Friday, February 06, 2009

As Two-Faced as Paul

“For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all…” (1 Cor. 9:19)

This is a powerful and tricky thing Paul is saying here. He declares his subservience, but this service is a gift of tutelage – in the logic of the gospel, Paul inverts the servant-master relationship, dissolving the domination factor, and mixing up who’s in charge, who is giving the orders, who has something to give the other.

But Paul is also declaring that he changes or adjusts himself to meet (at least some of) the expectations of those he speaks to. Sometimes radically. Paul goes on to give examples: to the Jew he became a Jew, to the Gentile a Gentile, to one “under the law” as under the law (though, he points out, he isn’t under the law), to one “outside the law” as outside the law (though, he points out, he is under God’s law). Paul’s examples are seemingly contradictory!

Not only is Paul open to the charge of being two-faced, but in fundamental ways, in ways that are foundational for other people’s identities and faith. He could have said: “To those under the law, I became as under the law (though I am not), and to those not under the law, I was just myself (since I’m not under the law, too).” But no. Paul goes to some trouble to point out that he does not “fit” in either exclusive category.

Paul is saying something terribly important about what it means to be a witness to the gospel of Christ: all other “identifications” or classifications fall by the wayside and are unimportant. And to drive the point home, he lifts up supposed “core values.” It is as if he said, in our day: “to the Believer I was as a Believer (though I am not a Believer); to the atheist I was as an atheist (though I am not an atheist). To the rich I was as if I were rich (though I am not); to the poor as though I were poor (though I am not). To the Conservative I was as if I were Conservative (though I am not); to the Progressive as if I were Progressive (though I am not that either).”

This is terribly uncomfortable for most of us – first of all that Paul could be so profoundly flexible in his self-identification as to meet all these different people on their own terms, as if he were one of them. But also because, if we are one “kind” of person, having Paul at once declare himself not one of us, and paling around with the other kind of person just a chummily as with us, we tend to get a little ticked off. Our friends are supposed to be our friends, on our side. Sure, they can be nice to other people, especially if they are trying to win them over to our side, but when push comes to shove our people should be with us. Even more disturbing is this dawning recognition that Paul isn’t “one of us” and is actually trying to convert us to something else. We’ve been betrayed.

Imagine the sense of betrayal Paul must have been answering in this letter. Presumably there were in the Corinthian congregation people of very different stripes. There were likely conflicts: what should the congregation do, how should they worship, what should they believe, what should they support, what should they discourage or not allow at all? And everyone – widely diverse people – were all appealing to their relationship with Paul as an authority. “Paul is my friend, and I say this.” “Well, Paul is my friend, and I say that.” “Paul converted me saying this!” “Paul converted me saying that!” Who knows the truth? Was Paul two-timing everyone? Was Paul just playing everyone the fool, just to get them to come to church? The jerk!

But rather than denying his duplicity, Paul lifts it up as the model gospel-revealing act. Paul says yes, I was different to each of you – and I’m not really one of any of your “groups.” My priority, says Paul, is sharing the gospel. And the gospel is shared first by meeting people where they are, and recognizing the sincerity, dignity and integrity of people in what they believe and how they see things. The gospel affirms what is best in us, and challenges what needs to be changed. One of the first things that needs to change is our self-identification as separate from others. One of the next things that needs to change is our belief that we are exclusively right, and that it is others who need to change to meet our expectations. (Can you see Paul’s example reinforcing itself here? Paul himself was a slave to all, though he did not need to be.)

Another profound change that needs to happen is that we must get over our death-grip on labels as being fundamental to our understanding of the gospel. Jew or Gentile, believer or atheist, Christian or Muslim – they are not what is most important when we are living out the gospel, when we are witnessing of the gospel in our actions. When we testify to the gospel in our lives, we must give up this fixation on triangulating people (as if labels ever really tell us about a person anyway).

The task of gospel-sharers is to love people where and for what they are. The gospel is shared in community, so welcome these divergent people into your community, into your heart and lives. They have as much to teach you, as you have to share with them. And we all have a lot to learn.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be as mad with Paul for talking to each of us as if he was “one of us.” Otherwise, we might not have listened to him.

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Thursday, February 05, 2009

1 Cor 9:16-23

"...I may make the gospel free of charge...” (v18)

This is something of a play on words for Paul, and differently for us. For Paul, the phrase “free of charge” has a double meaning: he is not paid by the people to be an apostle, and that the gospel itself is a free gift of the grace of God, not something of his giving or doing. The gospel is grounded in grace – the free-giving of God.

In English, the translation itself has an additional meaning: to deliver the gospel in such a manner that it is free from accusation or charge of inconsistency, falsehood, duplicity or ulterior motive. To give the gospel integrity with/through my own living out of the gospel I preach. To make the gospel free of any charge that could be laid against it (because of my actions or representation of it).

This is important. We inevitably represent the gospel to people who are unfamiliar with us or the gospel. We as “believers” show what we believe both in what we say and in what we do – and perhaps most importantly, we show our truest selves in the relationship between what we say and what we do. We are the gospel to the world. So if we bring it couched in fear or loathing, it is a gospel of fear and contempt. If we bring the gospel at the point of a sword or gun, it is the gospel of violence and domination. If we bring the gospel through vindictiveness, gossip, condescension, vanity, self-righteousness, aggressiveness, surety, then the gospel we bring is those things.

Perhaps this is what the gospel-writer John was talking about when he meant that God is love – our gods are whatever we do, how we treat others reveals our truest god, and the God of the gospel is revealed in loving.

When Paul writes a few verses later: “I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them,” the word translated as “win” is an economic term akin to “make profit.” Another way to phrase this might be: I have met everyone on their own terms as a servant to their best selves, so that I could be profitable to them. Being of service to others – especially others who see themselves as quite different from you – is a gospel-bearing act.

It adds flavor to Paul’s declaration of being all things to all people, so that he may save some. Save, too, is an economic term – and saving for the sake of saving is a poor economic plan. But saving for some future, better use is wise indeed. Maybe this has something to do with Paul’s word choice. We aren’t saved from something, but for something, for an act, for acts of loving. That we might also make the gospel free of charge.

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Monday, September 15, 2008

As fine as frost on the ground… it is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat. (Exodus 16:2-15)
One difficulty for me – intellectually – is that God answers the people’s complaining. In some stories God answer their confidence, in others God punishes lack of faith, and in still others God surprises us before the question of faith is even raised. Here, the text says, God tests the people – except there is no test: the people complain and God provides.
There is also the likelihood that the morning-dew-bread the Hebrews find on the ground doesn’t taste very good. My understanding is that this is a natural phenomenon that still occurs to this day, but that the manna is a rather bland sort of emergency sustenance (notwithstanding the later description of it tasting like honey wafers [v31]).
I want to complain and have God meet my needs. I want God to deliver me from my anxieties, my frustrations, my uncertainties. I want God to provide for me a simple living. Like the Hebrews, I wanted my freedom more than anything else, but now that I am in the wilderness of adulthood, fending more for myself and finding the struggle terrifying and depressingly difficult, with starvation and homelessness hounding me on and threatening me at every failure. And I wonder if I also am finding the solutions open to me on the ground too bland to satisfy me.
I don’t think God is testing me – surely I would fail any such test, and I don’t think God is so petty as to schoolmarm me so. But I wonder if “test” is really describing our (human) experience, rather than God’s intention. Here we are, holding fast to a set of convictions, a distinct worldview (of hope and generosity, in constant tension with the world’s view of despair and struggle), and along come circumstances that seem to reinforce our basest instincts, our jealousy and rage, our protectiveness and resentfulness. It seems like an opportunity to choose between value-systems. It feels like a test – a test of our resolve, of our creativity, of our commitment to confidence in a worldview or story or hope that just doesn’t make sense sometimes. It feels like we can fail – that once choice is what we are supposed to select, and the other plainly wrong (but tempting for all that). Calling it a “test” is a descriptive term, not a prescriptive term – it describes the situation from our perspective, through the lens of our experience, not from the perspective of God. (Scripture is, we must remember, so often our human description and approximation of our experience of encountering God.)
But realizing that it isn’t a test engineered by God, but just feels like a test to me, doesn’t change how it feels to me. I feel tested – and failing. I want God to hear my complaining and meet my needs no matter what. I just want to cry out and be met by God, soothed by God, handed new life and strength, a change of certain situations, have my needs met (if humbly) without my having to worry about it. That’s what I want.
But can I not worry? Can I not be anxious? Will I not despair? Surely I will fail. But I suppose that’s one point of the story: God will meet us anyway. God will cover us with dew and chill, and when that has lifted (before the heat of the day melts it away) there will be a thin, flaky, surprising hope on the ground, sustenance for a little while longer.

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Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Getting Back In the Saddle

Acts 2:42-47

This should be an easy one for me to meditate on – so harmonious with my own thinking, so bold in its vision, so clear in its conviction, so powerful in its example. Perhaps I’m out of practice, but although many sermons come to mind, new insight is not burning within me. Perhaps I should take the scripture’s advice: devote myself to the apostles’ teaching, break bread with others, pray often, share my material wealth with the poor.

I am struck by the words devoted to the apostles’ teaching, and the difference between my job and my discipleship comes into focus. As a minister, my job is the devotion of the saints to the gospel of Jesus Christ. But my discipleship, my personal devotion, does not come with the title or in the 60-hour work week. Over the past two months or so – my first on the job, filled with new responsibilities and stress – I have focused on the job, and even lost site of the big picture there. I have been sucked into the details, the administrativa, the responsibility, the pressure. I need to remember to let myself breathe, and breathe intentionally with the Spirit sometimes, in order to be a good minister and a good disciple.

I am grateful for the patience of those around me: my wife, my co-workers and neighbor on whom I depend so, the congregants and church members who want to meet and welcome me. Surely, I am not done with the transition process – to European thinker, to Dutch resident, to regional president of the church, to supervisor, and so on. But I am hearing the need within me for more devotion. Prayer, breaking bread, sharing possessions (and time?), and returning to the scriptures as a tool for devotion. (I get too academic about scripture, sometimes.)

All the spiritual gifts and community proceeds from devotion to the apostles’ teaching. That’s where it all starts. At least for me. At least for this morning. I’m sure I’ll have more to learn tomorrow.

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Monday, February 25, 2008

The One Who Said Yes

John 11:1-16
Then Thomas said to the rest of the disciples, "Let us also go, that we may die with him."

However disturbing the fact that Jesus would intentionally neglect a dying friend, subjecting his family and friends to such grief, what I find worse is that Jesus does it as an opportunity for the glorification of God. (Couldn't God find better ways for glorification? Better ways to teach Jesus' followers? Better ways to inspire hope and assurance?) I can only assume that whatever Jesus was doing where he was, was so important that he could not leave until it was done. (Neither the place or Jesus' activities there ever receive mention in John's Gospel, however, so I question that idea, too.)

For me, right now, the real hero of the story at this point is Thomas Didymus ("the twin"), who speaks the words quoted above.

Jesus is heading back to Judea, where (in John's Gospel, at least) Jesus repeatedly visits and is threatened with death each time (and still manages to win converts and disciples as loyal and loving as Lazarus and his sisters). In John's Gospel, Jesus returning the Judea is the equivalent of walking into hostile, enemy territory. This is foolish behavior - obviously there is work to be done and disiples to make aplenty in the Galilee and even the Decapolis (the Hellenic cities on the far side of the Jordan). Jesus and his disciples receive a warmer welcome in Samaria than in Judea! But Judea is where Jesus is going - and apparently the disciples have a choice whether or not to follow him.

Of course, they always have a choice. They are not servants bound to a master. They are not slaves. At every moment of every day, they must choose whether or not to continue alongside Jesus. It is just like marriage or baptism - you can't rely on that first experience to see you through all the experiences to come, you must choose over and over again to be married, or a disciple. We all get to choose. Have to choose.

But to be a disciple, you often choose death in the service and footsteps of Jesus.

Here, Jesus ups and starts walking away, heading for Judea - and unspeakable resistance. His disciples, sitting around the fire, are stunned and unsure, questioning and reconsidering. And Thomas speaks up - "let us go with him, that we may die with him."

Thomas is the one who sees the reality - that following Jesus means walking in the shadow of death, of resisting powers and defying conventions in order to minister to those most needy. And that those in power and those whose fortunes are bound up by the conventions of culture and economy and might will bring all of their power, wealth and violence to stop you from upsetting things. And that what it means to be a disciple is just that: to suffer and die in upsetting things for the rich and powerful and proud.

Thomas says: I'm in. I signed on to this man's vision, and I believe in it. The world can be different, can be better, and if we have to go to the heart of the beast in order to start changing it, then I''m following Jesus there.

But here's the key to the story: Those that followed Jesus into the jaws of death were the ones to witness a miracle. Grief would be healed, the dead would rise, answers and faith would be found. Only those willing to risk persecution and death for the Kingdom of God witnessed the miracle. Only those willing to die with Jesus (rather than live without him) glimpsed the Kingdom.

Are we given no less a choice? Are the stakes lower for us than for Thomas? Are the Powers and Principalities of this world more congenial to Jesus' vision and the Kingdom of God?

Can we say, with Thomas, "Let us also go, that we may die with him"? Will we say, "Let us also go..."? Despite the trials and resistance? Are we willing to consider the values of the Kingdom of God more trustworthy than the values of our Culture, Economy, Government, Pocketbook?

Defying all logic and convention, Jesus went to Judea to raise someone from the dead. Are we willing to follow him into dangerous territory to witness a miracle?

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Where did it go?

John 9:6-12

"So the man went and washed, and came home seeing." (v7, NIV)

What an interesting way to put it: and came home seeing. The blind man didn't immediately receive sight, didn't dance and shout at the pool after seeing for the first time in his life, didn't run first to the Temple to offer sacrifcices in thanks for a miracle. He came home seeing, and was ridiculed by his friends and neighbors.

But isn't this always the way? If we come home different, with our eyes opened to a new reality, with new ideas and convictions, if we come home transformed, we consider it miraculous. While those still mired in the old world, in the old ways of seeing, in the old reality with the old convictions, will accuse us of treachery and treat us with suspicion. They will doubt the sincerity of our transformation - were we ever really the way we were, are we really the way we are now? And they will question us: How did this happen? And they will not be satisfied with our answer.

"How then were your eyes opened?!"

"Where is this man?"

I don't know.

This transformation, this healing, this opening to new worlds isn't something you can locate, corral, drag into court or put under a microscope. Its sponteneity is part of its charm. It is working in all of us all of the time, and sometimes some of us are particularly open to it. Jesus is walking all around - and there are blind people left and right. Why does Jesus stop to heal this one, who didn't even ask? Who can say? But it doesn't mean that man didn't receive (in)sight. Just because lightening strikes one person and not another doesn't mean lightening didn't strike at all.

And just like lightening, Jesus disappears, leaving the smoking, seeing man behind to face the doubts, looks and scrutiny of his peers.

Where is this man, they asked him.

"I don't know," he said. I'm not sure what happened, or where to go from here. All I know is that I see now what I did not before. And I will have to figure out how to be in this world now.


Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Work of the Day

John 9:1-5

It is interesting, first of all, that Jesus should say that neither the blind man nor his parents sinned. I am assuming that implied is "that he was born blind," because the liklihood of three people living sinlessly is pretty low - even lower that Jesus wouldn't find such examples worth commenting further on. But there is hope here, too, that we might be genuinely capable of living without sin in certain contexts - on our best behavior, if you will. Or, even if we can't live without sin, one aspect of the Grace of God is God's willingness to overlook or forgive sin - particularly sin in spite of our best intentions or actions.

Notice, though, that Jesus does not dwell on the issue of sin. A short, dismissive answer to the disciples saying in other words that sin isn't the concern here, and Jesus zeroes in on the real issue: "As long as it is day, we must to the work of him who sent me." (NIV) All this talk of sin and deserving is a distraction - the real issue is for us to be at God's work while we are able.

For Jesus, the work of God is healing those blind without fault - in other words, healing injustice and relieving suffering. It isn't so much that Jesus is a miracle-worker - there were plenty of miracle-workers across the Roman Empire. Even for the Gospel writer John the miraculous plays second-fiddle to the purpose and commentary of Jesus surrounding his works, what we are supposed to learn from the story or walk away from this reading believing.

We must do the work of that which sends us. The nature of our God is revealed by our actions. Even if we Christians sing devotedly one hour a week but live the rest of our lives as if that one hour meant nothing, then we reveal our personal god to be shallow, untransformative, soothing for us but insensitive to the cruelties of the world, and unable to move us to action and sacrifice on others' behalf.

We must do the work of that which sends us. If our God is one that has the power to move mountains or redeem sinners or make us want to do things that do not serve our own interests or pleasures, then where are we in relation to that power? If we believe that God can - and have every expectation that God will - be active in the world, in the hearts and minds of people; or that God can and does work in our world to end injustice, transform people, redeem individuals and societies, use every opportunity to transform what is to what should be, then why are we not just as actively engaged?

Night is coming! When no one can work! We have only so much time, people! We do not live forever. Our work for good or ill will not survive forever. The structures and mechanisms - governments, laws, cultures, economic systems, personal relationships - they will not last forever. We have to get to work in them now, before we have lost our chance. (Even then, though, we'll have the chance to work in our new situation - there is Grace even in our failure to act.)

Night is coming - the sun will set on opportunities before long. You will pass someone on the street needing to be reached out to. You will pass the opportunity to give your money to places where it is being put to the work of God. You will not stop from being angry, when gentleness and patience would be better called for. You will lose a friendship to time or distance. You will spend your money on silly things. You will move homes, change neighbors, change jobs and co-workers. Night is coming! Things will change - and you will have lost the opportunity to do the work of that which drives us.

Where are you in your day? What opportunities are at hand for you?

God cares deeply for us and for our world. Where Marxism and Capitalism fail - believing that people are merely products of their environment on the one hand, and that people's environment is a commodity to be purchased or crafted without regard to their spiritual condition - Jesus succeeds: the world is transformed and redeemed by the transformation and redemption of individuals, who then build a new world within the old, seed communities of Zion.

While it is yet day, what seeds are we planting?

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