Wright on Jesus, who disallows all other claims

I came across this fabulous passage from N.T. Wright while doing research for a recent sermon. I couldn’t find a place to use it this time, but I’m posting it here, with a few extra bracketed lines I added to fill in the ideas.

It’s from the conclusion of The New Testament and the People of God, p.425

The New Testament writers claim that, though there is only one god, all human beings of themselves cherish wrong ideas ABOUT this one god. In worshipping the god thus wrongly conceived, they worship an idol. Pagans worship gods of wood and stone, distorting the creator by worshipping the creature. Jews, Paul argues in parallel with this, have made an idol of their own national identity and security, and so have failed to see what the covenant faithfulness of their god, the god of Abraham, had always entailed.

Both [Christians and Jews] might, of course, be wrong. the Stoics might be right: there is one god, since the whole world id divine, and we humans are part of it. The Epicureans, and their modern successors the Deists, might be right: there is a god, or possibly more than one, whom none of us knows very well and all of us distantly acknowledge, with ignorance and distortion. The pagans might be right: there are different ‘divine’ forces in the world, which need to be propitiated when angry, and harnessed to one’s own advantage when not, The Gnostics might be right: there is a good, hidden god who will reveal himself to some of us, thereby rescuing us from this wicked world of matter and flesh, which are the creation of an evil god Or the modern atheists or materialists might be right. [There is nothing but the atoms that make up the earth and the little electrical impulses in your brain providing an illusion of meaning.] There is no neutral ground here. We are at the level of worldview, and here ultimate choices are involved.

The claim of Christianity from its earliest days, and subsequently, is that the creator of the world, the god of Abraham, has revealed himself through Jesus, and through his own spirit, in ways which disallow the various pagan claims [and the claims of everyone else].

This conclusion is of course unpalatable in a world (our own)…

For Christian Diversity (Part 2/2)

I’d like to move on to the next section now, though continue the same line of thought.

Chapter 12 from 1 Corinthians touches on another divisive issue in the church, and that is the place of certain spiritual gifts (as they are called) in the day-to-day life of us believers. Many church bodies, especially in the last century, have decided that things like divine healing and speaking in tongues are really valuable and have emphasized them a lot – encouraging people to try and exercise them. Others have come down hard on the other side, saying that most of these supernatural things spoken of in the New Testament don’t really exist anymore. Others have sought to be inclusive and have left the door open by being intentionally vague on issues regarding spiritual gifts. Anyone know what we do here in this congregation? If you’ve read our statement of faith, you know there is a lot of stuff about Jesus in there, but nothing really, positive or negative, about these kinds of spiritual gifts. We have people of all backgrounds here. I grew up in Baptist circles where the more miraculous gifts were seriously downplayed, though not entirely dismissed. In college though, I benefited immensely from attending a Pentecostal church where these things were always being talked about. I know from speaking to some of you here that we have a lot of people from both these backgrounds and more here today.

So if you’re looking for someone to get into the nitty gritty details about how the Holy Spirit works, I’m afraid you’re out of luck. The analogy most often used for the spirit in scripture is that of a wind. Even Jesus himself describes it this way in John 3:8:

The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.

Trying to pin the spirit’s activity down is something that requires a ton a humility and I am not going to try to do that today. But I do want to try to figure out why Paul is giving this advice to his readers, and to us.

Now some might read this passage and say, Oh look, Paul is explaining how spiritual gifts work by giving us a nice tidy little list of them. But this is really just a short list of possible examples. If you look at the context of the letter, he isn’t giving a general exposition on the way the Holy Spirt might manifest himself in Christian’s lives. He, like in all other chapters of 1st Corinthians, is dealing with a specific problem in the church referenced in an earlier letter. In this case, it seems as if some people in the church were acting like they were more important than others because of their spirituality. This is why Paul goes on in the next section to use the analogy of the human body and how not every member of the church can be a hand or an eye and whatnot.

How is this? Well, the Greek word for “spiritual gift” used most of the time in the New Testament is “charismata”. It is where we get the word charismatic. In the secular world these days, someone that is “charismatic” if they have an enthusiastic and attractive personality. In the church though, a “charismatic” is someone who is generally enthusiastic about spiritual gifts, especially speaking in tongues. Now Paul could have used that word here but he instead uses a word that is more general, “pneumatikos” and means “spiritual things” or “spiritual people”.

The point of the passage isn’t to talk about the gifts themselves, or the various manifestations of the spirit themselves, but the people using them or showing evidence of them in their lives. The point is that everyone in the body of Christ is of equal value.

In the world, teachers and professors and held in much higher regard than students. But not so in the Kingdom of God. Someone who works on a farm or in an office all day is not a second class Christian compared to the “first class” pastor or foreign missionary. That’s nonsense and Paul is always trying to straighten us out on that. It’s not a sliding scale between plain and cool, but rather like different important parts of a physical body working together.

The same goes for spiritual giftings as it does for vocation. Someone who prophecies and might see visions from God is not more (or less) special than the person who just studies the word or even the guy that cleans the toilet. (Hopefully the same guy does all three!) A woman who has been given a lot of faith – and when she prays for sick people they get well – that person is not a first class Christian over the 2nd class Christian mother who stays by a feverish child throughout the night administering cold cloths and comforting words.

Here is another example. Two Christians kneel down to pray and ask God for forgiveness and to thank him and commune with him. One has an ecstatic experience – feeling almost literally wrapped in the arms of Christ. The other feels nothing much at all but finds himself less affected by temptation the next day, to his relief. How did both things happen? The Holy Spirit, the spirit of Christ today, breathing on each of them. He breathes on us too, but it looks a little different, sometimes a lot different, for each individual.

As the passage from today says, different gifts, same spirit. Different ministries, different jobs, same Lord, different activities, same God.

Now you may be saying, wait just a minute. Lot of people call themselves Christians and have got pictures of Jesus all over the place, but they seem to have some terrible problems and don’t seem to be following him much at all. What about the churches here in America who are trying to normalize homosexual behavior? Some of them even have gay and lesbian priests or pastors. Are you saying their cool too? Well, no, I’m not. Go back to our litmus test for a while. Did Jesus Christ, the God-Man come in the flesh? What’s really interesting throughout history is that when a church body or tradition starts to slide into sin or heresy in some way, what they say about the nature of Jesus slips at exactly the same time. It might not seem connected at first glance, but if you get digging you will find that a confident proclamation of the risen historical Jesus sneaked right out the back door as the capitulation to political correctness and liberal tolerance came in the front door. In churches where there is little to no sexual ethic preached, you will find that Jesus has become mostly just a nice abstract idea. Maybe he was just a spirit. Maybe he was just an invention of Paul or the other well-meaning apostles. This kind of mystical non-fleshly Jesus gets a lot of air time on NPR and public television documentaries and such. He starts showing up wherever authority of scripture is tossed aside. Why? Well, if what you do with your BODY, with your sexual parts, or with the unborn baby inside you, if those things don’t really matter, then to stay a Christian, you HAVE to have a Jesus who doesn’t really have a body either. You can’t have a messy bloody Jesus on a cross and then have him really walking around the middle east alive a few days later. That would imply what you do with your own flesh might be of some consequence. This idea of God coming in the flesh in Jesus is what theologians call the incarnation. You will find that wherever teaching on the incarnation gets mushy, trouble is close at hand. It’s been happening on and off, here and there, for the last two millennia. Our day and age is no different.

But for those who are still faithful to Christ, I would urge you to treat them as brothers and sisters, not as rivals on the playground. Love and accept the other Christians in town. Play nice with them. Praise them! Pray for them. Be happy when things go well for them. Be sad when they face adversity.

Frankly, I think that is one our strengths here.. We have made friends with a lot of other bodies of believers in the region and by not being too dogmatic about the way we “do church”, we’ve been able to keep those friends. Here are a few examples:

  • Celebrate Recovery is an interdenominational ministry that meets here on Friday nights. It’s not run by our pastors, but they use our building and kitchen and we give them money to keep it running.
  • Men from the local Evangelical Free church come to our men’s retreat. On the flip side, we encourage people here to attend marriage seminars at E-Free and also the special services put together on days like Good Friday.
  • We have a lot of bible studies and small groups meeting throughout the week and it’s not unusual to see people from other churches around town attend some of them. At the same time, some us attend meetings put on by other groups. Neither has to feel threatened.
  • We don’t try to do everything. We don’t have a college ministry. There is Cru and other people doing a good job at that. The guy who runs Cru locally happens to attend here, but a lot of his students go to other churches and believe slightly different things.
  • Pastor K. has is office downtown at the theater where many other churches meet. He provides counseling services for folks from all over, many of them who don’t go to church here.
  • Pastor L. at the local classical Christian school, which is largely run by one other church, but people from over 20 different churches in the area send their kids there. At the same time, we have lots of homeschooling families here as well as some that send their kids to the public schools. You don’t have to do one thing or the other to be accepted or approved around here. We trust you know what you are doing with your family, even if it’s not the same thing some of the rest of us are doing.
  • Several churches around here put on Vacation Bible Schools during the summer. Occasionally we too. Parents from all around cross lines to send their kids or to even volunteer.
  • People from this church often make a showing at interdenominational events like the Right to Life march we had downtown just a few weeks ago. Tim and his family often help out with those. Things like that are good opportunities to get out and meet your neighbors from other Christian traditions and show some solidarity.
    A notable portion of our budget goes to the local crisis pregnancy center, which nearly all the churches in town also support.

You can participate in this too. That’s what I would like you to take away from this message today.

We are just humans. Our minds and bodies are limited. We only have so much time in the day and only so much energy. We only have so much fight in is. Don’t waste your days and your brain cells fighting with other Christians. Don’t fight with your brothers. Don’t hate on your sisters. Don’t hate on your parents either, even if they wish you had stayed in the Christian denomination you grew up in or maybe never joined one at all.

You can do this by not trash-talking other Christians, even if you think some of their practices are strange, or silly, or maybe even harmful. Seek to understand them instead and give them the benefit of the doubt. Assume they love Jesus even if their devotion looks quite a bit different from yours. That’s a much better place, and a more Biblical place to start than with fear and suspicion until proven otherwise. If friends you have here leave and go to a different church, then stay in touch with them and don’t write them off. Ask yourself, “How can my community be enlarged?” Not, “How can I make my list of friends smaller and more selective?” Visit other churches sometimes especially when they are putting on a special event or conference. You’ll almost definitely learn something new and probably make a friend or two. The world is big. Don’t just stay in your own little ghetto. What we see here on the earth are just expressions of people trying to follow him and the holy spirit working in their hearts in unexpected ways.

You know, when I was young I used to think that if all the problems in the church were fixed, we would all be one giant group – the only source of division we be geography. Every city would have one big church with every last single Christian in town all meeting at the same joint to worship. Now though, I realize that is a silly and unsustainable idea. The city would need to be made of gold and filled with endless light and that time has not yet come. I think God loves diversity. He made so many different kinds of crazy animals and even us humans look so different from one another. I confess, I didn’t used to think people of other races were that beautiful, but now that I have a couple of adopted children of different races, gosh, I think they look fantastic. Africans, Asians, Latin Americans, aren’t they all so cool? Now I think, the more Christian churches we have in town, the better. The more variety we have, the more inclusive we can be, the more room there is for everyone, and the more room their is for leaders to step up too. I have some friends who are pastors and church planters and one of the exciting things I see them doing now is that whenever they have a church that gets to be about 200 people, they intentionally split it and start a new congregation on the other side of town. If it continues to grow, then they split it again. And each one evolves to have a different flavor and maybe even a slightly different theology over time. But it’s OK because their eyes are fixed on Jesus. Never becoming large also keeps leaders humble and prevents members from taking things too seriously.

So I hope that all of you, as you go about your lives, working to put a roof over your head or feed your kids and find some friends to confide in, that you stay steadfast in your trust that Jesus Christ has saved you, and is saving you, and is present in some fashion here in the church. Whether you end up staying here for the next 30 years, or move somewhere far away this summer, or anything in-between.

Let us pray.

Lord Jesus Christ, Thank your for loving us, and thank you for making us all so different and beautiful and interesting. Lord, as the psalmist said, “How good and pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity.” God, I pray that we might not think of ourselves more highly than we ought, but at the same time be utterly convinced of the death and resurrection of your son, not budging an inch on that to accommodate any passing fad or fit into any crowd. Father, teach us ways to love our Christian brothers and sisters and send your Holy Spirit to soften our hearts so that we may actually do so. In your name we pray Jesus, Amen.

For Christian Diversity (Part 1/2)

This is the text of the sermon I gave on January 26th, 2014. The theme is Christian unity and diversity, and the rather low bar of proper Christology. I try to give lots of practical examples. I’ve divided it into just two posts. As ecumenicism is something close to my heart and often on my mind, I was able to ad-lib quite a bit of this. The bulk of it is still here, though in a more stilted form and with less editing than usual. Some personal references have been scrubbed.

The scripture for today:

1 Cor 12:1-11
Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I do not want you to be ignorant: You know that you were pagans, carried away to these dumb idols, however you were led. Therefore I make known to you that no one speaking by the Spirit of God calls Jesus accursed, and no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.

There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are differences of ministries, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of activities, but it is the same God who works all in all. But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all: for to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, to another the word of knowledge through the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healings by the same Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another discerning of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually as He wills.

Let us pray:

Lord Christ, thank you for giving us your Word for instruction. As Paul says in the scripture passage for today, “I do not want you to be ignorant.” God, I pray that you would use this little half-hour that someone gets up and talks at church each week to keep us a little less ignorant as well. But we know that none of these words mean much at all unless your Holy Spirit takes them today and works impossible things in our hearts. We ask you to send your Holy Spirit to do just that today, as you have in the past and we know you will continue to do throughout our lives. Even more than for your Word, we thank you for your love which, though we long to understand it, we don’t need to understand it to receive it, since you love us like a parent loves their little children. Jesus Christ, I ask that we would know your love today. Amen.

The Litmus Test

Alright, there are two things in the passage I’d like to talk about today. In verse three, Paul gives us a litmus test of sorts to determine whether a person or their ideas are of the Spirit of God or not. Some of you may remember using a litmus test in chemistry class, where you use a little strip of paper coated in a special reactive dye to measure the acidity of a substance. A few people around here still use them today for their jobs too. Here though I’m using the phrase “litmus test” figuratively to mean, as the dictionary says, “Any test which produces a decisive result by measuring a single indicator.” How do you know that something is of the spirit of God? Well, sometimes it’s tricky, but one really good guideline is what Paul says here.

No one speaking by the Spirit of God calls Jesus accursed, and no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.

Alright, so you hear anyone trash-talking Jesus? Not of God. Plain and simple. Can’t shut up about how great Jesus is? Well, even if they’re confused about some other things, that’s a really good place to start and they shouldn’t be written off so quickly.

The apostle John gives us a similar test in his first letter. This is from 1st John 4:2-3.

This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God.

So something may seem to be a good idea or seem to work or to make sense, but if it does not acknowledge Jesus Christ it’s not really of the Spirit of God and one should proceed with caution in handling it. And as John is a little more specific about it, acknowledging the IDEA of Jesus or saying something nice about him is not good enough. You have to acknowledge that Jesus Christ, this real person that actually walked around in Israel back about 2000 years ago, was actually God, creator of the whole universe, in the flesh. That’s a tough pill to swallow for a lot of folks, but it is the one thing that really makes us Christians or not. Do you believe Jesus was the GOD-MAN? If so, then congratulations! You are some kind of Christ-person, a Christian. If the answer is “eh, not really”, then guess what? Whatever else you might say, you aren’t a Christian by anyone’s definition, you are something else.

Seemingly good things that do not acknowledge Jesus as Lord.

We have to be careful with any seemingly good thing that doesn’t acknowledge Jesus as Lord. Free-market capitalism has done wonders to make the Western world rich and prosperous and dramatically reduce poverty and basic suffering. But it is not beholden to Christ but rather to the almighty dollar. The shareholder is in charge and private property is the chief virtue. These can be good things, but they are rooted in a hard-working humanity that perpetually pulls itself up by its bootstraps, not a God that comes to save a ruined people.

Modern medicine can do amazing things, saving us from deadly diseases and accidents through skillful surgery and miracle drugs. Many doctors practice out of a genuine desire to serve people made in God’s image. But it is not an end in itself and it cannot save us from death. To anyone whose been stuck in the hospital long-term or had to buy health insurance themselves lately knows there is a dark and oppressive side to this whole art and science. When personal choice, privacy, safety, and fulfillment are the governing principals rather than the Lordship of Jesus Christ, then the work itself will become sick.

Democracy too is not the least bit holy. Democracy says, you have a right to have things your way if you can get enough people to agree with you. Man is the center. You can’t really have an election to decide if Jesus Christ is really of God. He might get voted out of office next year. Jesus asks that we be like him, giving up our lives.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

When is this from? 1776? It’s from the Declaration of Independence. I think some people think this is a Christian or biblical idea here. It’s not really though. This was written by Thomas Jefferson – a clever man to be sure, but someone who thought Jesus totally not important. Jefferson was a deist. That is, he believed in a distant, abstract Creator, but not a loving God who came to rescue us. In this system, who is the savior? It’s us. We save ourselves through our hard work and pursuit of happiness. We don’t need a Messiah – it’s our right to have that covered already.

Now I don’t mean to knock these things too much. Let’s have free markets and good medicine and democratic governments that resist corruption. But let’s have these markets and clinics and capitols populated by a people who love Jesus and who are willing to serve him even at great personal cost.

So these things DON’T necessarily confess Jesus Christ as Lord. We can’t count on the Holy Spirit always working through them. So what can we count on? The church! Yes, it’s kind of a mess, but we Christians are who the Holy Spirit is always working on and through. We DO pass Paul’s test here – we do declare Jesus is Lord. We even get together and sing songs about it every week.

sermon mattj 1-26-2014

So why do Paul and the other apostles and Christians throughout history have to encourage us so often towards unity? It isn’t because we argue about Jesus being God or not – that’s actually settled. We are so much alike. That leaves smaller things to quibble about. You know how fiercely brothers can fight with each other? It’s because they are typically so alike. You are actually much less likely to get in a fight with a stranger. Throughout history, the bloodiest wars are often civil wars. We Christians do that too unfortunately. The more alike we are, the more likely we are to forget the big things we hold in common and argue about smaller details.

There are lots of divisive issues in the church today here in America. If you live in Africa or Asia, the issues are different, but we are most familiar with the ones right here. It’s one of the main reasons we have so many church denominations. What are some things Christians have really liked to argue about here in the last century or so?

Music! What music you should play in church of course! Should we all sing together, or leave that mostly to professionals? Should we only sing or are instruments ok? What about contemporary instruments like electric guitars? How about drums? Should we sing old songs or new songs? Should we sing lots and lots of songs, or just a few so we can spend most of our time listening to bible reading or teaching. Should we sing really rich theological songs that will make very educated people happy or simple songs for people that can barely read? Should they be loud to show our enthusiasm or quite to show our reverence? Good questions. But no matter how you slice it, what are nearly all the songs about? Is it Jesus being God and coming to save us? Christians!

Church ecclesiastical structure? Who’s in charge? Should it be Pope in Rome or someone closer to home? Should it be a regional group of leaders (a presbytery) or just a few elders from a local congregation? Maybe just one guy is really in charge in each gathering. Maybe it should be a democracy and we should vote about everything. Maybe having designated leaders is too subject to abuse so we should have super small decentralized churches that meet in peoples homes. Oh, and with all these different ways of running things, is Jesus still the God-Man, our only savior? Yes? OK. Great!

What’s another thing Christians argue about? How about something a little deeper and more important. How about the nuts and bolts – the mechanics, of how people actually get saved? Some people would call this the Calvinism versus Arminianism debate though I think both of those old guys, if alive today, would probably be a little upset to have their names thrown around and attached a pretty wide variety of ideas they may or may not have had anything to do with. But this is an important question, and different theologians and pastors and churches have come down in different places in how they explain from the Bible exactly how salvation works. Are you saved when you say a particular kind of prayer confessing your sins? Are you saved when you are baptized? Are you saved from before you were even born, from the foundation of the world? Can you get unsaved if you do some bad stuff and your not sorry enough about it? Can you stop Jesus from saving you if you really don’t like him? Are you really saved if you love God but your life is still kind of a mess. (Gosh, I hope so!) But who, what one person does ALL the saving, because he is God himself in the flesh? That’s right Jesus, Jesus, Jesus across the board.

A sampling of different Christian gatherings

A common American Evangelical church service
A common American Evangelical church service
A Chinese house church.
A Chinese house church.
Ethiopian procession
African Catholics
African Catholics
Texas Megachurch
Texas Megachurch

The world doesn’t hate us because of our music or our institutions or even our theology. It’s Jesus they can’t stand. He’s the great stumbling block. There is no way around him. His historical death and resurrection throws a monkey wrench in everything and you either have to embrace it or run away. As Christians, we are learning to embrace Him, all of us, though we go about it in varied ways.

The welcoming Triune God

Representing or explaining the Holy Trinity well with words is notoriously difficult. Everyone keeps trying though.

In the 15th century, Andrey Rublev wrote an icon of the three members of the Godhead sitting around the table as they/he visited Abraham. It’s been the most classic image ever since if one is going to try and draw what the three-in-one might look like.

Key to the scene is the open spot at the table – for you, the viewer. God isn’t in deep space somewhere being all abstract and perfect. He’s right there at the table with you. You are invited to sit down.


Some good jazz

Since I went to university at a music school named for a famous jazz artist, I am often asked if I actually like jazz. The answer is long and complicated, but the short version is: No. I think jazz is typically a lot of fun to play, but not much fun to listen to.

So then, it’s a pleasant surprise when I run across some jazz I really dig. Nearly all of the album Continuo by Israeli bassist Avishai Cohen is a pretty top notch and frequently keeps a melody in sight. Here is the track Arava, which is particularly good. Check it out even if you’ve given up on jazz.

Coincidental reading with Lewis and King Arthur

I’ve been reading the Andrew Lang edition of The Tales of King Arthur to my kids at night the past week. Last night, we read the end of the quest for the Holy Grail (or Graal) where Galahad is sort of “taken up in the spirit” and breathes his last.

Late that same evening, I decided to withhold putting in another hour on my contract programming work and looked for a book to read instead. Since the new James K.A. Smith book hadn’t shown up in the mail yet, I grabbed a classic from Lewis – The Problem of Pain. Imagine my surprise then, when in the introductory chapter, he references and even quotes from the exact scene I had just read to my children an hour earlier as part of a brief survey on how men throughout the ages have held the supernatural in awe.

Quite the coincidence!

But then again, not really. The reason I chose the Lang edition out of about ten different variations I discovered at Powell’s City of Books in Portland over Christmas, was because I remember Tolkien repeatedly referring to Lang in his essay On Faerie Stories. So I was intentionally reading something Lewis would have been very familiar with already. So it shouldn’t be so surprising to find a footnote in the same circle. It was fun though.

On a side note, I must say that I am disappointed in this Lang edition. It is largely a condensed version of Mallory, but hasn’t been cleaned up much. Nearly none of the supporting characters are given an introduction. For example, Lancelot just shows up out of the blue with zero explanation of who he is. The following chapters refer to his sin, but there is no hint as to what it might be (his affair with the queen). The whole thing is a mess. I need to try again and find a different retelling. This one assumes far too much of the reader.