Hearing Jesus in the prophetic key

It sometimes feels to me as if we have spiritual amnesia. We have forgotten what we had once hoped, longed, and prayed for.

I was thinking this as I was reading the first chapter of Mark tonight. In that beautifully tight opening scene of Jesus’ ministry, we are cued in to the great hope of Israel that is fulfilled in Jesus. Mark points us to Isaiah and Malachi. These are the voices that prepare us for the coming of John and Jesus.

These are voices preparing us for the day of the Lord.

“Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the LORD Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. And you will go out and frolic like well-fed calves. Then you will trample on the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I act,” says the LORD Almighty. (Malachi 4:1-3)

The prophets promised a day of God’s justice for all the earth, a day when the wicked would be thrown down and the righteous raised up.

That is the hope that the disciples held in their hearts in Acts 1. Some of them had heard Jesus preaching of the coming kingdom from the first days. Now? Is now the time?

Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6)

The words of Malachi and Isaiah and the other great prophets must have been ringing in their ears as they pressed the Lord with this question. They had such hope that evil would not prosper.

I wonder if we dare to hope as much.

We have no shortage of evil around us. The prophets name names for us:

“So I will come  to put you on trial. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me,” says the LORD Almighty. (Malachi 3:5)

Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land. (Isaiah 5:8)

Woe to those who rise early in the morning to run after their drinks, who stay up late at night till they are inflamed with wine. They have harps and lyres at their banquets, pipes and timbrels and wine, but they have no regard for the deeds of the LORD, no respect for the work of his hands.(Isaiah 5:11-12)

Woe to those who draw sin along with cords of deceit and wickedness as with cart ropes, (Isaiah 5:18)

Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter. (Isaiah 5:20)

Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight. (Isaiah 5:21)

Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine and champions at mixing drinks, who acquit the guilty for a bribe, but deny justice to the innocent. (Isaiah 5:22-23)

I could go on and on.

The promise of the day of the Lord’s coming is the promise of the day when all these wicked ones are punished. It is the promise of a day when accounts are settled and the justice of God repays the wicked for their evil ways.

I have to be completely honest here.

I don’t know how many middle class and upper middle class American Christians have that same hope. It does not seem like many do. What we seem to want more than anything is for God to help us through our family problems and to give us a sense of meaning in a world that often seems empty of meaning. We want something that will keep us from going hysterical when the cancer diagnosis comes in or the stock market turns south. We want God to tell us its okay to enjoy sex and drive sports cars.

But I’m not at all convinced that is what Isaiah and Malachi had in mind.

A few days ago, I argued that the church’s purpose is to bear witness to Jesus to the ends of the earth. If we would do that, we must do so in light of the prophets, who also bore witness to Jesus.

If we would speak of Jesus rightly, we have to learn how to speak the same language of those prophets.

The purpose and power of the church

He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:7-8)

The purpose of the church is to be a witness to Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth until the Lord comes again.

The power to be the church comes from the Holy Spirit.

These may not seem like remarkable statements, but they are helping me form my own understanding of the nature of the church and the relationship between the Methodist movement and the institutional church.

The primary purpose of the church is to bear witness to Jesus Christ. It exists as a form of testimony and to testify to what we have seen and heard. It also bears the testimony the stretches back to Israel and through the history of the church. Our new testimony is contiguous with and of a kind with that previous testimony.

When I began to think about the church as witness, it changed my reading of scripture. For instance, I had not really ever paid much attention to these words from Peter before:

You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this. (Acts 3:15)

And this is why the gospel as described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 includes great detail about who witnessed the resurrected Christ. These acts of witness are important because the church exists to bear this witness to the ends of the earth — across space and time.

This conception of the church as witness stirs up for me recollections of things written by Walter Brueggemann and Stanley Hauerwas, two contemporary writers and scholars who have had a significant impact on me. Brueggemann writes quite a bit of scripture itself as a form of testimony. Hauerwas grounds ecclesiology on the way the language the church uses shapes both how we see the world and how we understand ourselves. His narrative and cultural-linguistic theology strikes me as very much in keeping with the claim that the purpose of the church is to bear a testimony, to make witness, about the true nature of our existence.

And — just to be clear — I do not believe that witness is merely about what we say, although it is certainly about that. It is about what we do and how we live together. We catch a glimpse of that in Romans 1 when Paul is celebrating the existence of the Roman church.

First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world. (Romans 1:8)

The one piece that I’ve always felt was sorely lacking in Hauerwas was the Holy Spirit. Hauerwas’ descriptions of the church always feel — at least to me — rather naturalistic, as if sociology and psychology could account for the church by themselves. But in Acts 1, we get the corrective to that.

Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 1:4-5)

If the purpose of the church is to bear witness to Christ, the Holy Spirit is the source of the church’s power to do so. It is the life energy of the church.

Since that is the case, the church is called to “wait” for the promised Spirit in prayer and worship and works of mercy. The church is called to make itself fit to receive and bear the Holy Spirit through confession, forgiveness, and repentance. We must wait on the gift of the Holy Spirit and receive that gift if we are to be the witnessing church.

And this insight has helped me in thinking about John Wesley and Methodism.

The purpose of Methodism was to reform the church by spreading scriptural holiness. It was, in the language I’m using here, a movement trying to reconnect the church to its source of power, so that the church might have the strength to achieve its purpose, bearing witness to Christ in all things. The reason Wesley was correct to resist breaking away from the Church of England was because the mission of Methodism was to revitalize the church not to be the church.

If you read Wesley, you discover pretty quickly that he did not see the church achieving its purpose. He often said you cannot judge true Christianity by the conduct of those who call themselves Christians. In other words, a lot of church people in his day were bad witnesses. They had neither seen nor heard the gospel, and yet were passing themselves off as representatives of it. Wesley movement had the intention of helping the church achieve its true purposes by connecting it back to the source of its power, the Holy Spirit.

In our day, no less than in Wesley’s, the church is in dire need of the Holy Spirit. Too many of us left Jerusalem before Pentecost. We try to bear witness when we have not received the power to do so. The Methodist mission is still necessary today. We still need a vigorous ministry connecting us and our churches to the Holy Spirit, the source of life, through faith in Jesus Christ.

But we also need to understand that the power serves a purpose. We are to bear witness to the ends of the earth. We are to declare and to embody the living witness to the truth that Jesus was killed, but on the third day he was raised.

These thoughts of mine are not as coherent as I would like them to be. Blogging for me always is a kind of work of process and a first-draft kind of writing. But I think there is much fruit in those first two statements:

  • The purpose of the church is to bear witness to Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth until our Lord comes again.
  • The power to be the church comes from the Holy Spirit.

This is at least the beginning of my ecclesiology.

God is not cuddly

Would you discredit my justice? Would you condemn me to justify yourself? (Job 40:8)

There seems to be a thing these days in condemning the Book of Joshua as sub-biblical. The violence of the book repels many people. It strikes them as out of character with the portrait of Jesus they carry around in their heads. The idea that God would sanction and command the slaughter of an entire people horrifies people.

I share the horror.

But I don’t understand why we are so quick to clear the name of God by explaining away the Book of Joshua. I don’t understand it because it is not like Joshua is the only book in the Bible that is violent.

Take Exodus, for example. Consider for just a moment what happened at Passover.

So Moses said, “This is what the LORD says: ‘About midnight I will go throughout Egypt. Every firstborn son in Egypt will die, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, who sits on the throne, to the firstborn son of the female slave, who is at her hand mill, and all the firstborn cattle as well. There will be loud wailing throughout Egypt — worse than there has ever been or ever will be again.'” (Exodus 11:4-6)

How cuddly is this God?

Why is it that we cannot tolerate an image of God that terrifies us? Why do we try to shove him into a Care Bear’s costume when the Bible clearly does not. You can rip out Joshua, but you can’t escape the revelation of God as a “consuming fire.”

Why is this so hard for us?

Boundaries are good

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. (Genesis 1:3-4, NIV)

In August, I wrote a post that came out of a seminary experience that had been leaning hard on inculcating a love of pluralism. The post was a piece I read to the class. It was called “Edges are good.”

It was a bit of a cry of desperation. It was also an attempt to articulate something that I have been struggling to grab hold of for the last few years.

The Bible speaks a great deal about edges and boundaries and separation. The act of creation itself is described in Genesis 1 less as creation ex nihilo than as the kind of thing a fan of the Container Store would do. It is separating light from dark and dry from wet. It is bring form out of formlessness. Creation is the establishment of boundaries.

In many other places in the Bible, the importance of boundaries is stressed. The importance of property lines come up throughout the Old Testament. The need for demarcation of sacred space is a constant theme. The concern over insider and outsider is rehearsed over and over.

Of course, this is not the only theme. The talk of boundaries is counter-balanced by talk of hospitality. Outsiders can become insiders. Every city wall has a gate. The sheep pen does as well.

But the boundaries — while permeable — remain. If not, chaos ensues. The walls come down. Wolves run off with the sheep. Things fall apart.

This is not a hard concept to acknowledge intellectually, but I think we as United Methodists often struggle with it in practice. We are a denomination that is uncomfortable with boundaries, and so we attract people who struggle with establishing and maintaining boundaries. And our congregations and denomination suffer for it.

A few weeks ago, I wrote this on Facebook. Fences may not make good neighbors, but they do keep the next guy’s pigs out of your tomato garden.

By all means, we need gates. But here is the truth I’m trying to make a part of my heart and not just my head: Edges are good. Boundaries are good. Fences are good.

God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning — the sixth day.

In his footsteps

Some thoughts on 1 John 2:1-6.

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

I love that “but.” John is saying — and has just written with a stark image of darkness and light — that we should not sin. BUT if we do sin.

In other words, John is a realist. Indeed, he knows himself. He speaks of “our” sins and the advocate that “we” have in Jesus Christ. He writes in the first person, placing himself among the sinners.

I notice, as well, the atonement language here. Jesus is the “atoning sacrifice,” as the NRSV puts it, or the propitiation. What a contested word we have here. I’m not up on the debate enough to comment, but I will rest on the simple point that John sees in Jesus’ death a radical cure for sin, not only ours but the world’s.

It is not just Paul who makes such a big deal about the death of Jesus and the cross and all that goes with it. Any Christian theology that shies away from the significance of the cross is missing something of utmost importance about Jesus Christ.

Now by this we may be sure that we know him, if we obey his commandments. Whoever says, “I have come to know him,” but does not obey his commandments, is a liar, and in such a person the truth does not exist; but whoever obeys his word, truly in this person the love of God has reached perfection. By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says, “I abide in him,” ought to walk just as he walked.

What a series of hammer blows to lazy faith we find here. John does not write it just once and move on. He circles around his point and piles it on. If we claim to know God but do not obey his commands, we are liars. Just a few verses earlier, he said the same thing. If we say we have fellowship with him but walk in darkness, we lie and the truth is not in us.

It is interesting to me how much of these early verses of 1 John are tied up in testimony and action. There is a real concern with how well our actions match our words, and whether our words are shown to be true in our deeds.

That last verse about walking as he walked sounds like an outline of discipleship to me. There is a sermon series there, I would think: Walking like Jesus.

And how is it that we can walk the way he did? Not because we are creatures of light and goodness, no. We can walk as he walked because he is the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world. If we confess our sins, he will cleanse of of all unrighteousness (1 Jn 1:9).

As I reflect on these verses, I find that John is offering us a fairly easy to use litmus test for the disciples of Jesus Christ. We in the United Methodist Church talk a fair amount about wanting to make disciples, but we are not often very good at describing what it means to be a disciple. Here is an answer. Obey his commandments. Walk as Jesus walked.

I need a new pair of sandals.

Walk in the light child of the dark

Some thoughts on 1 John 1:5-10.

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.

I read earlier this week an essay by Stanley Hauerwas on Augustine’s theology of evil. Augustine argued that evil does not exist, as such. Evil is merely an absence of or deprivation of what is good, that is to say God. This may not be the point John is trying to make, but the analysis seems apt.

God is light. Darkness — as such — does not exist. It is only the absence of light. Evil does not exist. It is only the absence of good.

Such thinking makes me wonder if other attributes we connect with God might be thought of in the same way.

Does hate exist, or is it only the absence of love?

Is injustice — as the name implies — merely an absence of justice?

As I consider these questions, I also find my mind turning to the depravity of human nature. It becomes much less of a hard doctrine if we understand that depravity — or darkness — simply means falling short of the total goodness of God. We are creatures of light and shadow. We walk in the twilight and even in darkness.

If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true;

When we walk in darkness we — literally — are outside the fellowship of God. Darkness is the absence of God, who is all light. So to walk in darkness is to walk apart from God. To claim otherwise is to speak an untruth.

It would be as untrue as claiming to be walking on Mars while crossing our front lawn.

but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another,

As in the opening verses of the chapter, John here brings us back to the conditions that make our fellowship possible. Our communion is a communion of light and in the light. It exists only so long as we all walk in the light of God. We might keep in contact with one another in a worldly way once fellowship is broken, but we can only be in communion with each other to the extent that we both walk in the light of God.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes something similar in his book Life Together. He argues that our fellowship with one another exists only via Jesus Christ. You and I each are in fellowship with Christ and therefore — and only therefore — we might have fellowship with each other.

and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.

If we walk in the light, two things happen. We have fellowship with each other, and the blood of Jesus cleanses us of all sin. Doesn’t that mean that if we walk in darkness that not only do we lose communion with one another but we also remain stained by sin?

There is a fountain of forgiveness for you and for me, but it stands in the place of light. Easter comes at dawn.

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

We are creatures of darkness — and light. We fall short of the glory of God. To deny that simple truth is to fool ourselves.

The only proper response to the truth of who we are is confession. As someone told me once, the word “confession” simply means “to acknowledge.” It is to state what is true. It is to stand in the light and acknowledge our darkness.

If we do this, John tells us, our God will forgive. He will replace shadows with sunlight. He will bless our brokenness.

To speak what is not true, however, to claim that we are creatures of pure light already is the deepest lie. It is a lie not just against God but to ourselves. It is the lie that betrays us to try in vain to burn with a brightness that belongs only to God. We are like the cold stones hurtling through space that believe the sunlight they reflect comes from their own hard, dusty face.

The word, the life, the Son is not in us.