso demuestra al dador que hemos valorado correctamente su regalo dado para nosotros—su muerte a favor de nosotros.[23] Sin embargo, este mismo dar de vuelta a Dios efectúa la transformación de la vida del creyente que le permite vivir de una manera que ciertamente es justo ante los ojos de Dios, así de una manera llevando a su justificación en el sentido más completo—es decir, justificación como “absolución” como resultado de haber sido “alineado con la justicia de Dios.”

El pecado humano (el fracaso de no vivir una respuesta de gratitud obediente al Creador) fue seguido por más actos generosos de Dios, extendiendo los medios de reconciliación y restauración a una relación de gracia. A este punto, sin embargo, continuar viviendo para los propios propósitos de uno mismo no es una opción: “¿Vamos a persistir en el pecado para que la gracia abunde? 2 ¡De ninguna manera!”(Rom 6:1); “¿Vamos a pecar porque no estamos ya bajo la ley, sino bajo la gracia? ¡De ninguna manera!”(Rom 6:15). Estar “bajo gracia” y haber experimentado en Cristo la liberación de la esclavitud al pecado significa invertirnos completamente en un acto recíproco hacia Dios: “No ofrezcan los miembros de su cuerpo al pecado como instrumentos de injusticia; al contrario, ofrézcanse más bien a Dios como quienes han vuelto de la muerte a la vida, presentando los miembros de su cuerpo como instrumentos de justicia” Rom 6:13). La persona que previamente falló en responder al regalo de la creación por Dios ya se encuentra en virtud de encontrar y recibir el amor de Dios en Cristo, despertado a la gratitud con sus obligaciones y por lo tanto está posicionado para darle a Dios lo que se le debe—actuar con justicia en lugar de la injusticia.[24] “La vida eterna” sigue siendo el don de Dios (Rom 6:23)—pero dada a los cuyas vidas reflejan su recepción de, y respuesta a, su acto benéfico de creación y sus intervenciones redentoras, quienes han puesto sus vidas a la disposición de él en lugar de a la disposición de sus propios impulsos pecaminosos, egoístas, y autogratificantes (Rom 6:20–22).[25]

Pablo también expresa una conciencia, sin embargo, que no responder de una manera que apropiadamente valora la inversión desinteresada de Cristo en el creyente y la eficacia del Espíritu como guía interna y poder contra el pecado pone en peligro el lugar de uno en el favor de Dios. Un regreso a, o abrazando al Torá, se vuelve una afrenta al honor y a la inversión generosa de Él quien obtuvo el Espíritu Santo para sus clientes seguidores (Gál 2:21; 5:1–6). No permitir que el regalo de Dios tenga su completo efecto transformador en la vida y práctica del creyente y de la comunidad creyente pone en peligro el disfrutar de los favores escatológicos de la vida y la bienvenida al reino de Dios (Gál 5:13–14, 19–21; 6:7–9; Rom 8:13–14).[26]

Los críticos de los intentos de leer las discusiones de Pablo acerca de la gracia de Dios contra el fondo de reciprocidad en el mundo grecorromano a veces buscan distinguir la práctica social del dar de Dios a través de señalar que el favor de Dios es tan inmenso que no puede ser devuelto, casi desarrollando el corolario que no tiene sentido que los recipientes del favor de Dios lo consideren como su deber absoluto intentarlo. Moralistas antiguos, sin embargo, conocían bien el caso de un regalo que no puede ser pagado devuelta. Aristóteles parece haber visto a esta como una situación típica.[27] Acerca de ella, Séneca asesora que, aunque el recipiente tal vez nunca ofrezca nada del mismo valor, él o ella puede ofrecerle al benefactor superior algo que le dé un placer igual a través de sus expresiones de gozo y aprecio, compromiso con dar honor al dador, devoción a la relación, y vigilancia para aprovechar cualquier oportunidad para ofrecer a su superior un regalo agradable y hermoso.[28] El acto del dador de favor inigualable enlaza al recipiente irrevocablemente a él o a ella y, en efecto, une las dos partes, lo cual es un propósito subyacente en el dar y retornar de favor. La obligación de gratitud no es una deuda onerosa para ser pagada, sino un deleite para ser contínuamente recordado y respondido como una renovación constante de la relación de favor. Regresando al caso específico del favor inigualable de Dios, es porque el regalo de Dios no puede ser pagado que es transformador. Estamos movidos a dar nuestro todo a cambio, a dejar que la gracia mostrada a nosotros se vuelva el acto iniciador que llama a nuestras respuestas agradecidas siempre de nuevo en cada nueva situación, en cada momento, sin ningún tiempo ni energía libre para ser dados a la “carne” o al “mundo.”

Cualquier expectativa que los seres humanos deben de hacer algo también provoca protestas que la salvación ya no es “solo por la gracia” (una frase que, como “solo por la fe,” Pablo de hecho nunca utiliza) o que reintroduce “ganarse la salvación” o que produce una teología de mérito como opuesta a  la gracia. La distinción de los teólogos entre “gracia libre” y “gracia cooperante” hace una distinción de categoría donde Pablo no hubiera visto ninguna distinción. La gracia, en su mundo, siempre es libre, porque el dar es sin coacción, y también cooperante, porque la gracia tiene que ser recibida con gracia (gratitud, devolución). Mientras los teólogos siguen aferrándose a tales categorías, continuarán en analizar gramáticamente a la gracia de una manera que es extraña a los escritores del Nuevo Testamento, sobre los escritos de quienes tipicamente buscan basar sus teologías.

También es una percepción errónea que el entendimiento de la gracia articulada aquí lleva a la idea de “ganar la salvación.” Pablo lo deja claro que nigún ser human, por el simple hecho de ser una criatura, puede ponerle a Dios en deuda con vista a exigir favores futuros. “¿Quién le ha dado primero a Dios, para que luego Dios le pague?”(Rom 11:35). El razonamiento es revelador: “Porque todas las cosas proceden de él, y existen por él y para él” (11:36), una fórmula obvia acerca de la creación, y así postulando endeudamiento con Dios—específicament, endeudamiento para dar de vuelta a Dios—como el punto de partida para cada ser creado. Sin embargo, Pablo aboga fuertemente por una mentalidad de “yo doy porque tú has dado” (do quia dedisti), la cual es enteramente de acuerdo con las convicciones grecorromanas acerca de la absoluta necesidad de regresar favor por favor, de recipientes de favores respondiendo a sus benefactores y amigos con igual compromiso e inversión. Así, aun mientras uno insiste en la necesidad de responder bien y completamente a la gracia si vamos a permanecer en una relación de gracia, uno no sugiere que me puede ganar la gracia de Dios.

En fin, poner “mérito” y “gracia” en oposición en otra distinción categórica también produce altos problemas. Pablo entiende que una respuesta agradecida tiene mérito, y contribuye a la alimentación continua de la relación de gracia, tal como la ingratitud contribuye a la disolución de la relación (como en Gál 5:2–4), pero la gracia de Dios sigue siendo la fuerza iniciadora, y el recipiente humano siempre permanece en la posición de uno endeudado con Dios. “Mérito,” en otras palabras, existe en el marco de referencia de Pablo, pero no gana a través de endeudarle a Dios. En lugar de considerar a este modelo como un regreso a la “salvación por obras,” yo propondría que se considere como “dejar que la gracia de Dios tengo su efecto completo” en y sobre los recipientes del favor de Dios, donde ese efecto incluye la respuesta de vidas reorientadas que el favor de Dios naturalmente y necesariamente provoca donde es recibido bien. Los actos iniciantes de gracia por parte de Dios provocan la respuesta y determinan la estructura de la respuesta que pone a uno camino a responder justamente a Dios (y así a ser absuelto como justo). Además, como Pablo mismo nunca nos dejará olvidar, es Dios mismo obrando en nosotros, a través del don del Espíritu Santo de Dios, para hacer posible esta misma respuesta que transforma nuestras vidas de injustas a justas en nuestra relación con nuestro Creador Redentor.[29]

También propondría que el modelo por fin permite a discípulos escuchar declaraciones como Gál  2:19–20; 1 Cor 6:19–20; 2 Cor 5:14–15; Rom 6:15–23 y darles su peso total en lugar de silenciar su fuerza a favor de posiciones tradicionales que emergían del período de la Reforma y después. Por lo tanto, donde entendimientos transaccionales de la gracia de Dios (un acto aislado que me transfiere algo irrevocablemente sobre la base de “creer”) triunfan sobre entendimientos dinámicos y relacionales de la gracia, los teólogos torcen fuertemente a Pablo y su mensaje fuera de los contextos sociales, éticos, y vividos en los cuales Pablo se formó y su evangelio fue formulado, predicado, y escuchado.

 

[1] Para una vista general más detallada de la naturaleza y el tipo de relaciones de reciprocidad en el mundo grecorromano, el carácter distintivo encarnado en estas relaciones, y la relevancia de este trasfondo para entender el Nuevo Testamento, véase deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship, & Purity, 95–156. Obras seminales sobre el contexto grecorromano de patrocinio y reciprocidad incluyen Saller, Personal Patronage; Wallace-Hadrill, ed., Patronage in Ancient Society; Gill, Postlethwaite, and Seaford, eds., Reciprocity in Ancient Greece; Griffin, “De Beneficiis and Roman Society.” Estudios explorando la relevancia de este contexto para interpretar el Nuevo Testamento incluyen Danker, Benefactor; Moxnes, “Patron-Client Relations”; deSilva, “Exchanging Favor for Wrath”; “Grace, the Law, and Justification”; Letter to the Hebrews, 95–138; Perseverance in Gratitude, 59–64, 215–48, 474–77; “We Are Debtors”; Joubert, Paul as Benefactor; “Religious Reciprocity in 2 Corinthians 9:6–15”; Harrison, Paul’s Language of Grace; Engberg-Pedersen, “Gift-Giving and Friendship”; Briones, “Thankless Thanks”; Blanton, “Benefactor’s Account-Book”; Mathew, Women in the Greetings; Oropeza, “Expectation of Grace”; and, now, Barclay, Paul and the Gift.

[2] Como en Aristóteles, Retorica 2.7.1 (1385a16–20); LXX Gen 6:8; 18:3; LXX Exod 33:13; LXX Prov 3:34; 22:1; Lucas 1:30; Rom 5:15, 17; Heb 4:16; Sant 4:6.

[3] LXX Ester 6:3; Sir 3:31; Sabid 3:14; 8:21; 4 Macc 5:9; 11:12; Rom 12:3, 6; Heb 12:15; 1 Ped 1:10, 13; 3:7; 4:10; 5:15.

[4] Evidente en Demosthenes, De Corona 131; 2 Macc 3:33; 3 Macc 1:9; Lucas 17:9; Rom 6:17; 7:25; 1 Cor 10:30; 2 Cor 8:16; 9:15; 1 Tim 1:12; 2 Tim 1:3; Heb 12:28. Acerca de la versatilidad de χάρις, véase Harrison, Paul’s Language of Grace, 51, 179–83; BDAG 1079–81.

[5] Isocrates, A Demonicus 29; Séneca, Sobre los Beneficios 4.10.4; Sir 12:1.

[6] Aristóteles, Retorica 1385a35–b3; Séneca, Sobre los Beneficios 3.15.4.

[7] Séneca, Sobre los Beneficios 5.11.5.

[8] Aristóteles, Ética Nicomaquea 8.14.2 (1163b1–5); Séneca, Sobre los Beneficios 2.22.1; 2.23.1; 2.24.4; Sal 116:12; Tob 12:6–7.

[9] Séneca, Epístolas 81.27; Sobre los Beneficios 4.20.2; 4.24.2.

[10] Séneca, Sobre los Beneficios 2.33.3; 2.35.1; 6.41.1–2.

[11] Séneca, Ensayos Morales 81.9–10.

[12] Véase a Séneca, Sobre los Beneficios 2.18.5. Engberg-Pedersen (“Gift-Giving and Friendship,” 20) capta bien esta dinámica: “La actitud emocional mutua y relación entre dador y receptor…definieron el elemento del regalo en aquellos actos. A través de dar, aceptar, y devolver beneficios entre unos y otros, dador y receptor establecen, respaldan, y dan expresión a un involucramiento personal uno con el otro que genera un ambiente de compartir y de comunidad dentro del cual ellos pueden vivir.”

[13] Séneca, Sobre los Beneficios 1.4.4; 3.1.1; Dio Chrysostom, Discursos 31.37.

[14] Aristótoles, Retorica 2.2.8; Séneca, Sobre los Beneficios 4.18.1; a la inversa, Sir 3:31; Séneca, Sobre los Beneficios 1.10.5; Isocrates, A Demónicus 24, 29; Dio Chrysostom, Discursos 31.7.

[15] Harrison, Paul’s Language of Grace, 64–95; Peter Garnsey and Greg Woolf, “Patronage of the Rural Poor in the Roman World,” 153–70 in Patronage in Ancient Society, ed Wallace-Hadrill; deSilva, Honor, 99–100; Hesiod, Works and Days 342–51; 401–4.

[16] Sobre la diversidad en nivel social dentro de una congregación Paulina, véase Theissen, Social Setting, 69–119; Meeks, First Urban Christians, 51–73; Holmberg, Sociology and the New Testament, 21–76.

[17] Véase deSilva, Honor, 123–26; “We Are Debtors,” 161–65.

[18] Se afirma comúnmente que, cuando aplicado a la relación de los seres humanos con los dioses, el carácter distintivo de reciprocidad funcionaba sobre el principio de do ut des, “Yo doy para que tú puedas dar.” Es importante notar que adoradores tantos judíos como grecorromanos dan testimonio frecuente al principio de do quia dedisti, “Yo doy porque I give because you have given.” Véase Aristótoles, Ética Nicomaquea 8.14.4 (1163b16–18); Séneca, Sobre los Beneficios 1.1.9; 2.30.1–2; 4.26.1; 4.28.1; Sal 116:12–19. Para otras expresiones judías de la relación divina-humana en términos de beneficio y gratitud, véase Éxod 20:2–3; Deut 5:6–7; Num 18:9; Filón, Sobre Plantar 126–31; Embajada 118; Sobre la Creación del Mundo 169.

[19] Véase también 4 Esdras 7.20–25, 37; 8.59–60; 9.18–20; deSilva, “Paul and 4 Ezra,” 27–33.

[20] Véase Séneca, Sobre los Beneficios 7.31.1–7.32.1. Séneca también sabe que los dioses dan sus regalos del sol y la lluvia a los dignos e indignos por igual (4.26.1, 4.28.1), proveyendo un ejemplo a los benefactores humanos de la nobleza (7.32).

[21] Dunn, Romans 1–8, 59; véase también Engberg-Pedersen, “Gift-Giving and Friendship,” 41; Oropeza, “Expectation of Grace,” 220.

[22] Jewett, Romans, 493. Véase también Furnish, Theology and Ethics, 226: “La demanda de Dios se considera por el apóstol como una parte constitutiva del regalo de Dios. El concepto Paulino de la gracia incluye el concepto Paulino de la obediencia.” Barclay (Obeying the Truth, 214) similarmente afirma que el don del Espíritu “implica tanto don como obligación.” La cláusula completa en Rom 8:12 con frecuencia es mal traducida, particularmente en traducciones marcadamente conservadoras, como “No estamos endeudados a la carne” (traducciones en inglés HCSB, GW, TLB, NLT). Sin embargo, es traducida con más precisión (note la posición del adverbio negativo: ὀφειλέται ἐσμὲν οὐ τῇ σαρκὶ), “estamos endeudados, no a la carne” (como en las traducciones en inglés KJV, RSV, NRSV, ESV, GNT). La NVI es particularmente fuerte: “tenemos una obligación, pero no es la de vivir conforme a la naturaleza pecaminosa” (similarmente, CEB).

[23] Así,  correctamente, Barrett, Second Epistle, 169; Furnish, Second Corinthians, 328. Pablo no tiene miedo de poner la obligación de sus conversos aún menos delicadamente cuando se están portando menos que gentilmente: “fueron comprados por un precio; por tanto, honren con su cuerpo a Dios.” (1 Cor. 6:20). La redención fue un acto de generosa amabilidad—de gracia—pero siendo rescatados conlleva obligaciones hacia el redentor, si apreciamos la libertad que fue comprada para nosotros.

[24] Jewett, Romans, 412; véase también el análisis de la metáfora de Pablo de los cristianos como beneficiarios obligados en Rom 6:12–23 en Harrison, Paul’s Language of Grace, 234–42.

[25] Donfried, “Justification and Last Judgment,” 97, 99.

[26] Donfried, “Justification and Last Judgment,” 99: “Un papel negativo que el juicio final jugará es la retención del don final de la salvación de aquellos cristianos bautizados quienes haya sidos desobedientes.”

[27] Aristóteles, Ética Nicomaquea 8.14.2 (1163b1–5).

[28] Séneca, Sobre los Beneficios 2.24.4; 2.30.2; 5.3.3; 5.4.1; 7.14.4, 6.

[29] Véase Gál 3:2–5; 5:16–25; Fili 2:12–13; Rom 8:4, 9–11. Comp Käsemann (“Righteousness of God,” 170) formuló tan precisamente, “Pablo no conoce ningún reglao de Dios que no transmite tanto la obligación como la capacidad para servir.”

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.

 

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.

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?