Sunday, August 24, 2014

Who's the Greatest?

Who’s the Greatest?

Gospel for St. Bartholomew’s Day: St. Luke 22: 24-30

24 And there was also a strife among them, which of them should be accounted the greatest.
25 And he said unto them, The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and they that exercise authority upon them are called benefactors.
26 But ye shall not be so: but he that is greatest among you, let him be as the younger; and he that is chief, as he that doth serve.
27 For whether is greater, he that sitteth at meat, or he that serveth? is not he that sitteth at meat? but I am among you as he that serveth.
28 Ye are they which have continued with me in my temptations.
29 And I appoint unto you a kingdom, as my Father hath appointed unto me;
30 That ye may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

My brother and I came to the supper table fussing the way that brothers do. My mother said to us, “Y’all need to stop. Your daddy’s grandmother just died.” Immediately we realized that our bickering, which was never right, was especially inappropriate at that moment
St. Luke tells us about similarly inappropriate moment of contention among the Apostles.

1. The Kingdom of Contention
We read in today’s Gospel that “there was also strife among them, which of them should be accounted greatest.” What is surprising about this is where and when it happened. Jesus and the disciples were in the Upper Room. They had just celebrated the Passover feast which Jesus transformed into the Lord’s Supper. Soon Jesus and eleven of them would go out to the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus would pour sweat and pray in agony that he might be delivered from what lay ahead.
We may be tempted to look back and ask how they could have argued among themselves at a time like that and to think we would never have done it. It would be wise for us not to jump to that conclusion.
They did sense that something important was about to happen. With the Jesus’ kingly ride into Jerusalem just a few days before they probably were thinking, since they had come to believe that Jesus was the Messiah, that he was going to establish the Kingdom of God. He had said just a few minutes before during the meal that he would not drink the Passover wine again till the Kingdom came. Perhaps it was just about to happen.
That would mean the restoration of the Jewish kingdom and of Israel’s glory. In the Kingdom there would be positions to hold, power to exercise, proximity to Jesus the Messiah to enjoy. So an argument broke out about which one of them was the greatest and who would have the most prominence in the Kingdom.

This is not the first time they showed such concern for personal prestige. Just before his transfiguration Jesus had said some of them would live to see the Kingdom of God come. Then on the Mount they had seen him in his glory talking with Moses and Elijah. Not long after, when they were traveling together, they began to argue about which was the greatest. When they arrived at their destination, Jesus asked, “What were y’all discussing back there on the road?” They were embarrassed and said nothing.
Then, not long before Jesus’ triumphal entry, James and John got their mother, who was probably Jesus’ aunt, to ask Jesus if one of them could sit on his right and one on his left in the Kingdom. When the other disciples heard about it they got indignant that James and John were jockeying for the two most important places in the kingdom.
Pride and envy were strong in the disciples. Position, prestige, and power were persistent concerns among them. These things inevitably lead to bickering and contention.
Jesus, though his soul was already troubled, showed remarkable patience with them. He might have rebuked them sharply, but rather he pointed out to them where you would expect to see the kinds of concern they were showing.
This is what is you expect among the Gentiles – that is, in the kingdoms of this world - not in the Kingdom of God. In worldly kingdoms kings lord it over their subjects. That is true today as it was then. Dictators of all sorts are concerned with keeping people under control, with imposing their wills on their citizens. Even in democracies like ours much of politics is focused on influence, status, and power.
Worldly authorities also want to be praised as benefactors of the people, even when they are stealing from the people. They want the reputation of bestowing great benefits on their citizens. This, too, is true even in our system of government in which politicians remind us how they bring home the bacon and of all the good things they accomplish for us. These kinds of things are inevitable in worldly governments, even the good ones.
What should shock us is when we see these things among God’s people in the church. St. Paul wrote of those who preached the gospel “from envy and rivalry.” St. Peter thought it necessary to warn presbyters not to domineer those under their charge. St. John wrote of a controlling church leader named Diotrephes who “likes to put himself first.”
It is a healthy thing for us to ask ourselves some questions about our homes, our lives in the church, and our relations with one another. How important do I think I am? How much do I need recognition? How much do I care about my reputation? Am I jealous of others? Do I have to have my way? Am I motivated by concern for my position, prestige, and power?
Jesus pointed his disciples to the Gentile rulers, and he points us to the kingdoms of this world, and says, “But ye shall not be so.”

2. The Kingdom of Christ
Jesus reminded the Apostles that the kingdoms of this world are kingdoms of contention because people in general and rulers in particular are obsessed with power and prestige. The Apostles showed the same spirit by arguing among themselves about which one was the greatest. And Jesus gently rebuked that spirit by saying, “But ye shall not be so.”
Jesus was saying, “You are concerned about your places in my kingdom, but in my kingdom we do not operate according to worldly concerns. For that reason, ‘Ye shall not be so.’ It’s different in my kingdom.”
But how are those who put their faith in Christ and follow him supposed to think and act? How are we to live together in our homes and our church? How should we relate to one another as fellow believers?
Jesus shows them and us. He turns the world’s values and the world’s behavior on their heads.
What is greatness in Christ’s kingdom? “He that is greatest among you, let him be as the younger.” Especially in the ancient world, age had its privileges. It still does to some extent. I can go to McDonald’s and order a “senior coffee” and pay 50 cents. I get $3 off the cost of a haircut. But this was much more pronounced in Jesus time. The lowliest person in the household or the synagogue or among the followers of a rabbi was the youngest. The youngest was supposed to defer to everyone older than himself. He was the one who was supposed to do the harder and more unpleasant chores. Things like washing feet.
But Jesus said, “Those who are great in my kingdom behave as though they were the youngest member of the group. Do you want to be great? Then forget about your status. Don’t think about your importance. Think as act as the youngest who has the lowest status, fewest privileges, and does the most menial work.”
Jesus adds, “(He) that is chief (among you),(let him be) as he that doth serve. For whether is greater, he that sitteth at meat, or he that serveth? is not he that sitteth at meat?” Who is the greatest at a banquet? Those who sit at tables? Or the waiters? It’s obvious that greater honor and privilege belongs to those who are waited on. 
I care about waiters – at least most of the time – because three of my sons worked as waiters before they began their careers. I know the kind of stuff waiters put up with and how let down they are when people expect them to meet their every need but do not follow up with an appropriate tip. I used to figure the minimum tip, but now I usually try to leave a generous tip.  But in the ancient world waiters were not employees who got paid an hourly wage and received tips. They were servants or slaves whose role in life was to serve their master and those he entertained.
So Jesus says, “Do you want to be the greatest in my kingdom? Do you want achieve the highest status? Then think like a bondservant, act like a waiter. Don’t expect others to do for you. Look for what you can do for others.”
Jesus clenches his point not by saying, “Now quit this arguing. Don’t you know I am about to die?” Nor does he say, “Now, Peter, James, and John, get off your high horses, and start doing the menial chores that we need done.”
No, he says, “But I am among you as one who serves.” He the rabbi, who was supposed to be served by his disciples, served them instead. This was characteristic of Jesus life. He served.
But Jesus is not just saying, “Look at the way I have served you and follow my example.” Do you know what a moralistic sermon is? It is a sermon that tells you what your duty is, makes you feel guilty, and then calls you to try harder to do better. But Jesus is not a moralist. He is a Redeemer.
He is pointing them to his greatest service. “For the Son of man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.” He is speaking about his ultimate service and sacrifice, the cross where he paid the price of our freedom from guilt and condemnation by dying for us. That is what makes the difference in the kingdom. The atoning death of Jesus. The giving his life to save us from our sins.  His death gains the forgiveness of our sins and our reconciliation with God. This is what turns things upside down in his kingdom and changes the ways we think and act.
As St Paul put it, “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: who being the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: but made himself of no reputation, who took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: and, being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.”
It is the saving servanthood of Jesus that frees us from the world’s obsession with prestige and power and turns us into servants.

3. The Kingdom to Come
Jesus shows us the kingdoms of this world are kingdoms of contention because people are concerned with who they are and what they can do. But the kingdom of Christ is a different sort of kingdom because Christ is a different kind of king. He calls us who know him to live in his kingdom as those who serve.
Now he tells them that there is a kingdom that will come. It will come when he comes again. One of the biggest mistakes the disciples made was to think that the Kingdom of God would be a Jewish kingdom and that Jesus was going to establish it right now. Even after his death and resurrection, at his ascension the disciples were still wondering if he was then going then to establish a Jewish kingdom. But the kingdom that Jesus came ultimately to establish is not centered around ethnic Israel, and it is not for this age.
Again Jesus might have sharply rebuked his Apostles for their inappropriate arguing about how important they were and left it at that. Instead he commends them and makes them a promise.
“You have continued with me in my temptations.” In Greek the same word is translated with two different English words: “temptations” and “trials.” The two concepts are related as every trial is also a temptation and every temptation is also a trial. But here most translations now use “trials” rather that “temptations.” What Jesus is saying is, “You have stood with me in all the trials I have faced in carrying out the mission the Father gave me.” It’s interesting that Jesus gives them this commendation when they are about to fail to stand by him in his greatest trial. But Jesus is patient and forgiving, and he knows that after they have had their weakness exposed he will restore and use them.
So he says, “My Father is giving me a kingdom that will be revealed at the end of the age. Then there will be glory. I have known that the destination of glory travels the road of humility and service – doing his will and accomplishing your salvation Now I am going to have you share in that kingdom and glory."
In the coming kingdom they will eat and drink at his table. This is the great banquet of fellowship and joy that fulfills our celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The communion we have with Christ at his Table is a foretaste of the perfect communion we will have with him in his kingdom.
They will even sit with him as judges of Israel, and, as St. Paul would make clear later, of the whole world. Don’t worry about present prestige and power. That’s not our concern now. And, when the glory comes in the age to come, we will be transformed so that we can enjoy the prestige and power in the right way. We won’t be competing with one another; we won’t be jealous and envious toward one another.  We will rejoice in Christ’s glory and the rewards he gives to us – and equally the rewards he gives to others, too.

When Jesus disciples were expecting him to establish a worldly kingdom, sit on a throne in a palace, wearing a jeweled crown, servants at his beck and call and a powerful army to enforce his will, Jesus got up from the table, took off his outer clothing, wrapped a towel around himself, picked up a basin, and knelt at each of his disciples’ feet and washed them. There was no servant and each of them thought he was too important to do it. Jesus did it.
They needed to learn, and we need to learn, that what embodies Christ’s Kingdom is not the palace but the Upper Room, not the crown but a basin, not prestige but a servant’s towel, not others bowing to us but we bowing before them and washing their dirty feet.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Ferguson: Facts or Feelings?

Two African American 
Perspectives on Ferguson

My wife thinks I watch "Cops" too much. Her theory is that I identify with the people the cops are arresting. She could be right. I am a "law and order conservative" who is also suspicious of the police. I believe most traffic law enforcement, especially the operation of speed traps, has much more to do with the public coffers than the public safety. I don't like police checkpoints because they smack to me of a police state that interferes with the liberty of citizens to move about freely. I don't think it is any business of the police to ask, "Where have you been? Where are you going?" If I were stopped and asked if I would mind the police searching my car, I would say, "I do unless you have a search warrant." Then, I thought tasers were supposed to be used to avoid the use of deadly force, but it appears to me that police use them in cases where deadly force could never be justified. 

Enough of that. What interests me is here is how different are the outlooks of two African American men on the events in Ferguson.

Brian Lorritts has an interesting piece regarding
the Ferguson tragedy at Christianity Today online. He argues that we all have cultural interpretative grids through which we look at events and understand life. He calls upon white Christians not to focus on the facts first but to listen with empathy - to understand how African Americans feel about Ferguson. He is right to call on all of us to be self-aware of our cultural hermeneutics and to remind us of the importance of trying to understand the feelings that lie beneath the words and actions of others. 

The problem I have with Mr. Lorritts piece is what appears to be an assumption that there is one African American point of view which whites need to understand. It seems to me that Mr. Lorritts represents, not the outlook of all African Americans, but a group of mostly young educated African American Christian ministers and thinkers. There seems to be a trend among these men to be more aware of and sensitive about their cultural history, experiences, and outlook and to push back against what they see as white racial/cultural bias within the churches. 

However, it is not the case that all African
Americans see Ferguson as does Mr. Lorritts. A case in point is Thomas Sowell whose August 21 column "The Media and the Mob" argues that what is important is not to get caught up in emotional reactions to Ferguson but to focus on the facts. Ferguson is a tragedy, but we need to wait and find out what happened. 

I do not know what to make of this. Thomas Sowell is, to be sure, a libertarian conservative who has written about race in a manner that is not representative of the African American "mainstream" outlook. But he is an African American. How did he get his grid? What experiences shaped it? How did he and Mr. Lorritts come to such different ways of looking at Ferguson? 

I know part of the difference has to be age. But there has to be something more - something that makes Brian Lorritts focus on the importance race while Thomas Sowell focuses on its lack of importance. 

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Worldview Causes Suicide

Richard, Rush, Robin

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

They Won't Tell You This in Church

Sometimes the Dark Surprises

William Cowper

Sunday we sang William Cowper's "Sometimes a Light Surprises."
Sometimes a light surprises the Christian while he sings;
It is the Lord, who rises with healing in His wings:
When comforts are declining,He grants the soul again
A season of clear shining, to cheer it after rain. 
In holy contemplation we sweetly then pursue
The theme of God’s salvation, and find it ever new.
Set free from present sorrow,we cheerfully can say,
Let the unknown tomorrow bring with it what it may.
Toward the end of the hymn I had a disturbing thought.

Then yesterday Robin Williams killed himself, and the disturbing thought of Sunday became more discomfiting. It would appear there is no connection between the author of "There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood" and the profane and blasphemous comedic genius. But there is.

Today on Facebook there are the expected Christian comments about Williams. 
One Comment: It is interesting how our culture is also "ok" with those in the business of "performing arts" continually using and abusing drugs. Without Christ it is no wonder that depression sets in.
Another: Depression can have many causes. Some are physical. Heavy drug use damages the brain, and Williams had been a heavy drug user in his past (though he had been sober for some time). But depression isn't exclusively physical. Depression can also be caused by guilt feelings, or the emotional effects of a philosophy of despair. E.g., believing that life is ultimately tragic and meaningless is depressing.
Dick Knodel, with his characteristic rigidly antithetical outlook and absolute certainty, wrote:
I've not heard anyone address the issue of Robin William's arrogant unbelief. Using the remarkable gifts God gave him, Williams lived a life of open secularism before God. In almost every way possible, Robin flaunted his autonomy!... But all that bravado was turned on its head in his suicide! He had no saving gospel, and all his arrogance manifested itself in the ultimate contradiction -- suicide...
Robin William's death spoke volumes about his spiritual stupidity, and awful, empty, human vanity. Such is the dirty underbelly of man's impudence in the face of Christ!

Here is one of several approving Facebook comments on Dick's post:
Thanks so much for this Status Update.The "self-destruct button" has eternal and damnable consequences.Even when he was happy he looked pained. Behind all the laughter was hopelessness fueled by unbelief.
 know all these comments reflect sincere belief. But the authors don't get it. I know that because of something about William Cowper they don't tell you in church. It was what I was thinking about when we sang the last hymn about the light that surprises last Sunday.

William Cowper was converted (in the crisis experience sense) while in an asylum after a suicide attempt. (One of the things they usually don't tell you in Baptist and Presbyterian churches is that he was an Anglican.) After that he was an evangelical. Not only an evangelical but a Calvinist. Not just a Calvinist but an experimentalist. He lived for awhile with John Newton. They wrote poetry together (though some think Newton was a drag on Cowper's poetry and that Cowper wrote best when separated from Newton). Though their friendship became somewhat strained, they remained friends. 

A great deal of Cowper's poetry gives expression to experimental, evangelical, Calvinism.  Consider the final two stanzas of his "A Living and a Dead Faith":
Easy indeed it were to reach
A mansion in the courts above,
If swelling words and fluent speech
Might serve instead of faith and love.
But none shall gain the blissful place,
Or God's unclouded glory see,
Who talks of free and sovereign grace,
Unless that grace has made him free!
If you follow one of the obedience boys, you have heard that teaching, perhaps even that poem.

But there's more to Cowper's life...and death.... His last, and, some think, his best poem was written in 1799 (he died in 1800). It is based on an account he had read of a sailor who was swept overboard in a storm. According to a witness the man swam and stayed afloat for awhile, could not be rescued, watched as the ship moved further away, and finally drowned. Cowper describes the feelings the poor sailor may have had, but in the last two stanzas turns to his own situation, first identifying with and then separating himself from the sailor:
I therefore purpose not, or dream,
Descanting on his fate,
To give the melancholy theme
A more enduring date:
But misery still delights to trace
Its semblance in another's case. 
No voice divine the storm allay'd,
No light propitious shone;
When, snatch'd from all effectual aid,
We perish'd, each alone:
But I beneath a rougher sea,
And whelm'd in deeper gulfs than he.
The last two lines reflect a statement Cowper had made in 1793: "My sin and judgment are alike peculiar. I am a castaway, deserted and condemned." 

Cowper's pre-evangelical-conversion suicide attempt was the first of several. There came a point at which the despair finally descended not to lift the rest of his life. So far as we know, Cowper died believing himself doomed. That's not the way Christian biography is supposed to end.

Though Cowper died thinking himself damned Newton did not think so. He believed Cowper woke, no doubt to his own surprise, in glory.

One of Cowper's poems, addressed to Newton the former seafarer, describes the difference between himself and Newton. It also describes two poles of Christian experience:

That ocean you of late survey'd,
Those rocks I too have seen,
But I, afflicted and dismay'd,
You, tranquil and serene. 
You from the flood-controlling steep
Saw stretch'd before your view,
With conscious joy, the threat'ning deep,
No longer such to you. 
To me, the waves that ceaseless broke
Upon the dang'rous coast
Hoarsely and ominously spoke
Of all my treasure lost. 
Your sea of troubles you have past,
And found the peaceful shore;
I, tempest-toss'd, and wreck'd at last,
Come home to port no more.
 I don't know the how or the why of Cowper's life and despair. Nor do you. Here is a comment that makes sense from the perspective of Christian faith and points to the real difference between the depression of Robin Williams and William Cowper is to be found essentially in Christ now and experientially only in eternity:
All men are tragic figures. Artists have a deeper sense of their own failings and helped us to sense our own. Robin Williams was funny because we saw the conflict in him - funny, joyful, silly, simple conflicted with a dour drug user, with a broken family whose wrinkly eyes made you either want to melt with mirth or explode with sorrow. He was a tragic figure, and we sensed it, because he showed us the tragedy of who we are. In Christ we have already been freed from this tragedy, just not yet.
My favorite Cowper hymn is "God Moves in a Mysterious Way." I will continue to sing these verses:
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head. 
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.
For some those big clouds of mercy will break in the age to come. Some will behold that smiling face in heaven. For some the bitter bud will yield to the sweet flower in the world to come. Not till then. 

So I hope.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Problem with the Church Is People

But Then There Are People

(Anglican Version - Preached the Presbyterian Version Last Week)

Homily Text

The text for our Homily this morning is 1 Thessalonians 5:14.

Let me tell you first a little about this letter. Thessalonica was a seaport city of more than 100,000 on the north east coast of Greece. St. Paul visited it on the second of three missionary trips. From the beginning there was opposition to the Gospel. It was so intense that Paul was able to stay there a few months at most. Paul left behind a new church which experienced persecution from the beginning. From Thessalonica Paul moved on to Berea and then Corinth. From Corinth he wrote the church in Thessalonica twice. 1 Thessalonians was the first or second letter Paul wrote that is in our New Testament and was written around 50 AD.

I’ll read my text first from the King James Version which is the Bible in the pews. Then I’ll read it from a more recent version, the English Standard Version.

Now we exhort you, brethren, warn them that are unruly, comfort the feelbleminded, support the weak, be patient toward all men. (KJV)

And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. (ESV)

The church is a wonderful institution - the household of God, the body of Christ, the temple of the Holy Spirit. It’s wonderful so long as we focus on the church’s relationship to God.

But then there are the people. See if this poem rings true:

                To dwell above
                with those we love
                Ah, that will be glory!

                To dwell below 
                with those we know,
                Now that’s a different story!*

July 30 marked 42 years of ordained ministry for me. Over these 42 years I have often remarked, “The church would be a wonderful thing if it weren’t for people.” The only alteration I would now make is to put myself at the top of the list of those who make the church less than wonderful.

Some, no probably most, of God’s people have problems at least some of the time. Big problems, persistent problems. Paul tells us who they are and what our obligation toward them is.

The commands of verse 14 - and they are that, commands - are directed not to bishops or priests but to the congregation itself. These responsibilities belong to us all.

1. Admonish the idle.

The word “idle” means more generally “unruly” or “undisciplined.” It’s a military term that means to be “out of step.” or “in disarray.” The picture is of an army that is marching. But, there are always stragglers. One reason Stonewall Jackson’s corps was called “the foot cavalry” was because he and his officers rode up and down the line of march pressing the stragglers back into the ranks. They kept the troops together and moving.

A congregation is also an army, an army commanded by Christ. Just as it is essential for army that its troops keep in step and move forward together to accomplish the army’s mission, so it is is important for church members to march together under Christ to fulfill the church’s mission of making disciples of the nations.

The problem with unruly or out of step church members in Thessalonica was that some of the members had become literally idle. They had quit working. The reason they stopped working may have been that they were anticipating that the Second Coming of our Lord would happen soon, so they reasoned, “If the Lord is coming any day now, why continue working?” As time passed, and the Lord did not come, their idleness became a problem for the church. The church has a responsibility to care for its needy members, so these members of the congregation were probably living off the congregation’s benevolence. Otherwise they would have gone hungry.

Paul hints at this problem 1 Thessalonians 3: “...we urge you, live quietly, to manage your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you” (10, 11). When, Paul wrote 2 Thessalonians, probably a few months later, the problem had not improved so Paul addressed it much more directly: 
6 Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. 7 For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, 8 nor did we eat anyone's bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. 9 It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. 10 For even when we were with you, we would give you this command:If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. 11 For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. 12 Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.
Idleness is just one way we can be unruly. Anytime we get out of step with the ways that Christ clearly calls his people to live, anytime we fall out of the ranks of the church as it fulfills the mission Christ has given it, we are unruly, undisciplined. It may be that are no longer faithful in church attendance. Or we are failing to bring up our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. Or we slip into shady business practices. Or any other significant and persistent departure from the clear duties and responsibilities Christian living.

As Christians, we should not engage in snooping on one another, or acting as busybodies, but we should notice when someone, who was in step with Christ, falls out of step. That means we care about the fellowship of the church and the spiritual welfare of our fellow Christians.

What are members of the church to do about those who live unruly lives? Paul says that others should “admonish them.” The word “admonish” means to confront another person with words. These are not demeaning, angry, or self-righteous words. But they are straightforward words. When we admonish we point out what the person is doing wrong, we call them to repentance, and, if necessary, we warn them of the consequences of leading an unruly life. It is not harsh scolding but tough and loving admonition. Paul gives us a clear example of admonishment in the verses we read a moment ago from 2 Thessalonians.

There are unruly Christians. Sometimes we are those unruly ones. When that is the case, we should receive the admonitions given us by brothers and sisters in Christ. Sometimes we notice the unruliness of other Christians. Then we should be willing to offer a word of admonition spoken with Christian love.

2. Encourage the fainthearted.

Sometimes at my age, I prefer the King James Version, “Comfort the feebleminded.” However, “feebleminded” did not mean then, what it means now. Paul is talking, rather, about the “small-souled” people, who are those Christians who are fearful and discouraged who are becoming fainthearted in the Christian life.

There are at least two reasons some Christians in Thessalonica were becoming disheartened.

One is that from the very beginning they had experienced persecution. Sometimes we as Christians, who are becoming, if we are not already, a minority sub-group in the United States, feel we are persecuted, but we have not experienced much persecution of the sort that leads to real suffering, even death. Christians who have been killed or driven out of Mosul know persecution. Miriam Ibrahim, who was imprisoned in Sudan under the sentence of lashing and hanging, knew persecution. Christians in the Islamic countries and in places like North Korea experience persecution. If you can become discouraged by the opposition to Christianity in North America, you can understand how Christians in Thessalonica and in many places in the world today, where they are driven out, imprisoned, lose jobs and property, and threatened with death can become fearful and discouraged.

Another possible cause of people in the church in Thessalonica becoming disheartened was a misunderstanding or lack of knowledge about the Second Coming of the Christ and what would become of their Christian loved ones who had died. They knew that at the coming of Christ the Lord’s people would experience the fullness of their salvation. But, since they first learned of that hope, the Lord had not come and some members of the congregation had died. What would happen to those who had died? Did their dying mean they would miss out on the things promised to the Lord’s people? They did not understand that at the coming of the Lord all of his people who have died will be raised, and then all them, whether still alive or raised from the dead, will be together and with the Lord forever.

We know that there are many things that can lead to Christians being discouraged and tempted to give up. A temperamental tendency toward to depression, prolonged loneliness, loss of a spouse, disappointment in love, job loss, an ongoing struggle with temptation - all sorts of things can leave Christians disheartened.

Disheartened Christians should be encouraged. They should not be disdained because they are discouraged; that will only make matters worse. Empty cliches, even ones that sound spiritual will not help. What they need is for fellow Christians to come along side with empathetic presence. Sometimes the most important thing at first is not to say something but to be there. But then there comes a time for reminders of God’s faithfulness, affirmations of God’s promises, understanding sharing of how God has seen you through in tough times.

Paul wants us to encourage one another in ways that get us back to living for Christ and serving God’s people. Imagine going on a climb up a steep hill when you come across someone who feels he has come to the end of his rope. He is very tired, very discouraged, and has sat down on the side of the trail, thinking he will not, he cannot, go on. Encouragement does not mean telling the person that you understand and that you agree that he should just stay put till someone comes along later who can help him to back to the bottom of the hill. No, encouragement means that you stop, perhaps sit down beside the person for awhile, offer some comforting and strengthening words, and then say, “Come on. Let’s climb this hill together. You can lean on me if you need to. The Lord will help us, and we can help one another.”

There are disheartened Christians. If we are disheartened, Paul wants us to be open to receive encouragement. If we come across fellow Christians who are disheartened, Paul want us to encourage them.

3. Help the weak.

The weak are those who struggle with moral weaknesses. In the New Testament era, most of the converts were Gentiles who had not been brought up with moral code of the Jews that was based on the Ten Commandments. The Greek-Roman culture tolerated, even approved of, many things the Jewish people knew were wrong in God’s sight. Some of the cities where churches were established were notoriously wicked places. This was the kind of world we are coming to live in, where traditional morality is not the norm. When people became Christians, they did immediately have an understanding of Christian standards. Not having an understanding Christian morality, they did not live by the Christian understanding of right and wrong.

In addition to moral weakness based on a lack of understanding, there is moral weakness associated with besetting sins. Besetting sins are sins to which we are particularly vulnerable. Christians can experience strong temptations that seem to overwhelm their defenses. There are patterns of sinful behavior that are hard to get rid of. There are sins which we hate but which we nevertheless commit repeatedly. There are sins whose power we think is broken, only to find ourselves falling back into them when circumstances and temptations line up.

It is clear that some of the Thessalonian Christians did not yet conform their behavior to Biblical sexual morality. In chapter 4, Paul reminds them of what he had taught them when he was with them:

3 For this is the will of God, your sanctification:that you abstain from sexual immorality; 4 that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, 5 not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; 6 that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. 7 For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness.
They needed to understand and live by God’s sexual standards.

Sexual sins are not the only sins, though they are for many the most powerful. There are not only sins of the body but sins of the mind and heart. Not only lust but arrogance, envy, malice, jealousy, covetousness which Paul says is idolatry, and many other sins that are strong.

Paul says we must help the weak. Helping does not mean redefining sin or reinterpreting morality. It does not mean ignoring sin, pretending it doesn’t exist. It surely on the other hand it does not mean gossiping about others’ sins, or self-righteously condemning others for their sins, or rejecting those who struggle with sins.

Helping means standing by and with those who struggle. It means going and finding them when they fall. It means using your strength to support them in their weakness. It means praying for them and with them. It means using God’s Eord to instruct and build them up. It means encouraging them to walk the pathway of holiness and righteousness with you.

Suppose someone falls into quicksand. What do you do to help them? You don’t jump into the quicksand with them. But you don’t ignore them or walk on as though their emergency did not exist. Well you might think, “I need to help them but I sure don’t want to get dirty doing it.” So you get ten foot pole, and you reach it out to them, and say, “Grab hold, if you can, and pull yourself out while I hold onto this pole.” What it means to help is to get as close to them as you can and reach out your hand for them to take hold of. You pull them out using your strength. When you have pulled them near you wrap your arms around them and get them out of the muck. That’s what it means to help a weak Christian.

There are weak Christians. When we are weak we need to accept the help of others who are stronger. When others are weak, we need to do all we can to help them.

4. Be patient with them all.

Paul has spoken about the unruly, the disheartened, and the weak.

Now he writes about everyone. And he says we must be patient with everyone. To be patient with others means to be forbearing toward them, to put up with them, to hang in there with them. It means not to get irritable, not to get angry, not to quit on each other.

We need to have patience with the unruly, the disheartened. and the weak. We may get an unruly person back in step and before long may look around and see he has fallen out of the ranks again. We can encourage a disheartened person and find that person has lost heart again. We may help a weak person out of a moral fall only to find that he has fallen again. It takes patience to deal with problems and the people who have them.

But it takes patience not only to deal with people who have these specific problems but to deal with all Christians. Why? Because we are all at best works of grace in progress. We offend one another by our sinful attitudes, words, and actions, often without even being aware we have done anything wrong. We irritate one another by our foibles and idiosyncrasies. All our interactions are of sinners with other sinners.

How can we be patient with one another? One way is to remember how much we need patience. We offend and irritate others and more often than we know. Another is to remember how often others have been patient to us. Most important is to remember how patient God is with us. If God were not patient with us, we would constantly be under his displeasure. If he gave up on us when we deserve it, he would have written us off long age. We needed his forbearance and mercy when we were still under his wrath. If f God has been patient with us, how can we refuse to be patient with one another?

What do we as believers in and followers of Christ owe one another?

Admonish the unruly.
Encourage the disheartened.
Help the weak.
Be patient with everyone.

* I credit the Rev. Dr. Wilson Benton with this, though I do not know if he is original author.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

When Grids Are Blinders

Interpretative Grids 
Can Distort Reality

Followers of Cornelius Van Til tell us there are no uninterpreted facts. While I used to try teach Van Tillian apologetics, I have to confess that I have never quite believed it. Did the War of 1812 occur in 1812? Does 1+1=2? Does water consist of two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen? These look to me like "brute facts." But Van Til says that there are none such.

I am somewhat doubtful that anyone understands Van Til, but I think he was (over)emphasizing "the antithesis" - that there is an irreconcilable conflict between Christian theism (which for Van Til involves presupposing the truth of the whole Christian system revealed in the Bible) and all other "isms" including atheism, agnosticism, and liberalism. In fact anything less that full-bore Calvinism is at best inconsistent theism. So, I suppose Van Til would argue that without presupposing the God of the Bible you don't know when the War of 1812 occurred, or what the sum of 1 and 1 is, or what the makeup of water is - at least not in principle. It's not hard to see why this is considered circular reasoning, but then, according to Van Til, all reasoning is circular. 

At the level of popular Christianity there can be no doubt there is a lot of presuppostional reasoning - a lot of using grids which are more apt to blind than to illumine. And, whether I suppose or presuppose it, I think it leads to a lot of shoddy thinking. The examples of such thinking, like the demons which drove the pigs over the edge, are legion.

Immigration. On July 11 the Gospel Coalition site published a piece by a Reformed Baptist Pastor, Felix Cabrera, on the crossing of the United States border by children coming from Central America. Some of my friends no doubt think I am a liberal on immigration. I favor some kind of immigration reform because I know it is not possible to round up all the illegals and send them back where they came from. With regard to the young people from Central America I favor erring on the side of liberality, providing for their needs right now, and, if they cannot be reunited with their families, finding them foster homes in the U.S for the long term. These are my political views which I happily acknowledge are not based on Biblical precepts.

But, Mr. Cabrera sees this issue through a grid which he believes is Biblical. After making a logical leap from saying these children are here illegally to saying they should be treated as refugees (which has a legal definition under U.S. law), he argues that our treatment of them should be directed by God's instruction to Israel regarding the treatment of sojourners, citing Deuteronomy 10:17-19, and by our Lord's distinction between the sheep the the goats based on their treatment of others, citing Matthew 25: 35-36. In other words, these Biblical passages should be used to direct national immigration policy. 

What's the grid here? The grid is that God intends the United States to use the Old Testament sojourner teaching and our Lord's distinguishing sheep from goats by their treatment of needy brothers and sisters to establish immigration policy. That grid is not found in either our Lord's or his apostles' view of the state in relation to God. There is no Biblical direction to the United States about how to handle its immigration issues.

Barbara Roberts
Women. On July 9 Barbara Roberts posted at the A Cry for Justice website a "rebuttal" to a "A Christian's Wife's Marriage Catechism" by D. Scott Meadows  which was posted on the Reformed Baptist Fellowship's website. When I came across  this "catechism" prior to Ms. Robert's post, I found myself slightly amused at the idea of such a thing. It seemed to me a rather presumptuous undertaking by an individual minister, and I wondered if there were a similar catechism for husbands, and, if so, if it would not have been wise to lead with it. (It's worth noting, perhaps, that this dust up involves two Reformed Baptists.) 

Now I am, compared to the Bayly brothers at least, something of a liberal on matters of male headship. Whether that is because I have no choice in the matter is for others to say. I can be an old bear and growl at times (ok lots of times - I always enjoy the scenes in "Coal Miner's Daughter" when Loretta Lynn says to her husband Doolittle, "O, Doo, stop actin' like a old bahr"), but I think I generally defer to my better three quarters. 

However, I was quite surprised when I read Ms. Roberts' overwrought rebuttal. An example of dispassionate, Biblical, and logical analysis and argument it is not - to put it very mildly. When I checked out a little more about Ms. Roberts I found that her ministry's website includes a page which lists "blind guides." Among these blind guides are John Piper, John MacArthur, Jay Adams, Peacemakers, and Focus on the Family. 

What's the grid Ms. Roberts is using? First, there is her own unfortunate and painful experience for which she deserves our sympathy. At the website she is described as a victim of spousal abuse. Second, there is a gnostic (that is,"most people don't know this, but we do") definition of spousal abuse that is a construct of sociology and therapy, not of theology. 

Very few people know what abuse really is, though everyone seems quite ready to give advice to its victims. If you believe that abuse is physical battering, you have some learning to do.
Abuse is fundamentally a mentality. It is a mindset of entitlement. The abuser sees himself* as entitled. He is the center of the world, and he demands that his victim make him the center of her world. His goal is power and control over others. For him, power and control are his natural right, and he feels quite justified in using whatever means are necessary to obtain that power and control. The abuser is not hampered in these efforts by the pangs of a healthy conscience and indeed often lacks a conscience.
While this mentality of power and control often expresses itself in various forms of physical abuse, it just as frequently employs tactics of verbal, emotional, financial, social, sexual and spiritual abuse. Thus, an abuser may never actually lay a hand on his wife and yet be very actively terrorizing her in incredibly damaging ways. 
Abuse in any of its forms destroys the victim's person. Abuse, in the end, is murder.
To be sure egoism, selfishness, a poorly operating conscience, and any kind of mistreatment of wives is wrong. But Ms. Roberts has a grid, and it is not based on the Bible. (One wonders as well if she has any place for 1 Peter 3's teaching or for our Lord's and St. Paul's teaching on divorce.) It is the working of this non-Biblical grid that leads her to such vehemence in denunciation of what is at worst a misguided effort to produce a "catechism for wives" with which one is free to take issue on the basis of Biblical and prudential considerations. It is this grid that labels as blind guides ministries such as Peacemakers and men such as Piper and Adams with which and whom again one is free to disagree.

Spiritual Principles. To keep it all in the same month, on July 31 my favorite online World magazine columnist posted "Writing Tip No. 57." The tip was that writers should not hesitate to ask for help, particularly to ask the help of those who have knowledge the writer does not have.  It is a point with which I heartily agree. I for one would be a lot dumber person than I am (I hear the snide remarks) if it were not for the internet. Where would any of us be without Wikipedia? 

It was a good point that writers who are not as experienced as Andree and I can use. And then my jaw involuntarily clenched:
The spiritual principle here is easy to see:   
“For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself” (Romans 14:7, ESV).
Or more precisely:    
“For as in one body, we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function. … Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them …” (Romans 12:4–6, ESV).
What is the grid at work here? The grid is that everything has to be rooted in or related to the Bible. It's the old Biblical-world-and-life-view bugaboo. The two texts have nothing whatsover to do with the 57th tip to writers. If you are are writer, and you do not have some needed information, and you know that someone has it, ask. This is a natural or pratical "principle" for living in this world. When you need help, ask for it. There is no reason to make a mistake when there is someone who has the knowledge you lack.

The Romans 14 text has to do with considering not just one's own life and concerns but rather showing consideration for the weaker brother who has scruples about partaking of certain food or drink. The Romans 12 text deals with the church and the various gifts given by the Holy Spirit to the church's members. These teachings are to be sure spiritual, because they come from the Holy Spirit and have to do with the spiritual body he creates and equips. 

But they have nothing to do with picking up the phone, calling the library, and asking what year the War of 1812 occurred.