The church as a public companion in grief

A few months ago, a group hosted by Church Innovations, gathered in Yellowstone for a little fly fishing and theology. Well, a lot of fly fishing and some theology. In the evenings, we would turn our attention to the past two years and ask, “What if anything is God calling us to be or to do?” We learned a lot.

The big thing we learned is that we were angry. Very angry. And this surprised me. Of course we were disappointed and had suffered real losses and would be impacted by all of that. But we were more than sad or disappointed. We were angry. We were angry about George Floyd, we were angry about about Jan 6, we were angry about masks and vaccines. We were just plain angry. This struck me because I always thought of the other side as the angry ones. I wasn’t angry, they were angry. I was thoughtful and reasonable, not reactionary and ill-tempered. But here we all were, both sides on all of these issues, angry.

And while anger can be fuel for some short term gains, anger only serves to make the lines that divide us sharper and clearer. It deepens the “us and them.” And I think some of that work might be necessary, to make the stakes clear, but ultimately there’s no way forward around anger. 

But is also became clear to me that we were angry around what we’d lost, and that others were also angry about what they were experiencing as loss. And loss is the occasion for grief.

Grief is hard work. We’d rather try to win back what we’ve lost than grieve the loss. And we’re conditioned to deny death, to minimize our losses and pretend everything is ok. Grief makes us face reality, to name our pain and even admit things will never be again what they once were.

But grief also allows things that anger can’t. Anger puffs us up, makes us big, pretends to invulnerability. Grief brings us low and makes us vulnerable to others, and subsequently to a new future. Anger pits us against things or others, it divides us. Grief, in contrast, is a leveler. We’re all on the same side of loss, even if those losses are different or experienced differently. Grief marks our common humanity in a way that anger doesn’t or can’t. Anger and grief are obviously not mutually exclusive. Anger is a part of grief. But grief is larger than anger. And grief allows the possibility of vulnerability and mutual understanding in ways that anger doesn’t.

Through our discussions at Yellowstone, it also became obvious to me that we don’t grieve well publicly. There is no room in our shared political life to grieve, and fundraising in politics is dependent on keeping the base angry. Politicians have an incentive to stoke our sense of grievance. We do have people who can help us grieve our private losses, but we have little capacity for public grief. We lack spaces in which that work can occur.

And so we were wondering whether or not this might be something Church Innovations can help churches with. To discover as part of their missional vocation providing space for us to grieve collectively. I’m currently working with a church who is pursuing that very question,

Here’s the reason we need help. We’re not generally speaking good at this. We no how to praise, but not lament. We don’t provide much space for listening and storytelling. We lack some of the key capacities we would need to take up this work. For years, the church has imagined her work as supporting the private aspirations of members, and anything as public as grief for things like George Floyd or the Jan 6 assault on the capitol are deemed too controversial for church work. As a result we have little experience and have developed few practices or habits that would enable public grief.

But we can learn these practices and habits. The primary skill necessary for leaders is creating safe spaces in which persons can express their loss. Heifetz and Linski, in Leadership on the Line, refer to this as creating holding spaces which allow people to take up painful or conflicted work without flying apart. Holding spaces are created by things like naming our shared values, creating guidelines for discussion, strengthening “lateral bonds of affection,” to name just a few.

Church Innovations often hosts “timeline” events in which persons can post sticky notes to a congregational timeline that names members’ experience of joy, pain, and hope. This is “public” work in the sense that everyone’s experience is considered. But it is also anonymous work in that no one’s name is attached to a memory. “Narration events” like these help us express things, name our grief publicly in the presence of others, and give us a picture of where we are as a group.

I am convinced that during the pandemic too many lives have gone unobserved, making our losses largely unnoticed. I am also observing that many churches are rushing back to business as usual without marking the depth of congregational loss, without listening, and without asking the question anew, “What might God be calling us to do or to be?”

The truly difficult thing here will be the capacity of a congregation to hear all experiences of grief. Some churches are angry about their perceived loss of religious liberty, their sense of an America built on personal responsibility and not on systemic injustice. Others, clearly are angry about what they deem as systemic racial violence, or the lack of concern to take measures that would mitigate the impact of the pandemic. These are not neutral issues, things about which we can simply hold private opinions. And part of being a public companion will require that the church speak to matters of justice and Christian commitments within a shared public life. These are matters of legitimate conflict about which the church should not be neutral.

I am convinced, however, that churches can create spaces that allow for both assertion and dissent, spaces in which all voices are respected and heard. I am also convinced that within these spaces the goal of mutual understanding will narrow the gap between groups and will change persons more than yelling at each other will. And given the increasing polarization within our shared public life, the church may have no more public vocation than being companions in grief.

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Baby Dinosaurs on the Ark? A Review

In the late 80’s, I was part of a quartet who began the journal, Leaven. One of the co-founders was a brilliant theologian who taught at Rice University, Lynn “Butch” Mitchell. Lynn had been my favorite writer for Mission Journal, which preceded Leaven, and I interviewed way back in the day for the Youth Minister position at Bering Drive Church of Christ in Houston where Lynn was an elder. During the interview, I was asked what I thought of a class Lynn taught the teens on God and science. They had Lynn teach the class because most Bering students went to public universities and they wanted their kids to be open to science. I thought it was one of the coolest things I had ever heard.

At the time, I had just finished an MA at Abilene Christian University, where I had also attended as an undergraduate. One of my undergraduate classmates was Janet Kellog Ray whose uncle, unbeknownst to me, was Lynn Mitchell. It is fitting that Ray has written a book on faith and science that her uncle would be proud of. Baby Dinosaurs on the Ark? The Bible and Modern Science and the Trouble of Making it all Fit, is a most helpful and delightful read. Janet is a first rate scientist and storyteller. She makes the biology and geology around evolution understandable for a non-scientist like me. And she takes seriously the claims of people she disagrees with, creationists like Ken Hamm, and Intelligent Design theorists like Michael Behe. While she treats them with respect, fairly representing their positions, she is also convincing as she challenges their work piece by piece. It would be hard to be as fair-minded as Ray is and not be convinced by her evidence.

She makes a compelling case for evolution, and along the way for science, while maintaining her faith. The burden here is to account for faith, which she does more fully at the end of the book. She focuses more on what to do with Genesis 1-2, as these passages are the battle ground over which origins are fought. I like her metaphor of science talking about the house, but Genesis being more interested in the home. Still, more could have been done with this section. The issue, as I see it, is less with Genesis per se, and more with faulty views of the Bible. The issue is even less about faith and science, and more about faith and the bible.

I think Uncle Lynn might have pointed more to the bible as an anthology of diverse literary genres, each genre to be interpreted according to the type of literature it represents. Moreover, beyond genre, the bible represents great diversity in themes and theological perspectives. The bible feels no need to apologize for this variety, and in fact, one might argue that this diversity is necessary for God to remain holy, i.e. not captured by a single perspective, always avoiding a complete identification of God with our ideas about God. This diversity also wreaks havoc on fundamentalist notions of Scripture that insist on literal readings and no errors of any kind.

The irony here is that the type of inerrantist positions taken by many creationists is the opposite side of the modernist coin that accepts as truth only what is factual. It makes the bible play according to rules it could never satisfy. And there are simply better options that are truer to the phenomenon of Scripture. Ray likely has a sense of all of this, but has chosen to stay in her lane, which is the beginning of wisdom.

I was also struck at a few places that she grew up in a very different Church of Christ than I did. Again, there is an irony here. While we were in the main, culturally conservative and biblicists, we were not technically fundamentalists. In fact, we were so sectarian that we pretty much sat out the Scopes trial and had no dog in the modernist/fundamentalist controversy. Alexander Campbell was a man of science, reading the bible according to Baconian inductive method. He founded Bethany College as a liberal arts institution, a practice which continued beyond Campbell, both in the north and the south. This rich tradition of liberal arts education has continued and stands in contrast to the Bible colleges founded by Independent Christian Churches and their evangelical counterparts. While there were certainly fundamentalists in Churches of Christ and in Ray’s childhood church, there weren’t in mine. Ray’s book falls in line with the best lights of our tradition.

So, Ray’s book needed to be written. And it is done beautifully so. It will help us not only with evolution, but will challenge the pervasive anti-science bent among some evangelicals. Climate science, vaccines, masks, and the like are fights that weaken public Christian witness. Creation care and love of neighbor are denied right along with the science. This need not be the case. Uncle Lynn would be proud.

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Why preaching, even in a post-Christendom context, should be more than teaching

In 1979, Fred Craddock sparked something of a revolution in homiletics with the publication of his book, As One Without Authority. He argued that preachers faced each week a congregation overly familiar with the themes and texts of Christianity. This familiarity actually hindered listeners in the preaching moment from hearing something startling and new, and a message that would demand more of their lives. Preachers, too, were more accustomed to delivering deductive sermons that reinforced what people already knew. They were preaching as ones with authority.

Craddock’s argument is primarily rhetorical, perhaps one built on pathos, or the needs of the audience. He suggested that sermons instead should move inductively, moving from problem to new realization, or to use Paul Jones’ terminology, from obsessio to epiphania. Craddock offered that this was only the way a sermon should move if the audience was overly familiar with Christian content. If, he suggested, the audience was unfamiliar with Christian stories and meanings, then preaching deductively would be the appropriate way to go. Preaching would serve its audience in this case by being more didactic. It should teach.

Fast forward to 2021 and we are indeed in an environment where the persons who fill our pews are less familiar with Christian stories and themes than they were in 1979, and by a long shot. Have we come to the point where Craddock’s advice about our audience means preaching should primarily function didactically? Many who think about homiletics have come to that conclusion. Some argue that Craddock’s abandonment of authority left the sermon to move from experience to revelation, but what is needed now is to recover that authority of revelation and move from doctrine to experience.

I know a lot of preachers who’ve made this shift, particularly in evangelical circles where the liturgy serves the sermon and not the other way around. I’ve been told, “I have people who don’t know the basics for one hour a week on Sunday. I’ve got to use the sermon to teach them.” In fact, I know many congregations who now refer to the sermon as “teaching time.” Sermons have gotten longer and power point addicted.

Craddock lived long enough to see this shift in American Christianity, but still resisted his earlier argument that the audience’s needs now called for a more authoritative presence in the pulpit. He was unwilling to go back. I will admit that I was cutting my teeth as a preacher in the bloom of the Craddock revolution. Preaching inductively was exciting and my listeners seemed to agree. I can’t imagine preaching any other way.

I want to suggest, though, that preaching inductively still should be the norm in American Christianity. I want to make this case less on a rhetorical basis, ala Craddock, and more on a theological basis. Or perhaps its fairer to say that I want to make a rhetorical argument based more on logos than pathos. That is, the very demands of preaching gospel require induction regardless of the makeup of the audience.

Ok, this is a pretty bold claim, let me see if I can justify it.

First, the aim of preaching should be gospel. By this, I don’t mean that preaching should be aimed only at the uncoverted. Rather, with Paul, I see gospel as being that which “you received, in which you stand, and through which you are being saved” (1 Cor 15:1-3). Gospel is both the basic rudiment of the faith and its surpassing wisdom. Gospel is not just what you give to people who are outsiders or new to the faith. Gospel is the logos (word of the cross) that continues throughout the Christian walk for those who are “being saved” (1 Cor 1:18). The Christian walk, in other words, is an ongoing process of salvation and this process moves in sync with what counts as gospel.

Clearly, by “gospel” I mean something more than a message about atonement or how individuals get saved. Rather, I mean something more like this: Gospel is the surprising news related to how God is ordering life in ways other than the ones given to us by the principalities and powers of this age. It is not a set of facts about which we are to make our minds (teaching), but an invitation to participate in the surprising and ongoing story of the reign of God (preaching).

In this regard, I like Charles Campbell’s work in The Word Before the Powers. Jesus’ own preaching is a word that confronts the powers that impinge upon all of our lives, whether we are believers or nonbelievers. Preaching serves the purpose of liberating us from ways of life to which we have become long habituated. To use James Smith’s language, preaching is part of the counter liturgy which allows us to recognize and resist the “secular liturgies” that make up our social imaginary.

The work of the gospel, then, necessitates surprise regardless of the audience’s basic orientation to the facts of the faith. We are, all of us, in need of what Alexandra Brown calls a “new perceptual awareness.” Jesus did this through parables, stories which frustrate our expectations, and in so doing leave the surprising possibility that the world might be other than what we have imagined. And this is always our need.

This “surprise” element of gospel (good news) shows up in some of my favorite texts that use the term with any specificity. In Isaiah 52-53, the prophet imagines that kings and other nations will be startled by the good news that the suffering servant is Yahweh’s chosen one and will seek repentance. In Mark, Jesus is introduced to us as the surprising one bringing the good news of God’s reign, coming out of Galilee just as John is imprisoned by Herod. “Repent and believe the good news!” is Jesus’ summons to the coming of the kingdom of God (Mk 1:14-15). Paul’s “word of the cross” is the surprising demonstration of the power of God, in contrast to wisdom of the rulers of this age who find the weakness of the crucified one a stumbling block (1 Cor 1:18ff, 15:1ff). At Pentecost, “devout Jews from every nation under heaven” are startled to discover that they have had a part in crucifying the one whom God raised from the dead. Cut to the heart, they ask “what must we do to be saved?” (Acts 2).

This capacity to upend expectations, to subvert the way the world as arranged by other powers and kingdoms, to startle, is necessary for Christian proclamation to stay in the mode of “news.” This is the birthright of preaching, and it requires parabolic speech. It requires more than good information. It requires a word that surprises us into repentance.

Don’t get me wrong. I bemoan like all other teachers of freshman Bible courses the sad state of basic information about the Bible and Christian teachings in our churches today. We’d be better off with more teaching. And good preaching should teach a good many things along the way. But people suffer from more than a lack of good information, or even for “biblical principles for successful living.” They suffer from the ways that principalities and powers turn them into consumers or nationalists or “autonomous” individuals. They need God’s Word to be newsworthy, to disabuse them of their prior allegiances, and liberate them toward the kingdom of God. And in my experience this requires moments of surprise.

And so, this is why I think Craddock’s inductive approach to preaching still holds. Not for the sake of pathos, but for the sake of logos.

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When your god must die

I know the difficulties of belief in our world. As Charles Taylor point out in Secular Age, over a period of a few hundred years, we went from an enchanted world with a presumption of belief to a disenchanted world with a presumption of unbelief in transcendent realities. The story Taylor tells is complex with responsibility for this turn of events laid not at the feet of godless atheists, but in large part at the feet of the faithful trying to make a reasonable account of their belief in an increasingly skeptical world. Point is, belief is hard and sometimes Christians are unwittingly their own worst enemies.

I have friends who have given up on belief in one form or another, or at least they’ve given up on what they believed. To a person, I recognize their struggle because I struggle with the exact same things. I was listening to the Avett Brothers this morning and resonated with the lyric, “I know about Jesus and the cross, But I cannot explain the holocaust.” Actually, I think what most people know about “Jesus and the cross” blocks them from any kind of meaningful thought related to the holocaust. But that’s for another post.

Which brings me to my main point. Too often, we believe in a god that must die. I don’t mean making material things our god, or our bodies or our wellbeing, though these gods might also need to die. I mean the god we have imagined needs to die. For instance, the god whose will is expressed through the control of every event, whose sovereignty is directly measured or accounted for in relation to every outcome in life: that god must die. Ultimately, that account of God and the world will fail, and thinking believers will see right through the platitudes associated with that kind of belief.

There are other versions of godless gods. A close cousin to the god of sovereign control is the god who secures good outcomes for those with enough faith. This usually doesn’t kill the belief of those who hold fast to this confession–they believe it because things are going well for them–but kills belief in sensitive friends whose lives are not going as well. They must be doing something wrong, not praying hard enough, not living quite right. They feel that God has failed them, that God notices others, but ignores them. And at that point, all the big questions of suffering rear their heads and seem insurmountable. It’s ok to let that god die.

The god of wrath whose justice has to be satisfied with blood before forgiveness can occur. Yeah, it’s all right for that god to die.

And here’s the part I’m learning. This isn’t lack of faith. Belief is lost because people have faith in the kinds of things that God does as well. They often teach me things about God because they ask the right questions. So, I’m learning to sit patiently and quietly. It’s hard. I love these people and it’s hard to see them angry and hurt and confused. But I also know I don’t have an answer to the way they’re asking the question. And I know this as well. My god will die too. And this is the thing that makes faith in the living God possible.

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The Spirit of the Lord is Upon Me: Ministry in Luke, part 3

In the last post, I used Brueggemann’s distinction between the royal consciousness and the prophetic imagination to suggest that Jesus’ fundamental identity is prophetic. I want to extend that observation in this post. The royal consciousness serves the interest of the status quo, and so seeks order, describing the world in wisdom tropes. Jesus, in contrast, does not come teaching wisdom for the world as it is, but offering parabolic speech designed to upend the way things are currently arranged in favor of the kingdom of God.

Jesus’ parables in Luke are notable in a couple of ways. First, the Lukan theme of reversals is prominent in parables unique to Luke. For instance, the parable of the two debtors (7:36-50) is told in the context of Jesus receiving a sinful woman in a banquet hosted by Pharisees. The point of the parable is that the one who is forgiven the most, loves the most. He then applies the parable directly to the welcome provided by the woman in contrast to the welcome of the Pharisees, making her closer to the kingdom of God than the Pharisees, who think they have little need for forgiveness. Their positions have been reversed.

In another table scene with Pharisees (14:1-24), Jesus heals a man with dropsy on the Sabbath and critiques the table practices of the Pharisees at the banquet, namely the way they seek places of honor at the table. Jesus suggests that they should take the lower seat instead, because in the kingdom of God “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” This reversal becomes very concrete related to the guest list of those invited to banquets. Jesus tells them that they should not invite their rich friends or relatives, namely those who can repay them, but should instead invite the poor, the blind, the lame, namely those who cannot repay them. At this point, one of the guests blurts out, “blessed is anyone who eats bread in the kingdom of God,” the religious equivalent to “all lives matter.” Jesus responds with a parable of a great feast where those first invited are too important to attend, making excuses for their refusal of the invitation. So, the host of the banquet tells his servants to bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame so that the room is full. “For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.” The insiders have become the outsiders, and vice versa.

Reversals are also present in the unjust steward (16:1-8), the rich man and lazarus (16:19-31), and Luke’s version of the wicked tenants (20:9-18). A few of these we will return to.

The second feature I want to point out in Luke’s parables is the way Jesus casts himself as a hidden character in the story. In particular, a few parables foreshadow his death and resurrection. For instance, the parable of the wicked tenants needs to be heard against the backdrop of the prophets who came before Jesus and were killed, all of those from Abel to Zechariah (11:47-51). In the parable, the tenants beats the vineyard owner’s servants who come to collect the proceeds from the vineyard. So, the owner of the vineyard sends his son, thinking they will have to respect him. But instead he is killed by the tenants who mistakenly think, “This is the heir; let us kill him so that the inheritance may be ours.” The parable ends with the vineyard owner “destroying” the tenants in an act of retributive violence. It’s not hard to read this parable assigning roles to the chief priests, Jesus, and God.

A chapter earlier, we find Luke’s version of the parable of the talents (19:11-27). Jesus tells the parable against the expectation that the “kingdom of God was to appear immediately.” It is not hard to see Jesus in the figure of the nobleman who leaves to receive royal power and then to return after a delay, and who will judge the actions of those left with responsibility for the nobleman’s realm. It’s not hard to identify the chief priests with those who bury the talents in the ground and fail to earn anything with the nobleman’s money. The nobleman will judge them “by your own words,” being a harsh man who will have them “slaughtered in my presence.”

I want to address the violent images associated with “God” in these parables after we look at a few more. As we noted in the parable of the wicked tenants, we have the killing of a son after the vineyard owner has already sent a number of servants (prophets) who have been beaten. The parable prefigures Jesus’ death. In the parable of the talents, Jesus may be seen in the one going away to “receive royal power” and who will one day return. In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (16:19-31), the rich man appeals to Abraham to send warnings to his father and brothers concerning the horrible fate that awaits them if they ignore the poor. Abraham says to the rich man, “If they did not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (16:31). Here the death and resurrection of Jesus is foreshadowed.

The most tantalizing character who seems to represent aspects of Jesus’ own story is the prodigal son (15:11-32). Here is one who travels to a far country, associating with sinners, and receiving a royal welcome from a father upon his return. The father orders a banquet because “this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” Later in the parable, in response to the reaction of the older son, the father replies “this brother of yours was dead and has come to life.” Are these twin sayings related to a son who is dead and is now alive a foreshadowing the resurrection? We hesitate to do so because of some of the characteristics assigned to the son. He demands his inheritance and squanders it in dissolute living. He appears repentant, indicating wrongdoing. His father not only refers to him as dead, but now alive, but also lost and now found.

These the same kinds of concerns we should have by assigning to characters resemblances to Jesus and or the Father in the parable of the talents and the wicked tenants. Though the nobleman is Jesus like in some ways, he is described as a harsh man and has his enemies slaughtered before him. Similarly, the vineyard owner might easily be imagined as God in the parable, but visits retribution on the tenants. This seems incongruous with other depictions of both Father and Son, and the kingdom of God in Luke-Acts. What are we to do?

Let’s look a little closer at the parable of the prodigal and its setting. The parable is third and culminating parable in a collection that includes the parable of the lost sheep and lost coin. But the setting is more completely understood in 15:1-2: “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.'” Here we have tax collectors and sinners coming near and listening to him in contrast to Pharisees and scribes who are grumbling and lumping Jesus in with sinners.The parables are designed to confirm this authorial characterization, and within the story, to turn the tables on the Pharisees by turning their own evaluative criteria against them.

The first two parables demonstrate God’s concern for those things that are lost. The lost sheep and the lost coin demonstrate the great value of those considered lost in the estimation of others. The parable of the prodigal son includes a grumbling older brother who is invited to the celebration, but finds himself on the outside looking in. This is the rhetorical bullseye of the three parables, locating the grumbling of the Pharisees in the figure of the older brother. I believe the parable is told mirroring how they view Jesus as he eats with tax collectors and sinners. He cannot be the beloved of the father because he is squandering the inheritance of the kingdom of God with what they perceive to be dissolute living. Imagine their surprise when the one who eats with tax collectors and sinners is received by the Father with the robe, ring, and fatted calf. The one who died is now alive! And as with other parables, the Pharisees will find themselves on the outside looking in.

Now let’s see if reading the parable through the perspective of the Pharisees helps us with the other parables as well. The best clue that this might indeed be the case is in the parable of the talents, when the nobleman says to the one who has buried the talent in the ground, “I will judge you by your own words, you wicked slave!” (19:22). Again, the drama of Luke can be explained to a great extent by Jesus’ alignment with the prophets before him who have been killed by leaders like those in Luke-Acts. When the nobleman who has travelled away to get royal power for himself returns, he say to “these enemies of mine who do not want me to be king over them–bring them here and slaughter them in my presence.” What I am suggesting is that this is the way those who have killed the prophets and who are about to kill Jesus would act if they were in the position of the nobleman. They are being judged on their own terms, foisted upon their own rhetorical petards. If they received in kind what they have felt justified to do in God’s name, they would be slaughtered in the presence of the one who returns with royal power.

This would apply also to the parable of the tenants in chapter 20. If the roles were reversed, they would avenge the death of one of their own. Perhaps we are prepared for this interpretation by the opening scene of Jesus’ ministry in Luke 4 where Jesus suggests that Gentiles, the enemies of God’s people, have often been the location of God’s saving activity. This enrages Jesus’s hometown audience who seek to kill him by throwing him off a cliff.

In contrast, those who kill God’s son are offered repentance, forgiveness, and the gift of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2. God’s way, it turns out, is not the same way as those who have killed God’s prophets from Abel to Zechariah. The one who has returned with power will not have his enemies slaughtered in his presence or visit destruction on those who killed the son. However, the resurrection of the one who squandered his life in dissolute living with tax and collectors and sinners will be vindicated and those who have been excluded and considered lost by other systems of power will enjoy the celebration of the one who was dead, but is now alive.

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The Spirit of the Lord is Upon Me: Ministry in Luke, part 2

Much has been made lately of a “king Jesus” gospel that turns the focus of the biblical drama to the kingdom of God, along with Jesus’ lordship over that kingdom. This makes saving faith for some commenters more a matter of allegiance than trust. Will we be loyal subjects of the king? The emphasis on Jesus’ lordship related to the kingdom is not wrong as clearly the gospels and other NT texts make connections between Jesus and David. Luke clearly does as well. But I want to suggest that this is not the primary way that the gospel writers in particular want us to think of Jesus. In Luke, the majority of the biblical allusions refer not to David, but to Moses, Elijah, Daniel, an indication that Jesus is fundamentally the prophet of God.

So, for Luke and the other gospel writers, Jesus is not so much a king-prophet as a prophet-king. And I think this distinction is an important one. The most problematic aspect of Israel’s faith was what Brueggemann refers to as the “royal consciousness,” the idea that the crown and the temple are inviolable, which inevitably allows those in power to ignore the poor and needy. The persistent form of “royal consciousness” in Christian history, particularly in the West, is triumphalism. The “king Jesus” gospel just invites these vulnerabilities to be foregrounded.

The antidote to the royal consciousness has always been the prophetic voice, and in Luke this is the primary form the ministry of Jesus takes. The gospel in Luke is good news for the poor, the lowly being lifted up and the powerful being pulled down from their thrones. In Luke Johnson’s words, we have a prophetic Jesus and a prophetic church.

As in all the gospels, the meaning of the whole story turns on the death and resurrection. The gospel writers do not leave us with a single interpretation of Jesus’ death, but give us four distinct pictures. Luke’s portrayal ties the significance of Jesus’ death to the death of the prophets that came before him. His death is the prophetic sign of his ministry.

At a strategic moment in Luke’s gospel, after having already predicted his death on two occasions, Jesus “set his face toward Jerusalem” (9:51). A few chapters later he offers a lament over Jerusalem: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (13:34). This lament over Jerusalem matches woes he delivers to the Pharisees in 11:37-52. Here, at the conclusion of a string of woes, Jesus implicates them in the killing of God’s prophets from “Abel to Zechariah.”

“Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your ancestors killed. So you are witnesses and approve of the deeds of your ancestors; for they killed them, and you build their tombs. Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ so that this generation may be charged with the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be charged against this generation” (11:47-52).

In setting his face to Jerusalem, then, Jesus is clearly aligning his death with the “blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world,” for which “this generation”” will be held responsible. The judgement against “this generation” finds an echo in Peter’s sermon in Acts 2. After calling the crowd to repentance and baptism, “he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation’” (Acts 2:40). Jesus’ death and subsequent resurrection in Luke clearly has something to do with this identification with the righteous who have suffered unjustly throughout history. His own death at the hands of those within this generation will pull back the curtain on all that has gone before.

The cross is not merely atonement for personal sin in Luke. It’s not personal guilt that Jesus is concerned about in Luke 11 or that Peter is in Acts 2. The problem is much bigger than personal guilt. The problem is the way the world works. The problem is that God keeps sending prophets and the world as it is arranged keeps killing them.

At the climax of the scenes related to Jesus’ trial, Luke makes it clear that his killing is a group effort. “Pilate then called together the chief priests, the leaders, and the people,” he reports. This is bigger than the decision of an evil person or group of people. The momentum that leads to Jesus’ death sentence feels more like a social contagion. This
is underlined by Pilate’s repeated findings of Jesus’ innocence. Four times, including three in this climactic scene, Pilate finds “no grounds for sentencing him to death” (23:4,14,22). But the crowd is unmoved by Pilate’s finding and shouts over him, “Crucify him!” They prefer that Pilate release Barabbas, a convicted insurrectionist and murderer. This is a lynching. An innocent man, an unruly mob, complicit authorities, all overcome by a certain social momentum.

Trading Jesus for Barabbas makes no sense from a public safety standpoint. The crucifixion of Jesus is not about justice or safety, but unmasks a deeper motivation to maintain social control and cohesion. Though Pilate finds nothing in Jesus to sentence him to death, he gives in to the crowd’s desire to crucify him, conceivably to avoid the social unrest that might come if he refused. More, Luke reports that one result of the series of interrogations that Jesus faces is “(T)hat same day Herod and Pilate became friends with each other; before this they had been enemies” (23:12). Herod, Pilate, the chief priests, and the people all find a place of unity in the violent death of Jesus. The killing of Jesus has kept, and even made, an unholy peace.

The thing about belonging to a way of being in the world that keeps the peace through violence is that the victims need to stay dead. Jesus knew this. His woes against the Pharisees and lawyers seem to indicate this. He compares the Pharisees “to unmarked graves, and people walk over them without realizing it” (11:44). He seems to be saying that their surface observance of the law obscures the neglect of deeper matters related to justice. Their piety, in this case, covers death. The words with which Jesus condemns the lawyers, however, makes the point more directly. The lawyers build tombs for the prophets whom their ancestors killed. This might have two interpretations. One interpretation which is supplied by the text is that by building the tombs, they approve of the activity of their ancestors. I think the implication of Jesus’ words, however, runs deeper. They are honoring these whom they have unjustly killed, blunting the offense of the violence, burying it, literally. They are using the deaths of the prophets as propaganda for the very system that killed them.

I can’t help thinking of the monuments and streets and commemorations made in our day for prophets like Martin Luther King, Jr. The very system that builds monuments to him, still suppresses minority voting, incarcerates young black men at appallingly high rates, and pro- vides limited access to quality schooling and housing. King is publicly championed as advocating that people be judged, not by their race, but by the content of their character. Suppressed are his attitudes about war and poverty and systemic racism. In this way, the monuments serve as propaganda for the very system that killed him. I think something like this is what Jesus has in mind in Luke 11.

The inconvenient matter in the killing of Jesus, however, is that he didn’t stay dead. He refused to be a monument or a street name. The amazing scene of Acts 2:1-4, including a violent wind and tongues of fire, is explained by Peter as the result of God having raised this Jesus from the dead. The remarkable thing from Peter’s sermon at Pentecost is the offer of peace to those complicit in the death of Jesus. “Repent and be baptized everyone of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, so that your sins might be forgiven and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, and your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him” (Acts 2:38-39). Jesus offers peace, not through scapegoating or retributive violence, but through the giving of his own life that pulls back the curtain on the myth of redemptive violence, showing it for what it is–injustice. More, the risen Jesus offers life under a different power than that offered by the rulers of this “corrupt generation” who rule at the end of a sword. Jesus offers instead the Holy Spirit, power for a life that makes peace in a way other than control, coercion, and state sanctioned violence.

Jesus lives and performs his ministry in the power of the Spirit. The same Spirit that animated the prophets before him, rests on him and marks him as God’s anointed one. His death serves as a prophetic sign against those in power, the rulers of this age and the corrupt of this generation. His death makes it plain that the killing of the prophets before him, those who stood on behalf of the poor against rulers and powers, is unjust and noticed by God. His resurrection is the sign that the power of the Spirit is among the poor, lifting up the lowly, and creating bonds of solidarity–a new community– beyond the power of rulers and kings.

In the next post, I want to write a little about how some of the parables function in Luke to give us surprising insight into who Jesus is and what his ministry entails.

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A eunuch rolls into a graduation ceremony on a chariot…

This sermon was preached by my colleague, Natalie Magnusson, at our graduation service for MRE graduates this past Saturday. Natalie is the Assistant Director of the MRE and has led our students in their pursuit of God-centered Identity through the use of a cohort Rule of Life. I asked if I could post her sermon on this blog for two reasons. First, it’s just a great sermon. Second, she began not with the topic, “graduation sermon,” but by taking a text from this week’s lectionary readings. Beginning there, she did a masterful job listening to both the text and our learning context to sound just the right notes for the day. Through intertextual echoes, she performed the text on the stage of commencement. To all preachers, go and do likewise.

Acts 8:26-40

An angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:

“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.

In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.”

The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

This might just be the first commencement ceremony ever to feature an Ethiopian eunuch! In typical MRE fashion, however, it seems fitting to call our attention to a stranger. To be compelled by the Spirit to run after and to be hosted by this stranger… 

The Spirit of God is wasting no time here in the book of Acts and is bringing Jesus’ final words into fulfillment, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Just before our encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch, the persecution and scattering of the church in Jerusalem begins. We find Philip in Samaria proclaiming the gospel to a group of Jews who are considered impure. The Samaritans are not welcomed in the center of traditional Jewish life and worship, yet God welcomes them in, and they too receive the Holy Spirit! The inclusion of the Samaritans prepares us for what is next… 

An angel of the Lord sends Philip and us to the south. Luke makes sure that we know this is not the Santa Monica Freeway or the Dallas North Tollway. This is a wilderness road…more like an abandoned road in Nebraska. A road that feels like we’ve reached the ends of the earth. So we are surprised to see off in the distance another traveler on the road! As we approach closer, we are even more surprised to discover that this chariot is a royal chariot from a faraway land, a Lamborghini driving along the bumpy backroads of Indiana. The passenger is none other than an Ethiopian eunuch in charge of the queen’s treasury. While his royal duties no doubt offer him a significant social status, it comes with a price. In order to protect the wealth and the power of the queen, he has been castrated. His body has been mutilated for the sake of the crown. So…we are surprised to hear that he has just been in Jerusalem to worship, as Jewish law clearly excludes eunuchs from entering the temple! Why travel all that way to be barred from entry? Why read the holy scriptures of a religion that has closed you out? Yet this tension is the exact place in the narrative where the Spirit of God compels Philip and us to run, not walk, but to run to the eunuch.

His body has been mutilated for the sake of the crown…I can’t help but think of other bodies in our world who are mutilated and exterminated for the sake of the powers that be. The words, “I can’t breathe…” come to mind….Or the countless indigenous peoples who have been annihilated or removed from native lands, often by the hands of Christians. Or the African bodies that have been enslaved and exchanged as commodities for the sake of deepening the imperial, and then later, colonial purse, once again, often by the hands of Christians. Or the bodies of marginalized women around the world who are often sterilized without consent, forced to make our goods in sweat-shops, and trafficked as pawns in the sex industry. Or the bodies of Mexican and Central and South American children who are separated from their parents at the border for the sake of US immigration policy and control. Or the bodies of our transgender neighbors who are used in a large game of partisan politics. Or the Black bodies who continue to be brutalized and incarcerated at alarming rates for the sake of asserting white superiority. Sadly, these are no exaggerations…these are not mirages of chariots on the horizon. Human bodies continue to be treated as objects to be controlled and then humiliated and excluded based off of the narratives and rules we have assigned them. Those of us of privilege or in power have arranged, or at least participate in, a no-win situation. For those of us who literally hold the keys of our churches, we toss and turn at night wondering why people do not want to step foot in our doors. But maybe what we’re learning here is it’s not about getting people into our doors. Maybe it’s about running instead…

So as we find ourselves running headlong towards the chariot, we start to feel anxious about what’s next. Do we fumble around for our church’s brochure that features activities in which this eunuch couldn’t participate or feel comfortable? Do we anxiously scroll through our brains to find the top three evangelistic points to preach to an unlikely convert? Or my favorite, Do we wave from a distance and wish him the best in finding a community that is a good fit? Thankfully Philip and the Spirit have been at this longer than us. No anxious or awkward moves needed, unless you take running up alongside a chariot as awkward! We take our cue from Philip’s openness to the eunuch to appear on his own terms. Rather than acting out of assumptions and unloading all of his evangelistic zeal on the eunuch, Philip opens space so that the eunuch may express his particular needs and invite Philip to join him…to sit beside him. Philip’s Jewish upbringing has the potential to trigger fear and disgust in him, yet he chooses to risk close proximity. Philip could have asked the eunuch to stop his chariot and meet with him on his terms in the safety of the wide-open road. Instead, Philip, and us along with him, climb into the space of a reasonably friendly looking stranger, the space of one who has been degraded and shamed. The eunuch is now the host, and we find ourselves dwelling together in the ancient words of Isaiah.

“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.

In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.”

The eunuch asks, “About whom does the prophet say this, about himself or someone else?” Having just been in Jerusalem as Saul is ravaging the church, it is likely the eunuch has heard rumblings of a man named Jesus who was led to the slaughter. There is a chance he might already be starting to connect the dots from this Isaiah text to Jesus. He possibly has Jesus in mind as the “someone else,” but I wonder…if he’s holding out hopes that he too might be able to find himself in the “someone else.” The eunuch has also been silenced, humiliated, denied justice, and had his life taken away from him for the sake of the powers that be. 

We’re not sure if the eunuch has opened his scroll wider and skipped ahead in Isaiah in order to read Isaiah’s proclamation about eunuchs. It says:

…do not let the eunuch say,
   ‘I am just a dry tree.’
For thus says the Lord:
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
   who choose the things that please me
   and hold fast my covenant…
I will give them an everlasting name
   that shall not be cut off.”

Philip no doubt has read this part of Isaiah. Luke has read it. The hearers of Acts have heard it. We have read it. The good news of Jesus that Philip proclaims is the good news of the eunuch being welcomed fully into the household of God! The good news is that the narrative, the role-centered identity, that others have written about the eunuch is not the end of the story. Just as the mutilated lamb of God has been raised up, the eunuch is being and will be made new in the eschatological redemption and resurrection of our bodies. He will no longer be cut off in body and from community, and God is already welcoming him in as he is. Humiliation and injustice do not have the last word in the kingdom of God.

The Ethiopian is so overcome in response to this good news, that he is compelled to find water for baptism! I find it striking that Luke phrases it this way, “both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away.” Of course, we could say that Luke is using the word “both” because Philip needs to get into the water to baptize the eunuch. But I think Luke is conveying something more here. It seems as though Philip and the eunuch have both experienced a conversion moment of sorts. Philip flashes back to those moments of his past when he has participated in forbidding eunuchs and others from entering into the house of God. Philip, too, is overwhelmed on this wilderness road with the expansive love of God. The kind of love that will run after a eunuch!

Perhaps you find yourself most in the Ethiopian eunuch. For much of your life you have felt taken advantage of, silenced, and excluded for the sake of those who seek to maintain control and supremacy. Opportunities and life have been taken from you because of things you cannot control, such as your gender, race, ethnicity, or physicality. You have had a yearning for God and for full participation in the people of God, but you have not known how to get past the key holders. You are so weary from the exclusion that you are about ready to give up. Today God runs after you in this wilderness space and is hosted by your curiosity, longings, and welcome. The God who was also humiliated and denied of justice sits beside you and listens attentively to your own humiliation and denial of justice. God welcomes you in a way you’ve never been welcomed before, and you go on your way rejoicing in your new vocation of hospitality. 

Or perhaps you find yourself in Philip or being called into the life of Philip. You are being sent away from familiar surroundings and spaces of comfort. The church is no longer as you’ve known it. It feels scattered. The Spirit keeps pressing you into encounters with people you once did everything possible to avoid. You are discovering that the welcome of God can occur in the wildest of spaces and in the people whom you think have nothing to offer. In fact, you are realizing that the very people churches have most often excluded, because of their bodies, are the ones who are displaying the openness, curiosity, and welcome of Christ. You find yourself sitting alongside and listening to the voices of those you’ve sought your whole life to silence. You are humbled and feel the power of the Holy Spirit baptizing you into the embracing life of the Triune God all over again. 

Some of you might be afraid I’m doing an altar call and that we’re about to wheel up a baptismal tub right here and now! That would certainly be an eventful way to end our time together in the MRE! As much fun as that would be, my hope is that through this narrative the Spirit is compelling each of us to run after and sit beside any person who has been silenced or taken advantage of for the sake of control. That we will have the humility to repent of the ways we have participated in exclusion and trust the Spirit who leads us into wilderness spaces, spaces that seem abhorrent to us. May our eyes become attuned to the lamb of God who is most apparent in those who have been humiliated and denied of justice. And may we choose not to look away but instead choose to risk close proximity. As graduates of the MRE, may you go forth from here continuing to yield to the Spirit of God and find yourself always hosted by the stranger.  

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The Spirit of the Lord is Upon Me: Ministry in Luke

In the opening scene of Jesus’ public ministry in Luke, he preaches in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. There he receives the scroll opened to the prophet Isaiah 61 and proclaims the “year of the Lord’s favor.” In doing so, he announces the end of exile and the coming of God’s reign. The signs of that reign are that the poor have good news preached to them, the captives find liberty, the blind receive their sight, and the oppressed find escape from their oppression (Lk 4:16-21).

This list of beneficiaries of the year of the Lord’s favor found in Luke 4, correspond in important ways to those already marked as favored ones in Luke’s opening chapters. We meet Zechariah and Elizabeth in the opening chapter, a devout, but barren couple who receive the surprising news that they will have a son who will prepare the way for the Lord’s anointed. In the ancient world, childlessness was not only a sign of a lack of God’s favor, but also a condition that was believed to be the fault of the woman who bore the shame of the circumstance. This is indicated in Elizabeth’s response to her being with child, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked upon me with favor and took away the shame I have endured among my people” (1:25).

When the angel of the Lord appears to Mary just a few verses later, he greets her as a “favored one,” and she was “perplexed by his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be” (1:28-29). A young teenage girl from Galilee had likely never considered herself “favored,” but now she is being addressed by a messenger of God as a “favored one.”

When Mary and Elizabeth meet subsequently, Mary breaks into “song,” “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed” (1:47-48). God’s favor is shown in relation to Mary’s low estate, which is then echoed in the verses that follow: “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (1:51-53). God’s favor is with Mary, the lowly, and the hungry.

A chapter later, in the birth account of Jesus, an announcement is made by an angel surrounded by glory to a group of lowly shepherds watching their flocks by night. “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord” (2:10-11). At the announcement the angel is joined by a heavenly host, praising God, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!

These early stories in Luke set the tone for understanding the movement of God in establishing his reign–the way the world looks when God does the arranging. Here, the poor, the captive, the blind, the oppressed, the lowly and hungry, a barren woman, a teenage girl, and lowly shepherds are favored by God. They are exalted by God, and the proud and those with power and privilege are brought low. As many have pointed out, the kingdom of God in Luke brings great reversals as God sets things to right.

Later in Luke, Jesus demonstrates in practical terms what this reversal looks like. When hosted for a banquet at the home of a Pharisee in chapter 14, Jesus calls out their banquet practices. “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the cripples, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (14:12-14). This looks a lot like the reversals we have seen previously in Luke. What is imagined here is an economy that doesn’t work on favor currying and reciprocity, but on the blessing of God who rewards at the resurrection of the righteous.

At this point, one of the guests no doubt offended by Jesus’ words, exclaims, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” This is surely the equivalent to responding to “Black lives matter,” with “All lives matter!” Jesus has just defined who has priority in God’s kingdom, the “favored” list we have seen before. Poor lives matter. Overlooked lives matter. Lowly lives matter. Blind lives matter. Crippled lives matter. To which the response of privilege is “All are blessed who eat bread in the kingdom of God.”

All of this leads Jesus to tell a parable in which the rich and too important are left on the outside looking in when the great dinner bell rings in the kingdom of God and room is made only for the poor, the lame, the crippled and the blind (14:16-24).

Simply put, in Luke the kingdom privileges those who are left out or overlooked in other kingdoms. Another way to say this is that those without power belong to God, and in the experience of an alternate form of power.

In Luke, Jesus ministers by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of the Lord is upon him. He is not, to use Charles Taylor’s language, a buffered self, or an autonomous, self possessing, rugged individual. He belongs not to those who can make their own way in the world through their cunning and resource. Rather, like the poor, he relies on power that he doesn’t possess, but a power that is given to him. In Luke’s story of Jesus, the rulers whose use of power killed the prophets from “Abel to Zechariah” is ultimately no match for the power of the Spirit. While the powers of kings and rulers include imprisonment, taxation, even capital punishment–powers of death, the power of the Spirit raises up the lowly and creates communities of sharing and care–the power of life.

To say that the “Spirit of the Lord is upon me” is to evoke the legacy of the prophets and their advocacy for the poor. Next blog, I will notice Jesus’ identification with the prophets, particularly in his death.

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Scribes Trained for the Kingdom of Heaven: Ministry in Matthew, Part 3

One last bit of reflection on Matthew before I move on to Luke. I want to begin with an observation I made at the beginning of this “series” related to the gospels and churches. If you believe, as seems obvious, that the gospels were occasional writings, (that is stories of Jesus suited for specific churches and their actual pastoral needs) then it’s important to think about the significance of using a narrative to address specific church problems. After all, a narrative is fairly indirect. So, a gospel wouldn’t function the way a handbook would or even a pastoral letter with specific advice. I think there are times when the narrator steps out of the narrative to make an unmistakable point, or when Jesus speaks directly to a situation that everyone in the audience recognizes. More often, though, a gospel invites participants into the experience of an unfolding drama so as to remake the world in which they are trying to make gospel sense of things.

While gospels are more indirect, they are also full of greater possibility. Our experiences with novels and movies tells us that there is always more meaning to be gleaned in subsequent viewings or readings. Poetry and narratives are particularly porous, carrying within their forms a surplus of meaning. Some of this meaning is undoubtedly intended by the author who leaves clues for interpretation along the way. But some of this surplus meaning is supplied by the reader. As a would-be author, I have been surprised by the ways things I have written have been interpreted, and not in ways that I felt were wrong, but in ways that suggested that there was more meaning in what I wrote than what was apparent to me.

This notion of a surplus of meaning is important to understanding Scripture as a living word, one that can speak beyond its context to new audiences while generating meanings never imagined by the author. These meanings are not indeterminate because the documents have specific words used within a specific literary and theological context. But they can produce meanings beyond what the author intended.

I’ve rambled a bit here to say that the narrative form has hermeneutical significance. That is, narratives produce an expansive imagination not created by other forms of literature, like a driver’s handbook, or an order of worship, or my wife’s shopping list. Narratives tend to be more evocative and less prescriptive. The gospel writers seem to understand that ministry is an interpretative art and not so much en exacting science.

In the last post, I discussed how Jesus’ approach to Scripture was more open than closed. Both Jesus’ key hermeneutical clue,”I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” and the formula “you have heard it said…, but I say to you” are expansive, pushing beyond the letter and deeper into the demands of the love of God and neighbor. The interpretation of Scripture is not primarily self-referential, Scripture in that sense being a closed universe of meanings. Rather, Scripture is interpreted in light of the actual conditions of the lives of people.

“Scribes (interpreters) trained for the kingdom of heaven are those who take from their storehouse both treasure old and treasure new” (13:52). In other words, they don’t just apply the old to the new, but they value both the old and the new as opportunities for the living God to be known. This interpretative approach to the faith, one that is open to the new as well as the old, keeps faith from being reduced only to certain, safe performances of the tradition. Those who look to Matthew as a recipe for living as a “people of the book,” will also find themselves open to the new, and as a result, open to mission in God’s world.

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Scribes Trained for the Kingdom of Heaven: Ministry in Matthew, Part 2

One reader of my last blog post lamented that I left you hanging. I suggested that scribal communities are sometimes fairly insular or defensive when it comes to mission. They live deeply in the alternative world of Scripture as a way to avoid the world in front of them. Matthew seems to avoid this temptation, I suggest, and promised I would explore why that was the case. Truth be told, I was working on a hunch and didn’t have much more to say at that moment. But I’ve thought about it more and think I have some things to say.

Let me begin by stating a commitment I have in terms of the word “missional.” For me, the word missional points less to a view of the church or a list of activities that might make one missional, and points more to the new era in which we live. We are not in Kansas any more and now have more of a missionary engagement within our own cultural settings. We can no longer assume that we are at the centers of cultural power and influence, and will have to learn a more apostolic way of being God’s people in a de-centered space. This is good new for the world and for the church. The legacy of mission within the realities of Christendom was too often colonialism. When the church is at the center of societal power, it is easy to confuse its own cultural expression of Christianity as normative. Taking Western civilization and Christianity are easily confused. “Missional,” in my estimation, is an attempt to define the God-church-world relationship in a way that resists colonialism.

A big part of keeping the church from identifying its particular form with the presence of God in the world is to work within open structures. For instance, I think it’s fair to say that Western theology had an over-realized eschatology. The kingdom of God wasn’t coming, it was here in the form of the church. Trinitarian views of God were largely ignored, especially social trinitarian views in which the communal nature of God was also open to the world. Salvation was viewed as a transaction between God and the individual, ignoring the larger views of salvation in Scripture that involve a coming new creation. I could go on here, but the point is that theological notions that tend toward closure, that are not open to the ongoing work of the coming and living God, tend to support a more colonial practice of mission.

The same is true for Scripture. If you think of Scripture as a complete statement of what it means to be God’s people for all time in every place, then there’s little need to pay attention to your world in which God might still be active. You end up defending the gains of the past instead of living creatively in the dynamics of Word and world. Scripture becomes the final word, a closed system, not the first word that pulls you deeper into the realities of God and neighbor. Matthew, I believe, sees being a people of the Word in this latter sense.

Let me reiterate that in Matthew Jesus is committed to a certain performance of Scripture. He did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it, and not a jot or a tittle will pass away until all is accomplished. Both Jesus and the Pharisees, however, realize that Scripture has to be interpreted in light of Israel’s new circumstances, circumstances very different from the ones in which they originated. In the previous post, we have already noted that Jesus reads Scripture with a priority of mercy over sacrifice. I think it’s safe to say that the way of mercy is more open-ended than the path of sacrifice. After all, Peter asks, “how often should I forgive, seven times?” Seventy seven times is Jesus’ response, in other words, an option that never seeks closure.

But I think the clearest place this might be seen is in 5:21-48, the section in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus contrasts traditional teaching (You have heard it was said) with the way of the kingdom (but I say unto you). “You have heard it said, you shall not murder (closure)…, but I say to you that if you are angry with your brother is sister… (open)” (5:21-22). In each case, Jesus pushes beyond the traditional teaching in such a way that the hearer is pulled deeper into the “exceeding righteousness” of the kingdom, deeper into the life of God and neighbor. This more demanding way is so because it can’t be reduced to a set of rules or precedents. The kingdom is a coming reality that requires ongoing discernment. This is how I understand Jesus’ invitation to be “perfect as your heavenly father is perfect” (5:48). It is less a destination and more a call to continuously be drawn into the life of God and neighbor.

This call to a deeper commitment to God and neighbor, however, is a gentle yoke and light burden precisely because the God who stands behind it all is merciful. Jesus seems to be suggesting that the way of mercy makes us into the kind of people who demonstrate the exceeding righteousness. These are the people who can be trusted with the authority of heaven. And at the risk of another cliff hanger, that will be the focus of the next post.

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