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Where All Our Thinking Begins and Ends: On the Centrality of Jesus

Where does thinking about God, or people, or the world begin?  For Christians, there is a very particular answer to this question: Jesus.

I was in a discussion with someone recently about the use of the traditional Trinitarian description of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  This individual had a dislike for naming the First Person ‘Father,’ and saw little utility in using that language.  When pressed, the argument was that this person had their own individual experience of God, and thus what they decided to call God should be as reflective of their encounter as was Jesus’  relationship with God, which led him to call God Father.  The implication was quite clear: Jesus’ experience of God was but one of many, and his understanding and/or description of God is no more or no less determinative than any other.

This is, of course, a perfectly reasonable argument for someone to make who is not committed to the Christian movement.  If one believes, as many faiths and individuals do, that Jesus was only a holy teacher, a wonder-worker, an apocalyptic prophet, or a misunderstood peasant, then of course Jesus’ own narration of the divine-human encounter is just one of many.

Everything changes, though, if we believe Jesus was and is God, and that in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, we are given the fullest glimpse possible of who and what God is like.

Karl Barth is famous for placing Jesus, the Word of God, at the center of Christian life and thought.  Among his greatest contributions to theology in his famous (and massive!) Church Dogmatics is his re-narration of the Calvinist doctrine of election.  For Barth, election is first about the election of Jesus, not individual Christians or non-Christians, and the election of the rest humanity is only understood secondarily and derivatively from that election.  Thus, on his reading of predestination the church is committed to

…the unsearchable majesty of the good-pleasure with which God has from all eternity and in all eternity both the right and the power to dispose of the world and us, in which as God He has in fact disposed of us and the world, so that His eternal will is the Alpha and Omega with which all our thinking about the world and ourselves must begin and end.

In this emphasis on Jesus, Barth shows himself to be, in some ways, simply a careful reader of Scripture and proclaimer of the Gospel.  (He was, before he was known as a theologian, a Reformed parish preacher.)  After all, the New Testament operates by a similar logic: everything is different because of Jesus. Everything, from the bottom up, including the Torah, economics, ethnicity, holiness – all of it! – must be rethought in and through Jesus.

Here’s one example.  Notice how 1 John 4:8-11 (NRSV) narrates loving others and describes God’s nature as love.  For John, we know what love is not because there is some abstract, ethereal concept (as in a Platonic form) called love that exists “out there,” but rather we know what love is because God sent the Son to be the atonement for our sins:

Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.  Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.

For John, like Barth, we only know what love is because God sent the Son. The truth is known, the deepest reality is apprehensible, not by our individual experience or keen reasoning, but by God’s self-revelation in Jesus, in whom our thinking begins and ends.  Likewise, we know how to live not because of our own ethical imperatives or innate morality, but because we live as a response to the love God has shown us. “Since God loved us so much,” John said, “we also ought to love one another.” (v. 11)

There is popular meme I have on my office door in which Barth says, “The answer is Jesus.”  Like Jeopardy, the answer comes first.  Then, he concludes, “What’s the question?”

I know of no other way to read Scripture or exegete the world around us as Christians except in, by, and through Christ.  If Jesus is who the Church has always said he is – Alpha and Omega, Son of God, Immanuel, Messiah, Christ, Word of God, Second Person of the Trinity – there is no other way to think and live Christianly.

In a Christian grammar, Jesus is not one of many ways to God.  He is not a mere teacher or prophet.  The Word is not one experience of God to be placed side-by-side with others, including my own.  He is not a guide among many other guides.  Jesus is God, while also being fully human.  He is the best window we have, short of the eschaton “when [our] faith shall be sight,” of God.

If our thinking and living bypasses Jesus, or makes him secondary to any other lens, concern, guru, or hermeneutic, we are doing something other than Christian living and thinking.

 

Source: Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics (Study Edition 10): Volume II, 32-33 (London: T&T Clark, 2010)

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The 1st Business of the Church After the Inauguration

Oliver O’Donovan

How should the church respond to the inauguration of Donald Trump?

Most of us in the US, assuming you aren’t completely isolated, know people who are:

  • elated
  • terrified
  • indifferent
  • angry

It’s probable that a mix of these reactions will be seen and heard from pulpits, in liturgy, and in music on Sundays across America and the world.  The inauguration looms large on social media and around water coolers across the US. Which approach is right for the church?

A good place to start is this guidance from eminent political theologian Oliver O’Donovan (we’ve looked at his work before), which I’ve borrowed, with an assist from Rev. Dr. Joy Moore, from the good folks over at Mere Orthodoxy thanks to a tweet from Matthew Lee Anderson. From a 2010 interview:

Not every wave of political enthusiasm deserves the attention of the church in its liturgy. Judging when political questions merit prophetic commentary requires a cool head and a theological sense of priorities. The worship that the principalities and powers seek to exact from mankind is a kind of feverish excitement. The first business of the church is to refuse them that worship. There are many times – and surely a major Election is one of them – when the most pointed political criticism imaginable is to talk about something else.

If O’Donovan is right that the forces of evil want most a kind of “feverish excitement” from God’s people, than evil must be winning.  The devil is an extremist, as Uncle Screwtape noted, and seems to be doing well in this extreme age.  This is why, O’Donovan notes, our “first business” as the church is to deny that adulterated worship.  This leads to his conclusion that, counterintuitively, “the most pointed political criticism” is to focus elsewhere.

For my own take, I don’t think this means completely ignoring momentous events like elections and inaugurations, but it does mean keeping the focus on where it should be – on the worship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is what Stephen Covey calls “keeping the main thing the main thing.”

To let something else – out of elation, or anxiety, or anger – take our eyes off of God is to succumb to the spirit of Antichrist.  It is to give Satan the “feverish excitement” that draws our energies and attention away from the One who alone gives life.

I once heard a quote attributed to Merton that gets at this nicely: “What the devil wants most is attention.”  I’ve wrestled with that for a while, and it came back to me when I read O’Donovan’s reflection above.  A laser is powerful because it is focused. If that focus dissipates even slightly, it is useless. So it is with our worship; in giving the forces of corruption and anxiety our energy, we capitulate our very identity in a fruitless endeavor to fight “feverish excitement” with more of the same.  We condescend to the same level as that which we contend against.

In a similar vein, author Andrew Vachss has left us the following poem:

Warrior, heed this
When you battle with demons
Aim not at their hearts

Don’t aim at their hearts, for it will only be wasted effort.  Don’t fight fire with fire.  As Emily Dickinson said, “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.”  The fact is that the greatest truth the Body of Christ has to proclaim is not a word about any thing, issue, cause, or controversy.  The truth we proclaim is a person named Jesus, who reveals the Good News of who God is, what God is doing, and what God will do.  In short, telling the truth about Jesus will always be more radically subversive than the angriest tweet, the most pointed Facebook post, or the signaliest of virtue signaling blog posts.  Likewise, a sermon “about” the election or a liturgy focused on the office of the President – aiming right at the heart of the demons – can only fall flat compared to the one truly subversive claim: that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. (2 Cor. 5:19)

The first business of the church after the inauguration is no different than it was before the inauguration: to proclaim, in word and deed, hymn and sacrament, voice and silence, liturgy and service that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit.

That is the truth on which our hope is based.  Whether we find ourselves angry, joyful, sad, or indifferent at this moment in our national life, our worship and proclamation should first reflect the gospel, not our own emotional state.  If every knee will bow and every tongue confess at the name of Jesus (Phil. 2:10-11), then our proclamation ought never stray from this, for no matter what the news of the day might be, the good news is greater.   This is the confession on which our very lives are staked.  This – and only this – is the first business of the church, no matter who sits on Caesar’s throne.

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The Anti-Establishment Establishment

by Drew 3 Comments
Courtesy wwwhousandgarden.co.uk

Courtesy www.housandgarden.co.uk

The leading candidates for both parties in the 2016 Presidential contest are all trying to paint their opponents as “establishment.”

Post-Obama America, when the platitudes of “hope” and “change” failed to hold up under the weight of reality, voters are in many ways more cynical than ever.  The only broad agreement is that politicians in general are the problem; the more insider they are, the more a particular politician represents the ways of that mysterious phantasm known as “the establishment,” the less interested we are in electing them to the most powerful office in the land.

The problem, of course, is that the idea of “the establishment” is ephemeral.  It’s a construct with little purchase on reality.  It’s an idea with rhetorical power but very little content.  Defending National Review‘s whole issue devoted to slamming The Donald, editor Jonah Goldberg argues,

“Anti-establishment” is almost entirely devoid of any ideological content whatsoever. An ideological category that can include Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Occupy Wall Street, the tea parties, Ted Cruz, Mark Levin, Rush Limbaugh, and Ben Carson is not a particularly meaningful one.

Some reply, oh no, it shows that the people are angry! I hear this all the time. And I agree. And I’m angry too. But you know what? Being angry is not a frick’n argument. I’m angry that Washington has drowned the country in debt. I’m angry that Obama has been a failure. I’m also angry that broccoli doesn’t taste like chicken and that Fox canceled Firefly. Being angry is probably a necessary condition for fixing a lot of problems, but it isn’t sufficient to the task. And it isn’t a particularly powerful defense of Donald Trump.

So why do we collectively demand outsider candidates to be the Chief Executive?

The flight from “establishment” candidates is just another example of our modern disdain for institutions.  Whereas my grandparents’ generation loved and supported institutions – denominations, political parties, Masonic lodges, women’s circles – Western culture today eschews them.  We now have a bias against “established” anything – that is, anything with a significant past – in part, perhaps, because new media and consumerism have effectively made all of us neophiliacs.  We are conditioned to look out for what is new and what is next.  Anything written in stone – hell, anything not Snapchatted or Instagrammed from the latest Apple product – is already antique.

Bias against the establishment has become our baseline, a shared cultural assumption.  Like a fish that doesn’t know it’s in water, anti-establishment zeal is simply the air we breathe.  In 21st century America, it is the norm.

Did you catch the irony?

Welcome to the anti-establishment establishment.

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The Other Side of Progress

Early on in his storied career as a pastor, bishop, ecumenist, and missiologist, Lesslie Newbigin gave a series of lectures entitled, “The Kingdom of God and the Idea of Progress.”  In the first lecture, he makes the following observation:

The true reading of history seems to be this, that every new increase of man’s mastery over earth and sea and sky opens up possibilities not only of nobler good, but also of baser and more horrible evil, and that even those movements of social progress which can point to real achievement in the bettering of society have to be put side by side with these equally real movements of degeneration which have sometimes actually arisen out of the same social improvements.

Any Christian view of the state should always be heavily chastened by the doctrine of sin, which should keep our faith in progress (which, in modern democracies, often trumps faith in God) in proper check.  Newbigin invites us to something more nuanced than much contemporary political discourse: a view that is neither triumphalist nor fatalist, but one which recognizes that even within the brightest moments of human achievement, seeds of real evil can be planted.

One would think that the goddess Progress might have been slain after two World Wars and countless atrocities, but methinks she is a hard deity to bury.

 

 

From Signs Amid the Rubble: The Purposes of God in Human History by Lesslie Newbigin, ed. by Geoffrey Wainwright (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s 2003), 16.

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“Only God is Great”: A Homily for Election Day Communion

“Only God is Great”

Romans 13:1-10 & Psalm 146

http://electiondaycommuniondotorg.files.wordpress.com/2012/10/edc-image-quotes-026.jpg?resize=576%2C432

Courtesy http://electiondaycommunion.org

Louis XIV was one of the greatest kings that the world has ever known.  He sat on the French throne for over 70 years and is still famous today for solidifying the power of the monarchy and claiming  Divine Right of rule.  He was called the Sun King, and he was called Louis the Great.  In 1699 he called a priest named Jean-Baptiste Massillon to be his personal chaplain.  When Louis died in 1715, he had left meticulous instructions with Massillon about has lavish funeral.  He wanted a dramatic affair worthy of such a great king of France.   He was to lie in state in a golden casket at the Notre Dame cathedral so that his subjects could come and pay their respects to him.  The funeral was to be lit by a lone candle in the vast cathedral, for dramatic effect.  Father Massillon carried out Louis’ instructions to a ‘t’, but when it came time to deliver the funeral sermon he added his own touch.  As he began his sermon he went to the candle that stood over the King’s casket and snuffed it out, saying, “Only God is great.” (1)

We gather tonight in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the election eve to tell the world, “only God is great.”  Whomever we elect, whomever sits in the Oval Office, real power and hope and authority resides in Jesus.  Best of all, we don’t vote for him, we don’t have to elect him, he is already the one who is Elect, the One called by the Father in the strength of the Spirit to be our King and Lord and Master, to save us and to redeem the world.  His Kingdom has come, is here, and is coming.  We get to the live into that reality, remembering that the gospel means that Jesus resides not just in our hearts, but in our homes and places of work and in our neighborhoods.

We gather tonight as a sign of unity in the world divided; the talking heads say that this is the most divided campaign season in decades.  It could be a long time before we know who the next President will be.  We have spent recent days and weeks being bombarded with phone calls and fliers and commercials.  Some of us have gotten into arguments with friends and family about who to vote for; others of us have dodged those conversations like the plague.  I’m a preacher and I find politics interesting, which means I can never have a polite conversation anywhere I go!

Where do we put our real trust and hope?  Christians are called to remember that Jesus does not want to be a part of our lives, but the center.  Jesus is not one ruler among other rulers, the “spiritual” authority alongside other authorities, he is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  If we believe the hype, our hope and security and future rest in a candidate, not on God.  How many ads have you seen whose purpose is to frighten you into putting your hope into one of the candidates?  If we take the advertising at its word, everything is up to the next President: your health care, your jobs, your personal safety, your gym membership, your tomato patch, and whether or not you will have to replace your spark plugs this year.  If we believe the practical atheism of the election season, it’s all up to the President.

The Bible has some different thoughts about this.  I thought of Louis XIV’s funeral story when I read the opening of Psalm 146: Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.” Human authorities have their purpose and their role, but don’t put your trust there.  Trust God.  Romans 13 is one of the clearest statements in the Bible about the purposes of worldly power, reminding us that our rulers (when they are doing their God-given work) are instruments of God to maintain peace and order.  Paul says to be subject to the state because it is God’s servant, and give what is due (whether taxes or honor or respect) to all.  Above all, give love, because love does not wrong a neighbor.

And love is in short supply these days.  We don’t know how to disagree without being disagreeable, we get so wrapped up in holding the right position that we forget that being a Christian says something about HOW we hold our positions.  John Danforth, a longtime US Senator who is also an Episcopal priest, writes “The problem is not that Christians are conservative or liberal, but that some are so confident that their position is God’s position that they become dismissive and intolerant toward others and divisive forces in our national life.” (2)  As Jesus followers we are called to a different way: the way of peace, the way of reconciliation, the way of unity and love.  We go to the Table tonight to remember the things that bring us together, the things that cannot be won or lost by a vote, the things that are God’s good gift to His children: faith, hope, and love.

Today, like many of you, I voted.  Before I voted, I went to the bank.  As I drove from my branch to the Presbyterian church where I vote, I thought, “this is where the world says all the power is.”  The world says that power is found in the dollar, in bank accounts and hedge funds; that peace and wholeness and hope can be voted in or out of office.  As Christians, we are called to say a defiant “no” to a world that has forgotten the truth.  Jesus is Lord.  To be a Christian is to cast your vote not for a President or Governor, but for a Savior, Lord, and Master.  It is a vote for the poor, for the oppressed, for the prisoner and widow; to vote for Jesus is to vote for all of those the world would rather forget.  Politicians go on and on about who will represent the middle class; Jesus says to remember “the least of these.”  Politicians say, “peace through strength,” Jesus reigns from a cross.  Politicians say, “vote for me,” but Jesus says, “I died for you.”  Do not put your hope in kings, in Presidents, in any earthly power.  Jesus is Lord.  Let the church worship her king, and remember her first loyalty.

I close with a prayer from Stanley Hauerwas:

“Sovereign Lord, foolish we are, believing that we can rule ourselves by selecting this or that person to rule over us. We are at it again. Help us not to think it more significant than it is, but also give us and those we elect enough wisdom to acknowledge our follies. Help us laugh at ourselves, for without humor our politics cannot be humane. We desire to dominate and thus are dominated. Free us, dear Lord, for otherwise we perish. Amen.” (3)

  1.  From: http://massillonchurches.com/JBMassillon.phtml
  2. John Danforth, Faith and Politics (New York: Viking 2006), 10.
  3. http://thedrum.typepad.com/the_drum/2012/11/an-election-day-prayer-from-stanley-hauerwas.html
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Politicians as Rice

by Drew 0 Comments

I greatly miss Chappelle’s Show.  It was one of the funniest shows on television before the eponymous comedian, concerned with the direction of his program, walked off the show and took a sabbatical halfway through the 3rd season (leaving behind a multimillion dollar contract).  One of his friends, Neal Brennan, was also a writer on the show.  In looking into the demise of the show, I came across this great nugget from an interview with Brennan, himself a standup comic:

Brennan met President Barack Obama at the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2011 and says he seemed like a cool, personable guy. “I just wish he was better.” Brennan’s dissatisfaction with the president is more reflective of his views of politics in general. “I thought a black president would make a difference,” Brennan says. “Maybe what I’ve come to realize is that politicians are like rice. Whether it’s brown rice or white rice, it’s empty calories either way.”

Yet another reason why Jesus is my candidate.

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A Wee Bit of Barth on the Church

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Barth wrote a lot on the church, and to be sure, much has been written about Barth’s view of the Church.  I make no claim to be an expert on Barth, on ecclessiology (the study of the church), and especially not on Barthian ecclesiology. I’m only somewhat familiar with Barth’s project and am only now wading into deep waters by slowly reading a volume of his massive Church Dogmatics.

As you can follow along with my counter to the right, it is a tedious process, though quite rewarding.   I chose to begin with Dogmatics II.2, because this is where Barth does some of his most original and interesting work revamping the Calvinist concept of election.  I’m still trying to square this with my Methodist theology, but that will be a work in progress for some time.
This morning, I came across this gem:

As the church, the community [of God]…is the centre and medium of communication between Jesus and the world, having its commission to all who stand outside. (239)

To be sure, it is a small nugget, but profound nonetheless.  At my seminary, we liked to talk about ecclesiology a great deal; this was related, largely, to an institutional bent towards the Roman Catholic tradition that as a whole was very fruitful.  At the time, though, I found the bend toward ecclessiology an odd and not wholly necessary distraction.

But serving a local church has made me realize that we protestant Christians really do have a hard time articulating the “why” of the Church.  I certainly was not told why I went to church as a child, or even why the Church exists.  Also, in doing a recent study of The Shack, I challenged my people to think through the anti-church bias present in much of the book (which is, really, a modern bias as a whole) – assumptions that many of them (even life-long churchgoers!) shared.

Between the Catholic scandals, the defenders of the “house church” movement, and the New Atheists, the institutional church is under assault.  We pastors desperately need to articulate the “why” of the Church to our people.  If protestantism proves anything, it is that the conception of the Church as a collection of individual believers who come to get their spiritual fuel tanks filled (a consumerist model of church) cannot be sustained.  Barth gives us a good starting place to rethink that practice: through the work of the Holy Spirit, the Church is how Jesus reaches out the world and asks them to respond in faith and service.  Like Israel of old, the Church exists not for itself but for God and thus for all the world.

P.S. If you want some help articulating the ‘why’, check out Gerhard Lofhink’s Does God Need the Church? It is, quite simply, marvelous.

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Barthian Snow

https://i0.wp.com/www.ncs-glc.com/GLC/newsblurts/wesley_barth.gif?w=1140

As the snow falls down here in North Carolina, I’m chewing on the theological equivalent of beef jerky: Karl Barth, Dogmatics II.2.  From my slight exposure, I love Barth.  I dig his project.  I dig the postliberals that follow his lead.  I love the ‘third way’ between beyond liberal and fundamentalist theology (having occupied both previously).  But I don’t know how to make Barth ‘fit’ into my overarching theological framework.

I went to a Methodist seminary, studied under some folks who are supposed to be the best Methodist thinkers in the world, and I got a lot of good Wesleyan theology.  But I also studied with brilliant and persuasive people who were, to one degree or another, Barthians.  I identify with both camps.  In January I began reading a small bit of Dogmatics II.2 each morning as my devotional reading (one of my mentors recommended reading Barth at a pace of 5 pages a day, which I track in a box to the right).  And while I think I am in the process of converging, I’m not sure I can be a consistent Wesleyan and like Barth so darn much (the reverse is also true).  I by and large can’t stand Calvin and his descendants – especially puritans like Jonathan Edwards and his modern day descendants like John Piper.  I’m a Wesleyan because I believe God is all about grace – and I loathe the notion that a loving God would/could condemn people before the foundation of the world.

But Barth did this strange and wonderful thing with Calvin – he made the election about Jesus! With the insight that the election of Israel was for the sake of the whole (as the Bible attests), he turns the whole project on its head.  Election is now, in his words, an election of grace.  In my pure Wesleyan days, this idea would be nonsensical.  But my oh my, is he convincing.  Perhaps it is because all my Wesleyan theology never taught me to deal with the concept of election in any way other than approbation – mocking TULIP and the like – and perhaps it is because he is more systematic than the practical Wesley ever had the chance to be.  But I’m beginning to think that, on the whole, we Protestants have vastly overestimated the importance of our response to God.  Yes – it matters; yes, the proper and good response to the love and mercy of God is repentance, new life, and holiness (something Wesleyans share with the Orthodox).  But surely, all of this is accomplished only through Jesus, God’s elect, who reconciled the world to Himself.  In short, we’ve given ourselves too much credit for our salvation.  Jesus is the point of all of this – Jesus has saved us!  We just have to get on board with that reality (but our “getting on board” doesn’t make it so).

I’d love some feedback on why, if, and how exactly I am wrong.  I have a long ways to go – from both ends – to reconcile my Wesleyan and my Barthian sides.  But it’s a work in progress.

Now, a little of why I love Barth:

Between God and man there stands the person of Jesus Christ, Himself God and Himself man, and so mediating between the two.  In Him God reveals Himself to man.  In Him man sees and knows God.  In Him God stands before man and man stands before God, as is the eternal will of God, and the eternal ordination of man in accordance with this will.  In Him God’s plan for man is disclosed, God’s judgment on man fulfilled, God’s deliverance of man accomplished, God’s gift to man present in fullness, God’s claim and promise to man declared.  In Him God has joined Himself to man.  And so man exists for his sake. (Dogmatics II.2, 94)

I am not breaking any ground in reflecting that what makes Barth great it his insistence that Christ is the center not only of theology, of Christian reflection, prayer, thought, and worship – but of the whole of reality.  In a world that is so ‘me’ centered – so vulgar – so arrogant – so obsessed with the experience of selfhood – it is a real joy to read something directed to the holy and wholly Other – God in Christ, electing God and elected man.

At the end of the day, life really isn’t about me.  Or you.  Thanks be to God!

In other news: For the second time in a decade, I must ask: what in the hell does the federal government have to do with sports?

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