Friday, January 22, 2016

Boasting in the Cross

We have been walking this road with Jesus marking his life, from his birth to his impending death, through the words of Mark. As we walk, we note that ever looming for Jesus is the cross. He knows that it is ultimately through the shame of the cross that glory will be won. The writer to the Hebrews puts it this way, we look "to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:2 ESV)
It is hard for us to really comprehend the “shame” of the cross. Crosses have become so commonly connected with Christianity, adorning our churches and our necks, and the cultural distance is so great, that we have lost sight of the absolute degradation that Jesus went through on his path to glory. Fleming Rutledge in her work on the crucifixion says this,"[Crucifixion] was a form of advertisement , or public announcement — this person is the scum of the earth, not fit to live, more an insect than a human being. The crucified wretch was pinned up like a specimen. Crosses were not placed out in the open for convenience of sanitation, but for maximum public exposure.” In short, "Crucifixion as a means of execution in the Roman empire had as its express purpose the elimination of victims from consideration as members of the human race."
It has hard to believe that creator of humanity, the one who dignified humans with his very image, would suffer the indignation and degradation of the cross, virtually removing himself from humanity. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his Cost of Discipleship, written days before he would be executed by Hitler, said,"God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross .. [Christ] is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matthew 8:17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering … that is a reversal of what the religious man expects from God. "
 As we have seen, and will see again this week (Mark 9:30-41), the idea of a crucified Messiah was so difficult for the disciples to comprehend, and in truth it continues to be difficult for us. Like the first disciples, we, as Jesus’ later disciples, want power without weakness, light without darkness, glory without suffering, Easter without Good Friday. However, the more the reality of the cross shapes our way of thinking, the more we are able to make sense of the suffering in our lives and throughout the world. The more that we grasp that the path of weakness is the path to glory, the greater courage we will have (like Jesus, like Bonhoeffer) to take up our own cross and follow him.
"The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him” (Mark 9:30).
The key to the Kingdom.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Increasing Complexity of the Christian Life

One of the most complex challenges of our time is also one of the great triumphs of the cross. In writing about the cross in Ephesians 2, Paul says that through the “blood of Christ” the dividing wall of hostility that separated Jew and Gentile has been broken down. Earlier Paul has proclaimed that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile (Gal 3:28). John, in his vision of the heavenly throne room in Revelation 7, describes a great multitude that no one could number from every nation, tribe, tongue and people, in short both an ethnically and culturally diverse crowd brought together by the blood of Christ.
And yet in so many ways America remains divided on the issue of race and culture. Whether it is the racially motivated events that have taken place in cities across America like Saint Louis, Baltimore, Charleston, or the complex issue of refugees and immigrants from outside of America, it is illustrated time and again that this unity that Christ won is difficult to experience and we are still in the “not yet.”
And lest we think that the struggles are “out there” and that we here in good ole’ GR are immune from such issues consider the research done by Thomas Frohlich and Sam Stebbins on the Worst Cities for Blacks Americans. Guess who makes the list? That is right GR comes in at #5. In fact, the top ten is made up entirely of cities from the midwest. Using factors like economic and educational disparity, incarceration rates, etc… the picture that is painted is not a flattering one.
So why bring this up here and now? First, as I said at the beginning, this is one of the triumphs of the Cross of Christ, the central event in history. Failure to reckon with this victory or relegating this aspect of the victory to second or third tier status, puts us in danger of not embracing the call of the Gospel in its fullest. Secondly, this coming Monday America will commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Sadly many will put this “holiday” in quotation marks, choosing to see it as a product of affirmative action or some other “liberal” agenda. Others will take potshots at the character of MLK (and there will be truth in their claims), but miss the bigger picture of what the day stands for, and how it is inextricably tied up with the Gospel.
Race in America; issues of culture and ethnicity in our churches are not easy ones to grapple with and there is no “technical solution” to implement that will easily solve the “problem.” Put another way, this is not black and white issue, and it will not do to presume to have the answers or “put it simply.” What is needed is a Gospel-driven attitude whereby we as individuals or collectively as a church, in humility, engage people or groups of people who are different from us. Our prayer is that by listening and learning from the other’s narrative we begin to bring Gospel shape to a story that incorporates more than simply our experiences.
My purpose in writing is to encourage us as a community to not grow weary in our well doing, but to continue to push into the complexities of life in the “in-between” times as we wait for Christ to come again. Let us be the people of the cross, those raised to newness of life! We, who were once the outsiders, the alien, the “other”, are now the Fathers’s beloved! As the beloved, we are enabled to love others with a love born in us of the Spirit’s power.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Soul & Body

Well the holidays are over and life has resumed with all of its otherworldly ordinariness. 2015 is in the rear view mirror and 2016 lies ahead. Not one of us knows what the year holds in store for us, but we do know that our Lord sits on his throne, governing His universe in his most wise and gracious providence.

While I am sure there are many ways the Spirit is at work in each of our hearts individually, one topic that I have encountered several times is the joy that David expressed as he danced before the Ark. Something about that resonates deep within us. Perhaps it is because we know the joy of being declared His beloved, but we don’t always know how to express it.

As I am sure many of you know the Scriptures are replete with invitations to express the spiritual operations of our heart physically. Just take prayer for example. Prayer incorporates physical expressions such as sitting (2 Sam 7:18), standing (Neh 9:2, Mark 11:25), raising holy hands (1 Timothy 2:8), and the most common kneeling (Ezra 10, Daniel 6, Psalm 95, Acts 9, 20,21, etc…). Praising God has expressions of lifting hands (Psalm 63:4), clapping and shouting (Psalm 47:1), and dancing and playing music (Psalm 149:3). I wonder if we pay as much attention to the connection between soul and body as God intends us to? No less an intellectual than R.C. Sproul says “We are not to approach worship as if we were disembodied minds.” And C.S. Lewis illustrates in his Screwtape Letters that separating the body from our worship is one of the devil’s schemes: “At the very least, they can be persuaded that the bodily position makes no difference to their prayers; for they constantly forget, what you must always remember, that they are animals and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls. [C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, Letter 4]”
So why the hesitation that we so often experience? There are lots of reasons. Some of it is cultural. In an area dominated by Northern Europeans the tone is much more subdued than it would be in a room full of Italians or Kenyans. Some of it has to do with the emphasis given to the spirituality of the mind. We are taught to love the truth, pursue the truth and sometimes we can approach spirituality quite cerebrally. Others have hesitations because of abuses they have observed in bodily expressions that are either hypocritical (Rend your hearts, not your garments - Joel 2:13, These people honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me - Matthew 15:8) or create multi-layered spirituality which can be discouraging to people (I Cor 14).

So what is the point? There is freedom, even an encouragement for us as God’s people to use our bodies in worship to connect with and express the deep emotions that we experience. Again another well-known intellectual, Jonathan Edwards, puts it this way; “Some bodily worship is necessary to give liberty to our own devotion; yea though in secret, so more when with others . . . ‘Tis necessary that there should be something bodily and visible in the worship of a congregation; otherwise, there can be no communion at all. (From Miscellanies #101). Let us be free then, as the Holy Spirit gives us the ability, to offer our bodies as living sacrifices to him who has shown us great mercy (cf. Rom 12:1,2).