Jesus Christ, Investment Planner

A sermon on Luke 12:13-21, 32-34; 2 Cor 9:6-15, delivered at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church

David deSilva

 

We’re looking at a crowded restaurant, listening to the din of conversations rising up from every table.  We happen to catch one distinct line from one of the tables: “well, my broker is E. F. Hutton, and E. F. Hutton says….” And suddenly the room falls into complete silence as no one is interested in their own conversations any more so much as interested to hear what tip will be reported as having fallen from the lips of E. F. Hutton.

What about when Jesus speaks about investment strategies?  Do we believe that we’re about to hear a profoundly profitable tip from him?

“Don’t be afraid, little flock, because your Father is very happy to give you the Kingdom.  Sell your possessions and give to those in need; provide money-bags for yourself that won’t wear out, an inexhaustible treasure in the heavens where a thief doesn’t encroach and a moth-worm doesn’t devour.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will also be.”

The investment strategies of our commercial banking industry and our capitalist economy are all about laying up for ourselves treasure on earth.  Every investment planner with a shingle out there will help you lay up your treasure on earth wisely, to diversify your portfolio so as to achieve the right balance of risk and return for your stage of life with a view to preserving capital while gaining sufficient dividends and income to keep you in the lifestyle to which you’ve become accustomed.  Of course we need “enough” to raise our families and get our children launched; of course we need “enough” to remain self-sufficient to the extent possible.  But let’s be honest.  We – especially here in America – have a problem defining “enough.”  There are strong forces at work all around us trying to make an excess seem insufficient and leave us wanting even more.

That’s where we find the “hero” of Jesus’ parable.  He’s a landowner who has apparently managed his estate well and whose crops have done well over the years.  He gets to the point where the storage facilities that he once built, anticipating that they would be big enough, aren’t big enough any more for all his assets.  His response is to build even bigger storage bins to store the excess, and to think only of how great the rest of his life is going to be with all those assets upon which to draw.  It actually sounds enviable.  Heck, it could have the makings for a good slogan for an investment company – “Gulf Shores Capital Investments.  You’re going to need bigger barns.”  But then God shows up, and the man’s real poverty is exposed.  “You did very well for yourself.  You were living the dream.  But now that’s all over and you’re standing before me.  What do you have now?”

A lot of Christians hear Scriptures like these (and perhaps sermons like this one) begrudgingly as if Jesus is trying to make us make ourselves poorer.  But that’s not the case at all. Jesus is trying to teach us how to make ourselves richer, and to make ourselves richer forever.  There is wealth that we can take with us.  The trick is that we have to make this kind of wealth before we go.  We have to believe enough in “forever” to invest for “forever.”

There is a wonderfully edifying second-century Christian text that almost nobody reads anymore.  It’s called the Shepherd of Hermas and, among other things, it contains what is perhaps our earliest surviving homily on the Gospel lesson we heard read today.

“You know that you who are servants of God are living in a foreign country, for your city is far from this city.  If, then, you know in what city you are destined to live, why are you furnishing for yourselves plots of land and piles of stuff and buildings and empty rooms here? … So exercise prudence.  As a person residing in a foreign country, do not furnish yourself with one thing more than is necessary to be self-sufficient.  Instead of buying acreage here, ransom lives that are in distress; look after the vulnerable and don’t neglect them.  Spend your wealth and possessions, which you’ve received from God anyway, on goods of this kind, which you will find in your own city when you go home to it…. Don’t practice the same kind of extravagant spending as the unbelievers, but practice your distinctive kind of extravagance, which will bring you joy forever.” (Similitude 1, my paraphrase)

The people whose lives we have touched for the better, personally or from a great distance, constitute our treasure in heaven.  The people whose lives we have rescued from or supported in the midst of distress, whose hearts have been opened to God and God’s salvation by our outreach, whose needs we have shouldered as our own so as to help them carry their burdens – we will find these people again on the other side of death, and the love that we expressed for them here, the relief that we brought them here, the spiritual nurture and growth that we facilitated for them here will make of them our treasure in heaven forever.

So Jesus is calling us in to his brokerage office this morning and wants to ask of us: Do you need to diversify your investment portfolio?  Are you positioned too strongly in short-term investments, that is to say, investments that will pay off on this side of death?  Have you taken adequate thought for your long-term needs and invested accordingly, so that you can enjoy a rich lifestyle for the eternity on the other side of death?  Is some reallocation of assets in order?

Jesus keeps calling our attention to good investment opportunities, inviting us to invest in the kingdom of God, to get behind ventures that seek to facilitate the kingdom’s breaking in and becoming real here in this world, so that when we leave this country in which we are merely sojourners and resident aliens, and enter our eternal homeland, we will find and enjoy the fruits of those assets we have invested into the kingdom, the rewards of the time and labor we have committed to the kingdom, the well-deserved rest that follows the energies we have expended for the kingdom.

So, of course, I’m talking, in part at least, about the ministries of this church and our support of the same with, as our membership vows put it, “our prayers, our presence, our gifts, and our service.”  And I’m, without embarrassment, talking this morning chiefly about our gifts.  Supporting the ministries of this church is one instrument in a solid investment strategy for eternity.  We offer a somewhat diversified portfolio here – we’re a kind of “balanced assets” mutual fund for the kingdom.

You’re investing in your own growth as a disciple and in the growth that we are all potentially experiencing here together.  What you give makes it possible also for others to experience (hopefully) well-crafted and impactful worship, education in the faith, meaningful connections with other Christians that create a network of holy and loving support for your own perseverance in faith to the end.  You invest in the faith formation of our children and youth, whose lives have the potential to be set on a strong foundation for this life and for eternity because of this work.  You invest in the work of missionaries in foreign lands, in the kingdom fruit of whose missions you have a share.  You engage in missions and relief efforts yourself and support the mission and relief work of others.  You invest in the much larger mission of the United Methodist Church globally through our church’s apportionments, which, while of course supporting the administrative structures of the UMC, also support the positive kingdom work of those structures as well as a variety of denominational outreach and relief efforts. And we do need to make sure that everything given to support this church is responsibly used to create kingdom dividends.  And when we’re not, we expect you, the shareholders, to point out those areas where an audit is in order with a view to maximizing kingdom impact.

But I’m not just talking about investing here.  As I said, we’re a good “balanced assets” kingdom fund. But you might also need some good kingdom “growth funds” in your ERA – your “eternal retirement account.” Are there front-line ministries toward which God would direct your attention and some part of the resources that he’s entrusted to you?  Perhaps those specialized organizations that seek to bring resources and aid to persecuted Christians and the surviving families of martyrs throughout Asia and Africa, so that they know the support, love, and encouragement of the global family of God and can persevere in their costly witness?  Perhaps those organizations dedicated to making the Scriptures freely available to people throughout the world in their own languages, so that the Holy Spirit can do in their lives what the Spirit does in ours when we engage God’s word?  Perhaps those relief agencies that work diligently and responsibly to secure a sustainable life for entire villages, or to provide timely relief from starvation or disease? Perhaps those ministries that work with at-risk youth in our cities, or nurture faith and discipleship on college campuses?  Perhaps scholarship funds that support the training of a new generation of pastors, missionaries, and theological educators?

You might also consider if you should invest in some individual kingdom stocks for your portfolio as well.  Is there a single-parent family that could stand to be informally adopted, both for the relief of a working parent and for the care, nurture, and sound guidance of his or her children?  Is there a particular Christian family or community in an under-resourced or even hostile area of the globe, with which you are called to partner?

Our second-century pastor urges us: “Spend your wealth and possessions, which you’ve received from God anyway, on goods of this kind, which you will find in your own city when you go home to it…. Don’t practice the same kind of extravagant spending as the unbelievers, but practice your distinctive kind of extravagance, which will bring you joy forever.” Rightly interpreting Jesus’s advice, he calls us to invest adequately in people, with whom our relationships will therefore outlast our deaths, whom we will enjoy forever in the communion of saints.  Ultimately, we are talking about genuinely and fully loving our neighbors as ourselves, and doing so with a view to accomplishing in their lives what God deeply wishes to see accomplished – or even to accomplishing in God’s name what they themselves are praying to God to accomplish for them.

As we leave Jesus’ brokerage firm, his receptionist Paul throws two good words our way.  First, he says, remember this: “The one who throws only a little into these investments will only enjoy a small return, but the one who invests heavily in these ventures will have a whopping return” (you can probably tell that I’m taking some liberties with the translation).  “But you can invest whatever you decide to invest – it’s up to you; no one’s putting a gun to your head.  For God loves the cheerful investor” (2 Cor 9:6-7).  In some stewardship campaigns, I’ve heard people talk about tithing, asserting that, according to the Scriptures, ten percent of our income belongs to God, pushing the congregation to keep bumping up their giving closer to ten percent.  It would be fabulous to see this congregation tithe.  This church would be flush with funds and would have to begin seriously considering what new outreaches and ministries we would need to add, what new missionaries we would need to support, what new relief efforts we would need to undertake in order to spend the income.  The expenses of running this place would not increase; only our ability to have a kingdom impact would increase.

But … I don’t see Jesus or Paul in these texts we’ve heard today pushing us to tithe.  I’ve simply heard both, in different ways, asking us if we’re using our temporary wealth intelligently with a view to what will make us rich before God, what will accrue eternal dividends because those dividends will be with us forever.  I see both of them simply holding out an investment opportunity before us, urging us to make the most of it.  (The unavoidable flip side of this is that, if we don’t seriously consider these investment opportunities, we will, in some fashion that we simply cannot envision precisely but that should nevertheless give us pause, be without those dividends forever.)  I personally trust the Holy Spirit and each one of you to work out the right level of investment and how the whole portfolio needs to be put together to maximize your kingdom impact.

A second thing Paul shoots at us on our way out is this: “God is able to make all favor abound to you in order that, having enough for your needs, you may abound in every good work” (2 Cor 9:8).  Paul makes us ask: Does God bring resources our way to bless us (so that we enjoy its temporary benefits), or to empower us to bless others (so that we enjoy its eternal benefits)?  And there’s yet another layer to this.  The financial resources that we’re talking about have value to us only as long as we are alive or this world lasts, but God has made it possible for us to use this money now, before it becomes valueless, to purchase what will be of eternal value to us.  If you know that a particular government is going down, does it make better sense to hold onto its currency or work out some exchange before it’s too late?  We’ve all heard the exclamation, “Hold onto your confederate money! The South will rise again!” No, I think those people who started exchanging their confederate money in 1863 or 1864 for commodities that would still have value on the other side of the Confederacy’s fall were the wise ones.  And Jesus doesn’t want us to find ourselves standing before him at the Last Judgment essentially holding bags of confederate money.  He wants us surrounded by the commodities of eternal value for which we’ve exchanged the currency of this world and its kingdoms.

When you get to heaven – and I’m not talking about buying or earning your way in, but Jesus’s language should make us think about what it’s going to be like for us on the other side of getting in – do you want to be surrounded by all the good you haven’t done?  For eternity? Or will you want to be surrounded by all the good to which you have contributed – in which you have invested – as fully as possible?  Maybe, when Jesus, our investment planner, speaks, maybe we should listen.

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“God’s Bottom-Line Performance Metrics”

A sermon on Galatians 5:16-25 preached at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church, October 8, 2017.

16Make it a habit to walk by the Spirit and you will certainly not fulfill what the flesh desires. 17For the flesh yearns against what the Spirit desires, and the Spirit against what the flesh desires, for these stand opposed to one another in order that you may not do whatever you might want. 18But if you are being led by Spirit, you are not under Torah. 19And the works born of the flesh are clearly evident: sexual immorality, impurity, shameless debauchery, 20idolatry, drug-induced spells, displays of enmity, strife, fanaticism, angry outbursts, self-promoting acts, dissensions, factions, 21acts born of envy, drunken bouts, gluttonous parties, and other things like these. 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. 22But the fruit produced by the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23forbearance, self-control. Against such things there is no law.24 And those who are Christ’s own crucified the flesh along with its passions and desires. 25If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep falling in step with the Spirit. (my translation)

 

Metrics.  Every organization, it seems, has them now.  No, I’m not talking about kilometers, kilograms, liters, and degrees centigrade.  We tried all that here in America in the late 70’s and it never really caught on.  I’m talking about the numbers that fill in the blanks of reports, the numbers that are used to assess performance, effectiveness, profitability, and other indicators of corporate functioning.  Even Ashland Theological Seminary, in compliance with the Department of Education, has gone far in the direction of creating metrics.  We come up with percentages of students attaining this or that learning outcome, with measurements of student satisfaction, with measurements of graduation and employment rates, all for the sake of giving a snapshot of our performance to accrediting agencies and to prove that we are doing some kind of assessment to ensure the quality and effectiveness of our educational programs.

October is the month in which many United Methodist churches, including our own, hold their “charge conferences,” and those who prepare the reports for these meetings, which are then submitted to the district office and eventually trickle into the annual conference database, know how important metrics are in our denomination.  We list average attendances, annual giving, percentages of apportionments met, numbers of new members, numbers of baptisms, average weekly participation in a variety of ministries, and so forth.  These measurements, these metrics, provide some hard data for assessing the performance and effectiveness of a given congregation.

But they don’t touch on (in any direct way at least) another set of measurements, of metrics, that seem to matter even more for how God would assess the performance and effectiveness of a congregation and of each of that congregation’s individual disciples.  Paul gives us one expression of these divine metrics in the reading we heard this morning:

“The works born of the flesh are immediately obvious: 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.” (Gal 5:19-21)

“The fruit produced by the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, forbearance, self-control.” (Gal 5:22-23)

What is of paramount importance to God – so Paul seems to think – is whether our behavior, whether in private or in public, in our homes or congregations or work places, shows that the “flesh” is driving us or that the “Spirit” is driving us, that we are giving mastery of ourselves over to the “flesh” or to the “Spirit.”

I suggest that these metrics are more important than the numerical ones that we will fixate upon in preparation for charge conference, because the United Methodist Book of Discipline announces no penalties or promises for congregations that fall on one or the other side of the conference’s measurements like the ones we hear about from Paul in Galatians: with regard to the outcomes of flesh-driven behavior, “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” (Gal 5:21); or, with regard to both flesh-driven and Spirit-driven practice, “The harvest for those who continue to sow to their flesh will be the rottenness of the grave, but for those who continue to sow to the Spirit, the harvest will be eternal life.” (Gal 6:8).

Now, by “flesh” Paul does not mean the meat that clings to our bones.  Paul uses this word to name the bundle of self-centered, self-serving impulses and drives that keep us falling short of God’s vision for us as God’s new creation – God’s vision for us as individuals and as a community of faith.  The “flesh” is the “old person,” the person we once were, from whom Christ died to save us, reasserting itself, trying to stop the new creation from coming about in us because that new creation means the death of the old creature.  It is the Ego with a capital “E,” trying to establish itself again on the throne of our lives, because it doesn’t want to be denied and it doesn’t want to die.  And Paul gives us clear metrics here.  We know that the “flesh” is driving us – and that we are sowing to the “flesh,” when we see its works in us and among us.  And these works are, as Paul says, obvious indeed when they show up: “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.”

Now I’ve been a part of this congregation long enough to know that not many of you are “party animals,” such that we tend not to manifest “drunken bouts” or “gluttonous parties.”  But we are hardly free from strife, dissension, angry outbursts, trying to get our own way and getting in a tiff when we don’t.  We’re not entirely free of sexual immorality and, statistics alone would tell us, of an array of addictions.  These – and all such like things – are warning signs to us, whether in our lives individually or in our life together, that we are sowing to the “flesh” – and are making ourselves once again liable to its harvest, the rottenness of the grave.  Because if we’re going to keep choosing to live the life of the old person, the unredeemed person, that’s where we will end up and where all that is us will end.

The alternative to dredging up these flesh-driven works is to yield ourselves over to the Spirit, to become soil that is continuously cultivated by the Spirit such that the Spirit can produce its fruit in and among us.  By “Spirit,” Paul is not talking about our rational or better self, but the Holy Other who is wholly other – the Spirit of God, the Spirit of God’s Son, who has invaded us in our baptism and seeks to pervade us in every situation, so that we are both driven and empowered by this Spirit to do and to become what is righteous and beautiful in God’s sight.

The Spirit is too often treated as the third wheel in the Trinity.  When we say the Apostles’ Creed together, we recite four lines about the Father, nine or ten lines about the Son, and one line about the Spirit.  This doesn’t begin to reflect the Holy Spirit’s importance.  Let’s just consider what Paul has to say about the Spirit in the one short letter from which today’s reading comes.

“Christ redeemed us from the curse pronounced by the Law by becoming accursed on our behalf … in order that the promise God made to Abraham might come to the nations in Christ Jesus, that is, in order that we might receive the promised Spirit by faith.” (3:13-14)

“Because you are sons and daughters, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying ‘Abba, Father!’  The result is that you’re no longer a slave, but a child.” (4:6-7)

“By means of the Spirit and on the basis of trusting, we are eagerly looking for the righteousness for which we hope.” (5:5)

Paul seems to think that Christ died, among other goals, specifically to secure for us this promised gift – the Holy Spirit – to dwell within and among us.  Paul seems to think that, if we have any sense at all that God has loved us and taken us into God’s own family, this is the work of that same Spirit within us, assuring us and allowing us to call upon God as Father.  Paul also seems to think that this gift of the Spirit is intended to get us from where we started out in our self-centered, self-serving unirghteousness to that place of being righteous, that place in which we hope to be found at the end of this journey when we stand before the God and Judge of all. And if I have one prayer for this congregation and each person in it, it is this: that each one of us, and all of us together, will grow in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit – the sensitivity to being aware of the Spirit’s presence, the ability to know the Spirit’s restraint and the Spirit’s incitement, the discipline to get in step with the Spirit more and more.

Paul introduces today’s reading with a marvelous promise: “Keep walking in line with and in the power of the Spirit, and there’s no way that you’ll bring what the flesh craves into being” (Gal 5:16).  Christ did not die on our behalf to leave us caught between two opposite but equal powers, to be torn and vacillating between the two.  Christ died on our behalf to gain for us that divine power that could break the hold of the flesh over us and over our interactions together.  God has put it within our grasp to live out there – and to live with one another in here, even in our committee meetings! – in such a manner as consistently manifests the fruit of the Spirit, such that we continue to allow God to clothe us with love, joy, peaceful relationships, patience, generosity towards others, goodness, steadfast reliability, forbearance, and self-control.  If we all together seek the leading of the Holy Spirit for whatever ministry, committee, or group of which we are a part here – the leading of the Holy Spirit, not the leading of our own inner sense of what needs to happen and our frustration, then impatience, then anger with the other people here who get in our way – the outcome must be that we will proceed in all things together harmoniously.

What is required of us to attain this?  First, I suppose, we have to buy into Paul’s metrics and into his claim that God cares, perhaps first and foremost, whether we are taking hold of the new life his Spirit makes possible or continuing to indulge our old person in spite of Christ’s death to save us from that person and its destiny.  Second, we need to commit ourselves – daily, even hourly – to “keep walking in line with the Spirit,” to maintain vigilance over our own impulses so that, when we recognize the impulses of the “flesh,” we can turn immediately to the Spirit for timely help and power to squelch those impulses and fall in step instead with the Spirit’s better direction.  In this manner, it requires diligent and disciplined dying – identifying, denying, and dying to those self-centered drives, those self-protective impulses, those flesh-feeding urges that keep churning up the mucky works of the flesh.  Conversely, it requires regularly re-orienting ourselves so that we seek the Spirit’s leading in situation after situation until the Spirit-born impulses become our first impulses.

Epictetus was born around the same time that Paul wrote Galatians.  He was born a slave but became one of the most influential Stoic philosophers of the Roman period. He taught those who wanted to attain the Stoic ideal for themselves – that inner freedom from external stimuli that allowed them to remain in control of themselves, possessed of virtue, and unperturbed in mind – that this was possible if they would just train themselves to keep that goal ever before them.

“When you go into the market, don’t think only that you want to get the good fish or vegetables before they’re gone, but also that you want to remain possessed of virtue.  When you go into the council chamber, don’t think only that you want to persuade the council to vote one way or another, but also that you want to maintain your self-control.  When you go to the public baths, don’t think only that you want to enjoy a restful time and get a good massage, but also that you want to remain unperturbed in mind.  That way, when you get to the market and rude people push in ahead of you or grab the choice fish out from under you, you will not be dragged into becoming rude yourself, but will remember – ‘I didn’t just come here to get fish or vegetables, but to keep my virtue intact.’  When you get into the council chamber and angry men oppose your proposal and call you foolish, you won’t get riled up to respond in kind, but will remember – ‘I didn’t just come here to win a debate, but also to maintain my self-control.’ When you get to the bathhouse and a more rowdy bunch spoils your rest with splashing and raucous banter, you will remember, ‘I didn’t just come here for a restful massage, but also to remain unperturbed in mind.’  The first of each pair of goals is always vulnerable to being foiled; the second goal of each pair, is in no one’s power to foil but your own.”

We can learn a lot from Epictetus’s advice, with this important change: our second goal, really our underlying and indispensable goal, in every situation is this – that we will keep in step with the Spirit in every situation, and not give ourselves over to what the “flesh” might impel us to do.  I would urge us to be especially attentive to this in our work, our activities, our ministries together as a congregation.  The ugly stereotype of a church these days is that it is a place marked by “displays of enmity, strife, angry outbursts, self-promoting acts, dissensions, factions” – all flesh-driven works.   Let’s be vigilant to banish all of these from every corner of our church by giving none of them so much as a corner within ourselves.  The beauty of the alternative is irresistible – a community characterized by “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, forbearance, self-control” – a Spirit-shaped culture.   These are God’s metrics, and he has supplied us, in his Spirit, with all that we need to measure up.

 

 

 

Address at Graduation Dinner, Colombo Theological Seminary

I forgot that I had a blog.  Truly.  Slipped my mind completely for like a year.  I was cleaning out some old files on my computer and came across this address I gave back in July 2013.  As I love CTS and its faculty/administration, and as other graduation events are coming up such that this might serve someone’s reflections on that milestone, I post it here.

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Your graduation from Colombo Theological Seminary is a milestone. We certainly deserve, and need, to celebrate this milestone.  It has been reached only with great effort, investment, and commitment.

And this graduation is not just about you. I think of the extraordinary commitment shown to your formation, and investment made in your lives, by the faculty, administration, and staff of CTS. In so many ways they have poured themselves into you, and poured themselves out for you. And I know their ministry on your behalf is an acceptable libation poured over your own offering of yourselves to God during your time here. They have such love for you, such passion for equipping you, such responsiveness to God in doing what they do here to fulfill the mission of CTS.

But, of course, the seed they have sown would have come to nothing if you yourselves were not such fruitful soil, if you were not ready to embrace what your instructors have taught, to wrestle with them about its implications for your lives and ministries, and to wrestle with God in prayer as he used your time here to shape and equip you for his kingdom work. So tonight and, even more so this coming Saturday, you justifiably celebrate the foundation that the work you and your instructors have undertaken here together have given you for the remainder of the journey.

This is an important milestone, certainly, but not a finish line – and the Christian life is one of always looking ahead, and not looking behind. It is always about what God is doing in us and through us, not about what God has done, or what we have achieved that has brought us to this point. So I thought it would be good for us to think tonight about your successful completion of your program at CTS in light of Paul’s comments about his own orientation to the Christian journey: “I count everything a ‘loss’ in order that I may know him and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings by conforming myself to the likeness of his death, if somehow I might attain to the resurrection from the dead. Not as if I had already taken hold of this or arrived at the goal, but I press on, if only I might grasp that for which Christ Jesus grasped me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself to have grasped this yet.  One thing, though – forgetting the things that lie behind me and reaching forward to what lies in front of me, I press on unto the prize of the upward invitation that God extended in Christ Jesus.  Let as many of us as have come to a mature mindset think in this way – and if anyone thinks differently, God will reveal this to him or her as well.  Only let us walk in line with whatever we have attained” (Philippians 3:8, 10-16).

Even while we celebrate the milestone, Paul would have us turn our minds to pressing on to the finish line. I do hope that the phrase “forgetting what lies behind” will not actually apply in this particular case. You and your instructors have put far too much into your experience at CTS for you to allow that to happen. But Paul’s approach reminds us that we are not done learning as of tonight, or as of Saturday. Paul himself continued to learn more and more of the height, depth, and breadth of God’s love shown in Christ; he continued to learn more and more of the connections between the revelation of God in Christ and the witness of the Scriptures; he continued to learn new missionary and pastoral strategies as he encountered new opportunities and new challenges in his ministry. So he would urge you to press on, learning throughout a lifetime.

As you have carved out significant time for your studies at CTS up to this point, continue to carve out time in the future for refreshment in learning, for going beyond even what you have attained to this point. As your equipping expands, so will your effectiveness in ministry. Your experience at CTS has also shaped you as a disciple, touching not just your mind but also your heart and your spirit.

Whatever intentionality your time at CTS has brought to your formation as a disciple, Paul would urge you to continue to show the same and even greater intentionality in your ongoing formational journey. Christ is taking shape in you; it is vitally important that this process not stop short of the goal – that we should indeed be transformed fully such that we can say, with Paul, “it is no longer me living, but Christ is living in me.”

The words that we heard from Paul were spoken in the midst of a fruitful ministry as well. If anyone had reason to sit on his laurels, it was Paul – first as an advanced disciple of the Torah before his conversion, then as one of the most successful missionaries the world has ever seen after his conversion. But even after he had planted churches from Syria to Asia Minor to Macedonia to Greece, he kept his eyes fixed on what God called him to do next, so that he might fully run his course. So Paul would urge you also to keep your eyes looking forward to the “good works” that God has yet prepared for each of you to walk in – running the course of your ministry, your service for the kingdom.

It seems appropriate to say a word about “the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings” and “the power of Christ’s resurrection.” First, notice how Paul actually lists the power of Christ’s resurrection first, setting the sufferings in the context of Christ’s triumph over the power of death and all that opposes God’s good purposes for God’s creation. Here in Sri Lanka, walking in line with God’s call may lead to the experience of hardship and hostility. It may take you into places of disappointment and discouragement. When this happens, remember whom you serve. Remember how he has triumphed and promises triumph to those who also know the fellowship of his sufferings. Let this embolden you just as it emboldened Paul to move forward in obedience to God, whether you enjoy favor with your neighbors and see your work bearing fruit, or whether the opposite is the case.

When writing to the Corinthian Christians, Paul compared his own discipline in making progress in Christian formation to the discipline of athletes training for sporting competitions:  “Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath” – a wreath woven from the branches of certain trees – “but we an imperishable one” – the crown of eternal life.

We could easily adapt his analogy to our own training in preparation for ministry. You have put forth as much effort here as anyone in any academic program across the country.  They do it to receive a paper diploma and worldly credentials. But we do it to be better equipped to serve our Lord, to be formed more fully after his likeness, to enjoy a far greater graduation dinner – the Marriage Feast of the Lamb, and to walk in a far greater “graduation” ceremony.

It is my prayer for every one of us gathered here that we will be able to say, at the end of our course, what Paul said: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” You have not invested yourself here only to be greeted by our principal with a warm smile and the right hand of fellowship and to receive a diploma. Rather, your work here is part of your training for the whole course you will run for the sake of being greeted by Christ’s smile of approval and warm embrace, and for the sake of hearing the words “Well done, good and faithful servant; enter into your Master’s joy.”

But we are not here only to look forward. We do need to return to celebrate what we have attained, which brings me to the final point in Paul’s words to us: “Only let us walk in line with what we have attained.” You’ve learned so much while you were here. What a shame to let any of it fail to take root in your lives! What a shame to let any of it be as seed that falls on the dry pathway or among the thorns and thistles! What you have learned, put into action; make it a part of yourselves. James warns against looking into the Law of God, as into a mirror, and failing to do it, becoming thus like a person who walks away forgetting what he or she looks like. Our Lord urges us to build our lives around the teachings we have received from him, since only that means building on a rock-solid foundation. What God has given you and shown you during your time at CTS, safeguard in your memory and put into action in your lives and ministries.

Your graduation is a time for thinking about how the program at CTS has been working its way into and through your own formation in Christ and the service you have been offering in his name. It has changed the way you encountered Scripture and thought about how to listen for God’s word to you through Scripture. It has broadened your vision for God’s work in the Church Universal and for ministry on this fair island. It has brought you into contact with Christians of other theological traditions whose positions have expanded your own sense of how God is at work in the world, and how rich and varied are the ways in which his Church has perceived him. It has deepened your own prayer life, your vision for the transformation God is working in us individually and as communities of faith. Only that it might do so more and more till the whole lump has been leavened!

Allow your education and experiences at CTS to act like leaven, spreading into and giving growth to every facet of your discipleship. Take time to reflect in the days, weeks, and months ahead on what you have attained through your program here, on what you have learned and in what directions it could continue to goad you and guide you. Your work and achievements here position you to enjoy such affirmation there, to the extent that you live in line with what you have attained and to the extent that you continue to press on from here in your formational and ministry-forming journey toward the prize.

 

Desire, the Dhamma, and the Gospel

An excerpt from my 2011 book, Global Readings: A Sri Lankan Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Galatians (Eugene, Ore.: Wipf & Stock).

Paul’s diagnosis of the human problem has an important point of contact with the Buddha’s assessment of the same. Both locate the essential source of suffering and distress in the “passions of the flesh,” to use Paul’s language, or the “desires” or “cravings,” to use the Buddha’s. According to the Buddha, “the entangling and embroiling craving” is the thing most to be eliminated (Dhammapada 180) and “desire is the bane of humankind” (Dhammapada 359). Paul is more specific about the class of “desires” or “cravings” that lead to suffering among humankind in the present and in the future, speaking more narrowly about “the desires that spring from the ‘flesh’,” which, when acted upon, produce the vices listed as “works of the flesh” in Gal 5:19-21. The Buddha would have read Paul’s list with approval, identifying as “fetters” to be renounced or uprooted many of the same inner-personal and inter-personal manifestations of self-centered desire, including anger, pride, jealousy, selfishness, deceit, hatred, lust, and hypocrisy (Dhammapada 221, 262-263, 407): “Just as a storm throws down a weak tree, so does Mara overpower those who live for the pursuit of pleasures, who are uncontrolled in their senses, immoderate in eating, indolent, and dissipated” (Dhammapada 7).

The Buddha nourished both the commitment and the discipline required to destroy the “cankers,” so that the individual “whose senses are subdued like horses well trained by a charioteer” might become “pure as a deep pool free from mud” (Dhammapada 93-95), a person characterized by patience, freedom from anger, and self-control, which are the marks of the true “holy person” (Dhammapada 399-400). Paul also identifies “cankers,” calling for ethical purification by cultivating the fruit of the Spirit while checking the works of the flesh (Gal 5:13-25). The person who is fully formed in the Spirit would manifest many of the characteristics prized in the Buddha’s vision of the arahat.

One of the most significant differences between Paul’s vision and the Buddha’s, and hence between Christianity and other religions, is that Paul proclaims that God provides us with the Holy Spirit to enable us to perform God’s will. Christianity presents the Holy Spirit as a means by which to be free from cycle of sin and from the power of desire (as well as anger and delusion) so as to love fully and in a truly other-centered way. Other religions leave us at the mercy of our own effort and power, teaching that God will accept us in proportion to how we overcome sin or evil. The cross of Jesus Christ presents a “stumbling block” to Buddhism in regard to its rejection of self-reliance and relying on the power and guidance of God’s Spirit instead. In this, however, Paul’s doctrine of crucifying one’s self along with its desires in union with Christ’s crucifixion is in a way more faithful to the Buddhist doctrine of anatta. Buddhists rely on their own efforts for deliverance from the wheel of samsara while, ostensibly, there is no “self” on which to rely. Christians understand a “self” to exist, but deny that it is sufficiently stable or powerful to effect deliverance from the power of desire, anger, and delusion.

While compassionate love for others is a central focus of both Christian and Buddhist ethics, as it is, indeed, an essential teaching of most every religion, there are some noticeable differences in the conceptualization of the ideals of agapē and metta. Both are other-centered ideals, but the Buddha cautioned against allowing compassion to turn into endearment and connection: “From endearment springs grief, from endearment springs fear. For him who is wholly free from endearment, there is no grief, whence then fear?” (Dhammapada 212). Metta is quite different from Christian love in that Christians can risk love and endearment because hope in the resurrection answers grief and fear, and takes away the sting (the dukkha) inherent in and brought by death. Metta remains detached, “universal” compassion expressed now towards this individual, now towards that. Agapē is very much an “attached” compassion and love felt toward the “particular” human being toward whom one shows compassion.

Agapē is the focal point of the Spirit-led ethic, and Paul depends upon the power of the Spirit to nurture this love. Following the Spirit, the Christians will be transformed into a community of mutual investment, care, and support, rather than one characterized by mutual hostility and detraction (Gal 5:15), where members are poised against one another in pride, envy, and provocation (Gal 5:26). It leads to the quality of relationships between people that leads outsiders – even those who are hostile to the presence of Christianity in their midst – “Look how they love each other, … and how they are prepared to die one for the other” (Tertullian, Apology 39.7).

Formation articles available online

Ashland Theological Seminary (where I’ve been privileged to serve these past 20.5 years) now has all the back issues of The Table, the seminary’s magazine, available to read online.   I have been invited to contribute two articles over the years, one on “Praying With Another’s Words” (how using liturgical prayers can be spiritually formative) and “A Sevenfold Prayer of Transformation” (a reflection specifically on a prayer used in the Baptismal liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer).  Both stem from my book, Sacramental Life: Spiritual Formation Through the Book of Common Prayer (InterVarsity, 2008).  They can be found here, alongside many other similar articles in the 19 issues of the magazine.

http://seminary.ashland.edu/media/the-table/9/praying-with-anothers-words

http://seminary.ashland.edu/media/the-table/13/a-sevenfold-prayer-of-transformation

 

“Merry Christmas” at the Mall

A friend from church just sent me a link to this song, which has apparently struck a positive chord with a lot of people fed up with the political correctness of the “holiday season.”  I hear that, but I just had to comment on the larger issue of using the acknowledgment of “Christmas” as a factor in determining, of all things, where to shop.

My potentially Grinchy comment on this song at YouTube:

I’m troubled that the whole setting for the song (at least it’s refrain) is a mall or “Christmas shopping” in general. “If you don’t see ‘Merry Christmas’ in the window, then you don’t go in that store?” I wish to God that we could separate Christmas and shopping/stores altogether, and live like people for whom Christmas has made the difference of a complete change of life — if we would celebrate not by buying for our families and friends who don’t need another thing, but by lavishing help on the family in serious need, the homeless veteran, the Christian refugees from ISIS, and so forth. Saying “Merry Christmas” in the way that puts Jesus at the heart of the holiday would mean taking the focus off from the store altogether and from what we will find under our Christmas tree and using the season to stay away from the malls and gather more with family, with friends, with church, and discover ways to reach out in loving and even saving ways.

Now I’m part of the problem: I’ve spent about a week’s salary on Christmas shopping (though I did refuse to do “Black Friday” because it irks the heck out of me that the commercial gods try to stoke our covetousness and acquisitiveness on the very day, or the dawn after, we’ve supposedly been thinking about the full and rich ways in which the one God has gifted us and supplied our needs).  Nevertheless, this song really drives home for me how wrong our observance of Christmas has become if our main concern is shopping where people will acknowledge Christmas. So here’s an alternative refrain:

“If you don’t put Jesus first this Christmas season,

but worship at the mall,

you won’t be living like you know the reason

that he came to save us all.”

I’ll leave it to someone else to finish those lyrics and make an alternative video. 🙂

 

deSilva’s Day of Atonement Novel – A Must-Read Book of 2015 (Gupta)

What a generous review from scholar Nijay Gupta!

Crux Sola

DAMany books I read are just fine. Some are good. A few are outstanding. David deSilva’s latest offering, Day of Atonement, is in a league of its own. The subtitle is: A Novel of the Maccabean Revolt (Kregel, 2015). This is a work of historical fiction that places the reader in the world of early Judaism with a specialist interest in Hellenization and the negotiation of Jews in the Greek and Roman world.

I read fiction from time to time and I think that I have relatively high standards for good fiction. I know that sometimes biblical scholars try their hands at fiction (for pedagogical reasons) and most of the time I can tolerate the amateur fiction-writing because it is in service of better learning through narrative. But Day of Atonement is really good fiction. David deSilva completely blew me away with his gripping writing style. I have…

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The Story of Ruth in the Context of the Lebanese Church Today

Please visit this link for a brief reflection on the story of Ruth from Walid Zailaa, a friend and colleague at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary.  I spent only a week or so among them last February and am in awe of their ministry and their spirits.

http://www.abtslebanon.org/Default.asp?PN=%27News2%27&SubP=%27DNewsStory%27&gn=0&DivisionID=0&DepartmentID=0&SubDepartmentID=0&NewsID=79749&ShowNav=&StoryGroup=Current

Love Is Always An Option

A sermon preached on Sunday, October 4, 2015, at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church.  Gospel Lesson: Mark 10:2-16.

I can still remember how my former pastor and boss, the Rev. Jeff Halenza of Christ Our Hope Lutheran Church in Riverdale, Georgia, began a sermon on this text in the early 90’s: “I wouldn’t touch that one with a ten-foot pole.”  Unfortunately for you all today, I don’t remember the rest of that sermon, because I’m sure it was really good.  But what made a lasting impression was the challenge of preaching on this text beyond all other passages in the Gospels.  We follow the Revised Common Lectionary at this church, so the texts are essentially chosen for us Sunday after Sunday.  If the Lectionary can be conceived of as a kind of Liturgical Russian Roulette, this text would be the bullet.

Why is it so difficult to talk about Jesus’ response to the Pharisees and to his disciples in this text?  Well, we’ve all been touched by divorce in one way or another.  A good number among our congregation here have suffered through a divorce and through the death of the marriage that they thought would carry them through their whole lives.  A higher number of us have seen parents, a sibling, or a child suffer through the same.  I dare say that there is no one here whose life and relationships have not been personally and significantly affected by divorce.  It’s all very close to home.  It was even more dangerous to preach about divorce in Jesus’ setting than in the modern one.  Just ask John the Baptist.

And the last thing that divorced persons need is condemnation.  They’ve already been through hell; they don’t need more from the pulpit.  This text alongside a few others have been used by Christians, especially the more conservative Christians, to bully people into staying in bad marriages or to ostracize and shame people who dared to get out of bad marriages.  In other words, Jesus’ pronouncements about divorce and remarriage have been used like law in some churches.  That’s what I would call selective emphasis, the bane of the church’s moral witness for generations.  We elevate failures in sexual and marital morals to an absolute degree, thereby allowing all of our greed, our commitment to our own interests, our competitions, our lack of compassion, our unforgiveness, and our malice to fly under the radar.  That’s not where Jesus would have us go with this text.

But Jesus does clearly seek to challenge us and shake us up – healthfully and salvifically – with his stark pronouncements in this text.  He seeks to help us to shake off the way of thinking that has been carved into our minds and souls from the day we were born and start living in line with God’s holiness, God’s righteousness, God’s love and its limitless possibilities.  Indeed, Jesus’ hardline position here shouldn’t surprise us by this point in Mark’s Gospel.  We have been prepared for this by the episodes that lead up to this one. Let’s just review the last two weeks’ Gospel lessons.

When his disciples start arguing about their relative rank in the group, Jesus insists that getting to the top in his organization means getting down to the bottom and putting oneself most at the disposal of others.  When his disciples want to corral in someone who’s freelancing in their territory, Jesus tells them that there’s no place in the kingdom for being competitive and territorial.  When he thinks his audience is getting soft on obeying God, he tells them that self-mutilation is less severe and more advantageous than sin.  And now he tells people whose business it is to determine when a man can grab the parachute on his marriage that love is always an option instead, and a better one at that.

And he’s going to keep on doing this in the episodes that follow.  An earnest young man wants Jesus’ reassurance that he’s going to inherit eternal life, and Jesus essentially asks: If you really think you’re keeping God’s commandments, why have you kept so much money for your own needs instead of loving your neighbor the way you love yourself?  And once again, for good measure, he will tell his disciples, always trying to figure out which is the alpha male in the group, that it’s the person who puts himself or herself most at the disposal of serving the good of others, not who is most able to impose his or her own agenda, that has the highest standing in God’s sight.

Jesus is not pronouncing case law at any point in these chapters, but he is challenging his hearers’ assumptions and priorities at every turn so that maybe, just maybe, they will discover the “something more” than God has for them and their lives together.  Let’s look a little more closely once again at last week’s Gospel reading as a prelude to today’s passage.

“If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell.” (Mark 9:43-47)

If we read today’s passage as “law” and force it upon one another’s marriages, we must be prepared to read last week’s text as “law” as well, with Jesus instituting a kind of self-imposed shariah law upon the church.  I don’t see a lot of Christians abiding by these statements as if they were actual commandments, however, which tells me that we can discern hyperbole.  Jesus’ point in last week’s reading?  Think about how loath you would be to cut off your own hand; think about how difficult that would be even in the most dire of circumstances (Remember the movie 127 Hours?  It took the protagonist that long to screw up the courage to do what he had to do to save his life). That’s how loath you should be to sin.  Reaching out for what God does not have for you, taking a step in the direction that God does not want you to go – these should become even more difficult for you, even less natural for you, than chopping off your own limb would be.

The whole of Mark 9-10, by the way, should really give each of us a “reality check” on our image of Jesus.  This is important, I think, because we want to be sure that we’re following Jesus as he is, not as we have made him in our minds.  Jesus is the friend through whom we can carry everything to God in prayer, but he doesn’t exist just to make our troubles go away.  Jesus, what a friend of sinners – but he also refuses to leave us sinners.  Jesus loves me, this I know; but he also insists that I learn to love as he loves.  And this last point is, I believe, particularly his challenge in today’s Gospel reading.

Now, please, don’t immediately think of the most extreme cases of marriage-gone-bad and use this as a reason not to take Jesus seriously.  Are there marriages that should end?  Of course there are, when one or both parties are committed to causing the other harm.  In such instances, there is a deeper problem in the person or the persons than in the marriage, and the latter cannot be redeemed until the former is.  For them, divorce is not the sin that ends a marriage; divorce ends the sin that their marriage has become.

Many of the marriages that end in divorce, however, do not do so because of abusive personalities or commitment to malice; they end because two people stop liking each other.  They end because two people stop putting each other first.

So we must also allow Jesus also to have his say.  There are a lot of marriages in trouble right now that could be redeemed if the goal of both partners was to learn how to love the other rather than have his or her own needs and wants met. Marriage is the hottest crucible of character formation and spiritual formation.  Sometimes it gets too hot and the crucible has to crack; sometimes the heat does its work of refining, making different people, better people, out of the husband and wife.

The latter’s not going to happen, however, if the guiding questions are: “Am I getting what I want out of this marriage?” “Are my needs being met?” “Is this person still the best option for me?”

These are not only modern questions.  Marital troubles and marital dissatisfaction have been around just about as long as marriage.  Around 200 BC, the Jewish sage and teacher Ben Sira writes:

“I would rather live with a lion or a dragon than live with a bad wife. A woman’s wickedness changes her appearance, and darkens her face like that of a bear. Her husband sits among his neighbors, and he cannot help sighing bitterly….  An ascent up a sandy dune for the feet of the aged – such is a nagging wife to a quiet husband…. A dejected mind, a gloomy face, and a wounded heart come from having a bad wife. Drooping hands and weak knees come from the wife who does not make her husband happy.” (Sir 25:16-23)

Ben Sira’s way out? “If your wife does not go as you direct her, cut her off from your flesh” (Sir 25:26), echoing the same creation text that Jesus recites in our passage.

Conversations among Jewish teachers in the centuries around the turn of the era also revolved around the question, “When is enough, enough?” “When am I justified in divorcing my wife?”  It is true that the Torah acknowledges a provision for ending a marriage: “Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house….”  (Notice, technically, that the law of Moses does not make this provision; it merely acknowledges it as a practice that it does not affirm, correct, or revoke.)  The conversation in the centuries before and after the turn of the era focus on what the lawgiver meant when he said “because he finds something objectionable about her” (Deut 24:1).  What is this “something objectionable” that makes divorce legally acceptable?  Two rabbis from a few decades before Jesus’ birth reflect the wide range of answers. Shammai, the stricter rabbi, limited the provision to adultery or pre-marital intercourse.  Hillel, the more liberal rabbi, extended the provision to her burning dinner.

Jesus poses an alternative question: Not “When am I justified in divorcing my spouse?” but “What was God’s purpose for this marriage? What are God’s purposes for this marriage today, in the midst of both its challenges and its benefits? What do I need to do, how do I need to change, so that God’s purposes for this marriage come to fruition?”  Remember, I’m not talking about the extreme cases such as show up on Dr. Phil.  But I believe that I am talking about most of the marriages that are not where God would want them to be.  God had a vision for this marriage.  What am I doing that is getting in the way of that vision taking hold for the long haul?  Where do I need to die to self so that something beautiful can come to life?  These are the kinds of questions we should be asking ourselves as Christians in every relationship, in every setting, but darn it all if the last place we think to ask ourselves such questions is in our own marriages!  But it’s probably there that discipleship gets most real – or fails to get real.

Some marriages are not going to be redeemed; there is less pain in the world if they are in fact ended.  But a lot of marriages can be redeemed, can be transformed.  Even those that are just coasting by need to be challenged by Jesus’ affirmation of God’s best vision for marriage.  A way forward is, again, to apply to our marriages in particular what the teachers of the Church apply to relationships between disciples in general:

“In humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” (Phil 2:3-4)

“As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.” (Col 3:12-15)

“Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you…. Live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Eph 4:31–5:2)

Now, today’s Gospel lesson gives us another episode as well.  A smarter preacher would simply have focused on this second paragraph and acted as if the first half of the lesson hadn’t been there at all.  In this episode we see Jesus’ disciples once again missing the point of their role as they try to assume an authority that isn’t theirs: “People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them” (Mark 10:13).  The disciples were trying to regulate access to Jesus, in this instance actually trying to discourage people from bringing other people – here, little children – to Jesus.  Jesus’ response to them is as stern as his response to the Pharisees in the preceding episode: you don’t get to decide who gets to come to me!  If you’re not going to bring people of all ages and every status to me yourselves, then at least get out of the way of the people who are bringing others to me.  It’s a good, brief, straightforward reminder to us as well that our role is not to police who gets to come to Jesus; our task is to bring all, regardless of our assessment of them, to Jesus.  If we find ourselves thinking “we don’t to use up our church’s time or resources or attention on people like that,” that’s a little warning light on our own spiritual dashboard that we’ll want to attend to.  For Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin and seek to live in peace with one another.

Amen.

Faith alone, grace alone, Scripture alone

My forays into Pauline theology (particularly the little book Transformation: The Heart of Paul’s Gospel [Lexham Press, 2014]) have been criticized by a few adamant Reformed theologians as an attack on the doctrines of salvation by “faith alone” and “grace alone.”

I just did a quick search on Paul’s use of forms of the word “alone” and, genuinely to my surprise, he NEVER uses it in his “by grace” or “by faith” formulations (indeed, never to qualify those two words in any way whatsoever).  The only occurrence of the phrase “by faith alone” actually occurs in James 2:24, there to be negated as the exclusive basis of approval before God.  This leaves me just a little bit more convinced that “by faith alone” and “by grace alone” are hyperbolic formulations nurtured by the particular environment of the Reformation era, and not undistorted representations of, say, Paul’s view of what God is looking for in those whom God will justify.

This leaves me wondering if the claim to listen to “Scripture alone” (i.e., over against Reformation formulations of “Pauline” theology or the Gospel in general) is of equal importance to these critics.