Wednesday, March 26, 2008

What's Wrong with This Maxim?


Let's do something a little different. A coworker posted this cute little saying on her wall:
It is the value of what we do that creates the energy, passion, and enthusiasm to do it well.
I don't quite agree with that. What do you think is theologically wrong with it?

After a little while, I'll post what I think the trouble is.

UPDATE: OK, here are my thoughts on the thing:

I, and so this coworker, work in healthcare, and this was intended as a little pick me up to remind us that we do something incredibly valuable. I understand that.

But this coworker is also a believer, and I thought it was necessary to point out that it doesn't matter if you're a doctor or lawyer, teacher or cabinet maker, cook or painter, all believers should ideally have the same "energy, passion, and enthusiam."

"Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men..." Our energy should come from the God we serve and our passion should be to glorify Him in whatever we do. We may do that imperfectly, but that should be our goal.

(And if I'm making too much out of it, you can tell me that:)

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Silent Saturday

The Gospels are silent about what happened the Wednesday before the crucifixion of Christ. They are also silent about what occurred the day after. What follows is purely a product of my imagination.

Three years. For three years we’d followed the Lo… Jesus. For three years we watched him teach and chide and comfort. For three years we watched him heal, cast out demons, and do many other wonders that can scarcely be believed.

We were so sure he was the one – that he was sent by God to restore Israel and heal our land.

And then he was taken. Then he was killed.

Peter has been sitting in a corner with his head bowed, his arms on his knees so we can’t see his face. He lets out a sob every now and then, but he won’t say a word to anyone.

Mary has hardly stopped crying. Even when she fell asleep tears continued to slip down her cheeks. The other Mary’s, all the other women, are pretty much the same.

I heard James and John quietly wondering if they can go back to fishing. Their father didn’t want them to follow Jesus. Just another pretender, he’d said. Will he let them live it down? He’ll let them go back to work, but it’ll be uncomfortable for a while.

No one’s seen Judas since the garden. That’s probably for the best. Simon would kill him. So would I. No, I wouldn’t. He wouldn’t like that. The least I can do is remember that.

Does it really matter, though? He said he would teach us what the Law really meant. Now the scribes will remind us what the Law says: “anyone who is hung on a tree is under God's curse.”

Everyone jumps when we hear a voice outside. Is it a soldier? Have they found us? They killed Jesus as a rebel. They think we’re rebels. Romans don’t tolerate rebels.

It’s just Thomas. He hasn’t said he told us so, but he did. Now he’s the only one willing to go out. Hopefully he wasn’t followed.

Some are going to start back to Galilee tomorrow. I don’t know how they can just go back to their lives, but I don’t know what else to do. We’d hoped he was the one.

We were wrong.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Why the Cross 2: Example

“As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34b).

When Jesus said these words to the apostles, He had not yet been crucified. They knew that He had cared for them, protected them, and taught them, but they had not yet seen the full measure of His love. In less than 24 hours they would see it, though they wouldn’t understand for a while longer still.

We, however, know quite well what Christ meant when He said, “As I have loved you.”

He showed us that love is not neat or easy. Love doesn’t keep its distance. Love doesn’t maintain its dignity.

Love gets in deep. Love gets messy. Love means humility – sometimes even humiliation. Most of all, love gives til it hurts then keeps on giving.

Our ancestors in the faith have showed us what they understood love to mean – from the believers who “gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability” (2 Cor 8:3) to those who stayed during plagues to care for their neighbors.

In a day when many Christians show their love by praying a quick prayer and writing a check for $20, we need to meditate on the lesson in love Christ gave us on the cross.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Why the Cross 1: Atonement

“Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous…” (1 Pet 3:18)

There are many facets to the crucifixion of Christ – many explanations as to why He allowed Himself to be killed. The current least favorite in our culture is also the most powerful: substitutionary atonement, i.e., as a payment for our sins.

The biblical support for this explanation is strong. The Master Himself described His mission: “…the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

The prophet Isaiah described the Lord’s death like this: “…He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, … and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:5-6).*

“Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people” (Heb 9:28), but more than that, Christ “loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20, emphasis mine). My sin necessitated the cross. My sin made it necessary for my Lord to be abused, broken, cursed.

It’s worth meditating on the cross as a demonstration of how horrible sin is, for what else could have required such a horror as a cure?

It’s also worth considering that the Master died not only for the sins of yesterday but also for the sins of tomorrow. How much more abuse can we heap upon our Savior?

*Some might say that we assume too much by applying this passage to Jesus, but the early church started the trend (Acts 8:26-40).

Created for Redemption
He Didn’t Die for “Us," He Died for Me
It's Hard for You to Approach God

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Even Death on a Cross

“Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who … being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death — even death on a cross!” (Phil 2:5,8)

Paul, using Christ as a model of humility, says that He “became obedient to death – even death on a cross!”

Those words almost sound odd to modern ears. We don’t understand the cross as a sign of humility. It is to us either a sign of victory and hope or a nice decoration to be worn around the neck or hung on walls. We are so far removed from Paul’s world where a cross was anything but decorative.

Certain kinds of death are benign. Someone who dies of a disease or in an accident is considered unfortunate. Some kinds of death can even be considered noble – someone who’s shot (assassinated) may actually increase in stature (posthumously) because of it.

But some kinds of death are shameful – no one wants to die in the electric chair, nor would they want you to know about any relatives who did. This is how Paul’s people looked at the cross. In their world, the cross was reserved for slaves and violent criminals. Everything about it was either torturous or degrading. There was no worse “way to go.”

Jesus did not just give up His life for us. He threw it in the gutter. He accepted the lowest treatment He could possibly receive … for our sakes.

Was the Cross Just?
Ironies of the Cross

Friday, March 14, 2008

Murphy’s Law of Providence

I don’t want to overstate my case. Last time we looked at a verse that is often misused to say that, no matter what’s going on in your life, it’ll all work out ok.

My objection was two-fold. One, much, if not most, of what’s wrong with American Christianity today is based on bad theology. Much bad theology is based on scriptures taken out of context, so that’s a habit the church desperately needs to break.

Second, it isn’t true that things will always work out, so let’s don’t tell people that the Bible says that it will.

All that said, though, things do seem to work out an awful lot. I remember a time when I couldn’t get into my parking lot at work, so I had to pay extra to go park somewhere else. Where I ran into an old friend.

Another example: One day at work I was sent off to do the most mind-numbing job there. Met a girl. Married her.

Bad things do often turn around. Indeed, in scripture we have many examples of this: the Egyptian army following the Israelites out of Egypt, Daniel in the lions den, Peter and John arrested then freed, Assyria surrounds Jerusalem then leaves. But we have plenty of counter examples too: Stephen arrested then killed, John the Baptist the same, Babylon surrounds Jerusalem then burns it to the ground.

Sometimes things go our way, and sometimes they don’t. God makes us no promises about how things will go other than to say, “In this world you will have trouble.”

We can’t assume that God will make things work out according to our will. But we can assume that God Almighty is in control, that nothing happens that He does not permit, and that He has our best (in the truest sense of the word) at heart.

As the saying goes, whatever can go wrong will. When it does, our response shouldn’t be to assume it’s all going to turn out the way we want. We also shouldn’t assume it won’t. We should assume, and lean on the promise, that God is in control no matter what happens to us in the short term.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

All for Good?

“…we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him” (Rom 8:28).

We hear this quoted a lot, usually in reference to something bad that’s happened to someone, and it’s usually used to suggest that everything’s going to work out fine.

Had a bad day? It'll all work out, they say, because “God works for the good of those who love Him.” Lost some money? It probably went to someone who needed it, and you’ll get it back some day. Lost your job? You get the idea. I’ve even heard this applied to lost limbs.

Is that what the author intended? Is that truly what God’s promising? Let’s examine this verse in context:
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Rom 8:28-29).
This working things out for good seems to involve our being like Christ and being children of God. There’s something just a little bit back in the same chapter with a similar idea:
“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed” (Rom 8:18-19).
Our present suffering is contrasted with the fact that we will be revealed to be sons of God. Hmm. There’s something similar to that just a little farther back still:
“The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God's children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory” (Rom 8:16-17, italics added).
Obviously Paul is encouraging his readers in the midst of their suffering for Christ. He promises them that their suffering will result in good for them – specifically that they will be conformed to the likeness of Christ. They’re not being promised that everything will go their way in this life; they’re being promised that everything they suffer here will benefit them in the world to come.

The same promise is made to us: Every trial, every hardship, every persecution, every loss, every wrong, every shot the world and the devil takes at us will be used by God to make us more like Jesus. I think that’s a promise to cherish.

Related: Never Read a Bible Verse

[update] Just ran across this: Do All Things Really Work for Good?

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Is Systematic Theology Bad?

Some in the emerging circles denigrate systematic theology. They (more or less) correctly point out that God gave us a story not a systematic theology. They also correctly point out a danger of systematic theology – some use it to reduce true religion to a set of propositions or facts to be believed.

The Christian religion is certainly more than a set of facts. It is a relationship with a person. It is a role in a grand story. But there are facts that need to be kept straight.

Yes, God gave us a story, but that story contains truths. He also gave us pastors and teachers and prophets; He gives some tremendous faith, others a special charity, and others a knack for administration. God likes variety, and His Church is full of variety. So we shouldn’t be afraid of a little variety in our dealing with the Bible.

Systematic theology has it’s dangers, but it also has a very useful purpose. Systematic theology takes the story and collects all of the facts that appear in it and tries to make sense of them. This is important because when we read part of the story, we can forget that it’s part of a larger whole.

When you’re buried deep in the Torah, it’s easy to focus on God’s justice at the expense of His mercy. When you’re buried in the Gospels, it’s easy to focus on God’s mercy at the expense of His justice.

Some parts of the Bible can, in isolation, cause confusion about the nature of Christ. Others can cause confusion about the nature of the Church.

The theologian gives us a tool to fight that error. When you’re reading Exodus, you’re reminded that the God who said “I am that I am” was the triune God. When you’re reading Luke, you’re reminded that the Shepherd who will leave the 99 is the same God who said, “I will by no means leave the guilty unpunished.” When you read in Acts about the believers holding everything in common, you’re reminded that “if a man will not work, he shall not eat.”

Systematic theology, like biblical theology and historical theology, like pastoral counseling and evangelism training, is a tool created by flawed, God-loving Christians for the service of the saints to the glory of God. It’s an important tool in the Christian faith, and its occasional misuse should not deter us from its regular use.