Happy Xmas

Well another Christmas season come and gone. And with it the echoes of controversy and silliness that otherwise informed people get wrapped up with.

First is the “Xmas” controversy. Some bad preaching fueled by ignorance and a “sky is falling” mood has contributed to this one. “Xmas” is an abbreviation for “Christmas.” This is because the English “X” most closely resembles the Greek letter ‘chi.’ Chi, for millennia, has been a God-honoring abbreviation for “Christ.” In the same way, Bible students can use “Xn” for “Christian,” “Xnty” for “Christianity,” or even “Xndm” for “Christendom.” As such, English believers have used their own letter, “X” for “Christ” for hundreds of years.
Only recently, with the increasing ignorance of all things older than one’s lifetime, have silly preachers claimed that “Xmas” is an attempt to ‘take the Christ from Christmas.” Leveraging on the use of the letter ‘x’ to signify the unknown in high-school math and the use of ‘x’ in popular culture to signify mystery, as well as a desire to find all kinds of reasons why the world is going to Hell in a Handbasket, have conspired to create the completely unwarranted objection to using Xmas for Christmas. “Xmas” as an abbreviation for “Christmas” dates from at least the 1500’s – far before any attempt by postmodernists, New Atheists, or even the concept of the secular state.
What is odd is that people object to the use of the English letter, ‘x’ for “Christ,” but don’t bat an eye at the rest of the word, “mas.” “Christ-mas” is derived from the phrase, “Christ’s Mass.” The word first hit the scene in about 1038. And for those people very much in the Protestant camp, they get their drawers in a knot about abbreviating “X” for Christ but are happy to encourage the concept of the Roman Mass. Go figure.
What causes me befuddlement is that otherwise well-educated Christians are perfectly willing to embrace willful ignorance because one day a bad preacher compellingly told them a historical falsehood.

On to the next controversy – one that is more “popular.” This is the “Merry Christmas” verses “Happy Holidays” greeting controversy. This is along the lines of the “He’s the Reason for the Season” catch-phrase. In fact, the birth of Jesus is not completely the reason for the season. I’ve mentioned this before (http://ericmesselt.blogspot.com/2008/12/reason-for-season.html), but the fact is that there were pagan Winter Party seasons long before our Lord was born.
At the end of my thinking on this, I am resigned to recognize that our society confounds the pagan and Christian meaning of “Christmas.” Frankly, I appreciate the honesty of secular and pagan people to stop calling what they do during this time of the year, “Christmas.” I don’t like that the excesses and rowdy revelry are associated with Jesus. They still don’t get the idea of “holiday,” of course ("holiday" means "holy day"). But if this is merely a “Happy Holiday” for them, fine. It still – very much – is about Christ to me.

Let me take that “Happy Holidays v. Merry Christmas” controversy a step further. I believe that it was the redeeming and lifting effect of the gospel on the pagan-infested roots of Western Civilization that changed the course of the Winter Party season into the Christmas season. But not completely – there are still plenty of pagan influences. It is expected, within ‘Christian’ nations to not only celebrate the birth of Jesus, but also to have a rowdy ‘good time.’ That is, to be “merry.”
Let me pull back a bit. In the U.S., it is customary to wish each other a “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.” My time in the U.K. taught me another custom. There, people say it ‘backwards;’ they wish each other a “Happy Christmas and Merry New Year.” Now why the switch as the sentiment crossed The Pond is unknown to me, but I have pondered on the difference of meaning between the words “merry” and “happy.” To most, the words are exactly the same and so it’s a distinction without a difference. But the words are different and carry different meanings. Currently, “merry” means “full of or showing lively cheerfulness or enjoyment;” while “happy” means “feeling or showing pleasure, contentment, or joy.” When *I* think of the two words in connection with Christmas, I associate “merry” with the party stuff, while I associate “happy” with the “Happy Birthday, Jesus” stuff.
So I’m adopting the British practice of wishing people a “Happy Christmas.” Now, here’s what I’m NOT going to do. I’m NOT going to castigate, insult, or take exaggerated offense if other Christians continue to use the phrase “Merry Christmas.” Additionally, I’m not going to think less of them privately. I am merely going to make the shift myself and see what happens.
So “Happy Christmas” to my Jesus-following friends! “Merry Party-time” to my pagan friends (hoping they’ll come to their senses about Jesus), and may this next year be a time of peace, prosperity, and health because of the grace of God in our lives.


Sacrifice And Service (2Cor 4:7ff)

I was reading this passage this morning and reflected on Paul’s sacrificial commitment to the ministry of the Good News about Jesus. Paul is intense, extreme, and hard-core in his devotion to Christ and the do-whatever-it-takes posture of spreading the news and encouraging people to be close to God because of Jesus.

Now Paul’s sacrifice for the work of Christ was great – even life-threatening. I’ve lived most of my life in suburbia and minister now in middle-class American suburbia. My ministry has hardly ever been even close to life-threatening. There are those who will be quick to tell me that I’m not *really* living for Christ, much less doing ministry – my life is too easy, convenient, and safe. And they are right – my life is relatively easy, convenient, and safe. One reason that is true is because I have family to care for: a wonderful wife and three great children. Which is a fact consistent with 1Cor. 7:32-35 – that my family responsibilities ‘limit’ my ability to minister.

But I have recently read about ‘limits’ and would gently correct my hard-core accusers: God has made me, shaped me, and equipped me to do some things well and other things not very well at all. I am good with things and tools, bad at athletics; good with words, only fair with numbers; good at changing light bulbs without a ladder, bad a crawling into tight spaces. We all have limits, as well as gifts; experiences as well as naivete';  fumbling as well as competence; calling as well as confusion. What seems to be part of the Christian life is learning to live as God made us and live toward what God wants us to become. My ‘limits,’ I’m learning, are actually gifts that God has given me and I am learning to welcome them and cherish them as helping me to understand the uniqueness that God has formed into me.

So I see my limits as informing my calling – yes, here to suburbia. “Calling,” as I understand it, is the guidance and direction of the Holy Spirit on the direction I should take my life – not somebody’s else’s life: mine. And when God tells me to do something, everything I’ve learned and experienced tells me that I should really get about what he tells me to do. The alternative is always worse.

Additionally, I will suggest that “burning out for Jesus!” is not Paul’s answer, either. Philippians 1:21-25 show that Paul actually seems to have considered that option. In my hard-core brothers’ perspective: “live life hard for Jesus, shine bright, flame out, and go to heaven!” Paul seems to have two options before him: flame out and go to heaven, or stay here and slog along being helpful to Christians still here. He seems to indicate that the *more sacrificial option* was to stay here; perhaps even that flaming-out would have been slightly narcissistic and self-serving as an ‘easy way out.’

Nobody is suggesting that martyrdom is easy – but the larger issue is: what does God want? This shows up with Paul again as he state elsewhere that true loving sacrifice was in service, not mere death (Romans 12:1, 1Cor. 13:3).

So as I read this passage in 2Corinthians 4, I am on one hand challenged to stretch, to press into the hard things, and to travel into the bad places – if that’s where God calls me. But just because God called Paul to rather extreme deprivations does not mean I have to follow him there. I follow Paul as he follows Christ (1Cor 11:1) in doing what I have been called to do.


Jesus: Lord of the Calendar - Deleted Scenes

This blog has to do with my “deleted scenes” from my sermon on Jesus as “Lord of the Calendar.” As with the other “deleted scenes” blogs, these points are pretty sparse and isolated. It is best to hear the sermon (download from lbchapel.com) and then read what I didn’t put in…

With that episode about fasting, Jesus introduces the idea of old and new wineskins. That is, that there was an old way of doing things, but that way is not compatible with the new way that Jesus brings. Not only was the old way of law, animal sacrifice, and a separate identity going to be replaced with the better thing, but there was going to be a new way of living for God’s people. The reality is that religious leaders of those times had messed up what God had provided, the Law, so badly that it became corrupt and evil. What God had meant as a good preparation for the coming of Jesus, men had corrupted to being evil and wicked
He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, … (Mk 3:5)
Why???? Isn’t Jesus, “Meek and Mild,” supposed to be even tempered, forgiving to all, patient with all, accepting of all? Hmmmm. Apparently not.
When we say, “God’s Kingdom” or “the Kingdom of God,” what we are talking about is that people, place, where in the past-present-or-future God rules. As we approach Xmas, note that Mary – in her magnificent song of praise – acts a bit of the prophetess by saying, “He has brought down princes from their thrones and exalted the humble” (Lk 1:52). Jesus affirms this with an earthly “king,” that is Pilate (Roman governor):
Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, …. But my kingdom is not from the world." Then Pilate said to him, "So you are a king?" Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world--to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice." Pilate said to him, "What is truth?" John 18:36-38
This idea of God’s kingdom here with us now is stated elsewhere. We see Paul on this theme when he says that even now, God is doing this work: “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, Colossians 1:13


Modesty in Ministry (1Cor 12:22-24)

No great exegetical insights today. Just an interesting observation. For those who are in teaching and preaching ministries; I have some earth-shattering news: not every believer wants to be up front!
So what’s implied by that? Well, first that those who have teaching-preaching ministries (sometimes called “Word Ministry”) usually also enjoy being on the platform, behind-beside the lectern, in the pulpit, etc. There’s nothing wrong with that. After all, especially for a gifted teacher, there is the inherent need for an audience of students to be able to exercise those gifts.

The second implication is that Christians are different. There is ‘diversity’ in the unity of the metaphorical body of Christ; that is, the church. And that occurs locally as well as in the universal church. While we, as humans, have a delightful set of similarities. God has also made us to be different, to notice those differences, and – when we’re sane – to enjoy and delight in those differences. When we’re insane, we hate the differences and thereby become racist, and so forth.

And in the church, God has seen fit to carry that diversity a step further. In order that the people of God would be encouraged by each other, God has given each Christian – through the indwelling Holy Spirit – unique expressions of spiritual power. These powers aren’t magical: Christians can’t levitate, pull animals out of hats, etc. – but these ‘powers’ are meant to be helpful to the assembly of Christians – the church. These are abilities like uncanny wisdom; the ability to learn Bible and theology at a very high level (sometimes even in spite of a lifetime of secular academic failure); the ability to have a visionary trust and confidence in what God can and will do; yes, the ability to heal disease and sickness and even achieve the miraculous; the ability to detect the working of evil spiritual forces; as well as the ability to speak and understand the manifestation of “tongues.” There are other abilities spoken of in the Bible, as well (such as teaching and preaching), but this is list that appears in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church.

Some of these Spirit-empowered abilities can be rather spectacular; others are more subdued. Here’s the thing: some of us with more ‘up front’ or ‘spectacular’ gifts can frequently offend those of our brothers and sisters with less public ministries.

Here’s an example from when I was working in industry. I remember a supervisor of mine – good guy, very competent, good boss – attempt to convince one of our team to do a small presentation on some technical thing she’d become an expert at. She thought that it would be great for more people to know this thing – that wasn’t the issue. The issue was that she was a shy and reserved type and the thought of standing up to present before even a small group was Very Uncomfortable for her. My supervisor tried to persuade her that he wanted her to develop her leadership abilities. My friend was annoyed: ‘Leadership? I don’t want to lead, don’t want to be a leader, I am very content following good leaders like you – please don’t make me do this!’ In talking with my boss later, he confessed that he’d made a mistake by attempting to make my friend into something that she wasn’t, and didn’t want to be.

I’ve seen that in the church. One of my former pastors, very conscious of the wonderful acts of silent service that many of our faithful members perform, wanted them to receive recognition and praise for their selfless devotion. So, every once in a while, he would mention them in a sermon – unfortunately without their prior notice or permission. The even more unfortunate thing was that he tended to go a bit, er, over the top in his praise making the person feel even more uncomfortable. A vocabulary developed for this phenomenon. People who loved the fact that they were serving behind the scenes were mortified by being “pastor-ized.”
I was reading 1Cor 12:22-24 and came across this brief text: “… our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty…” Modesty is when we keep covered what should appropriately be covered. Now this word, “unpresentable,” is a weird word. We tend to think of this as being a synonym for “ugly.” But is that the meaning that Paul is intending here? Is he suggesting that there are some expressions of the Holy Spirit in the life of a healthy church that are ugly or disgusting? That goes against the whole grain of this passage of scripture. I wonder if that word is not meant to communicate “ugly,” but merely “properly kept out of view.”
Of course, “modest” has another meaning: “not much to show for it.” If you have believers whose service is modest in that way and there is no justification or excuse, then they need to be encouraged to more energetic service. But for those who toil in obscurity, we need to be sensitive towards that obscurity – they may find great comfort in it. Not everyone wants the ‘limelight;’ not everyone wants to be up front; not everyone wants their accomplishments made public.

If so then here’s my application: we should treat our silent servers with respect. We should protect their modestly. Let the silent serving believers in the church keep doing their job. If you believe they need encouragement, let that be done privately. If you need to publicly encourage people towards more service, refer to the silent servers in very general terms so they can continue to serve in a way “properly out of view.” I see no value in publicizing the specific work of particular believers who are involved in “modest” service.


Response To Sin and Offence

My theology professor, Gerry Breshears, posted this blog on "Restoration." It seemed like a good process to think through when responding to sin and offence. Wadda ya'all think?


The Man Who Is God - Deleted Scenes

Here’s another blog about ‘deleted scenes;’ thoughts that came to me as I was preparing this sermon but didn’t make the ‘final cut.’
The sermon was about Jesus, the Man who is God. Please go to the church’s website, download the sermon, give it a listen, and then come back to see what I did not put in ….

As to this text that says that “all the people were being baptized…” I hope it is obvious, contrary to some preachers (and even teachers!) that “all” does NOT mean “all” all the time. We can see that in even the raw fact being that Jesus, at that moment, had not been baptized. Clearly Luke is engaging in some hyperbole to emphasize the fact that John was a Very Big Phenomena!
Let’s get this heresy on and off the table very quickly. Some will say that it was this time that Jesus was “possessed” by God and became Messiah. “See? Only now does the Holy Spirit come into Jesus’ life!” This misses the point, ignores scripture, and is contrary to what orthodoxy has taught for two thousand years. This is not the first time Jesus experienced the Spirit. This is the Spirit’s anointing for Jesus to now commence his public ministry.
Tradition tells us that Jewish men were not to commence their professional ministry careers until they had attained to their 30th birthday. Priests had to wait (Num. 4:3), Joseph was 30 when he served in Pharaoh’s court (Gen. 41:46), and David was thirty when he became king (2Sam. 5:4). Interestingly, Jesus seems to honor that tradition and wait for that time in his life.
There is a lot of debate about the two genealogies of Jesus contained in Matthew’s and Luke’s gospel. After a point, the genealogies diverge. One very common way to reconcile them is to suggest that one shows Jesus’ biological genealogy from David through to Mary to confirm that Jesus had royal blood, so to speak. Then, so goes this argument, the other line is from David to Joseph, Jesus’ adoptive father, to show that Jesus had a inherited right to sit on David’s throne. The problem with that is to come up with this solution, you have to mess with the black and white text of the Bible. You see, Mary is not mentioned in either genealogy while Joseph is mentioned in both. There may be other solutions to this problem, but it seems to me a Very Bad idea to make up words and insert them into the Bible to solve a problem.
Sometimes we can forget that the people that made up Jesus’ family were real people, living real lives, and experiencing joys and pain:
Ø Adam – tossed out of paradise because he messed it up
Ø Seth – conceived out of profound grief over the first homicide; even his name means, ‘substitute’
Ø Lamech – lived under the curse of his forefather in fear, and continued his father’s homicidal ways
Ø Noah – the first case of alcohol abuse, profound embarrassment with ugly results
Ø Nahor and Terah – confused understanding of God
Ø Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Judah
Ø Salmon – married the former prostitute, Rahab
Ø Boaz – he and his wife, Ruth, had a beautiful romance
Ø David, son Nathan (named after the prophet)
Ø Joseph – a middle-aged guy swinging a hammer for a living, suddenly faced with a girlfriend who claims to have had visions of getting pregnant by means of God
Ø … and you thought you had a weird family!
So why did Jesus have to be tempted? Well, the first thing to consider is that temptation happens all the time and it seems reasonable to conclude that Jesus had been tempted, and resisted, many many temptations before this episode. It seems to me that these temptations are all directed at Jesus’ role as Messiah.
Additionally, part of Jesus’ task was to undo the work of Adam. Remember that Adam faced temptation and failed. Jesus faced these huge temptations and came out a victor. Jesus is a victor over sin!


Distinguishing Work of Preaching and Baptism

For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” 1Cor 1:17

I've been poking along at first and second Corinthians for several months in my devotions. I will let you know that devotional time in the Bible is a confusing experience for me. Sure, I read prayerfully and let the Lord speak to me. But, as I read, then something in the text catches my attention and I’m off to the original languages, doing a rough translation, and digging into the technical bits (as much as I’m able) to chase down this conceptual rabbit that just popped out of the bushes. It's funny to me how I can pop from devotional to study mode in such a short time.

In any case, that’s what happened on this one particular morning. As I came across this verse, I was struck by the distinction Paul apparently makes between the preaching of the gospel (the task that Christ gave him), and the baptizing of believers (a task that was, it seemed to him, an add-on).

A few technical observations: 
1) most translations translate logou as “words,” but the Greek word is singular; 
2) the literal words here are “wisdom of-word;” that is, the “of” (genitive) is attached to “word” rather than “wisdom;” 
3) there is an interesting use of the first “not” which points to the negation of the infinitive clause rather than the infinitive word itself. 

As to the first and second points, it seems to me that Paul is talking about a mode of presentation (“wisdom of word”) rather than actual speech (‘words of wisdom’), which does provide a different shading of meaning than how this is usually translated – maybe somebody can help me understand the discrepancy. As to the third point, translations get this right: it clearly makes better sense grammatically (“Burton’s Moods and Tenses”) and contextually to translate the clause, “Christ did not send me to baptize…” rather than, ‘Christ sent me to not baptize….’

Now as to the potential theological point; does Paul here distinguish between the evangelistic work of preaching and the evangelistic work of baptizing?

As one thoroughly brought up – and still very much in agreement with – the Anabaptist teaching of ‘believer’s baptism,’ I have believed and taught that the New Testament many times uses the word, “baptism” as a catch-all word (synecdoche) for the whole work of conversion in a believer’s life. Much like a baseball commentator would say, “With that out; that’s the game.” Certainly there was much more to the game than one ‘out,’ but that one play wrapped up the destiny of the whole game.

So when Paul suggests a distinction between his preaching (clearly part of the conversion process) and baptism (seems to me to be the capstone of the conversion process), then I was arrested. Here’s how it sounded to me: 'I, Paul, was sent by Christ to pretty much just preach the gospel. All that baptizing stuff into Christ and the church – nope, that’s generally not for me. Other guys can do that.'

Another data point is a couple chapters later when Paul seems to say something very much like that in 3:6 – “I [Paul] planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” You could read that and suggest that Paul had more in mind than a simple agricultural metaphor. Was Paul saying that he “planted” the good-news into the minds of believers, but Apollos “watered” them by baptizing them? That is, that there are somewhat distinct phases: preaching-planting, baptizing-watering, sanctifying-growing?

This would also say that “God causes the growth;” which in this sense means that God causes the ‘sanctification’ in believers. We know (even hard-core Calvinists would agree) that our ‘sanctification’ is in some way dependant on our obedience (Phil 3:12). But the very next verse, Phil 3:13, shows that God is the one at work in us; ‘causing the growth’ So this take on the analogy still seems to hold up.

Here’s my context. There is a debate among Anabaptist evangelicals regarding ‘early’ or ‘late’ baptism. The Early baptizers would argue that once someone has made a credible confession of faith in Christ, they should be immediately baptized and they cite the Ethiopian Eunuch (Ac 8:27-38) and Philippian Jailer (Ac 16:25-33) as Biblical examples. These folks tend toward the ‘Free Grace’ end of that debate. The Late baptizers counter that both of the examples are put in Luke’s text as exceptions to the general rule of delaying baptism. These tend toward the ‘Lordship Salvation’ end of that debate. The Late baptizers claim that it was the very early church’s practice to delay baptizing a believer until that person could really make both a credible confession of faith and was fully ready to “reject flesh, world, and the devil” to follow Christ wholly.
Late baptism was clearly the practice of the pre-Constantinian church. One reason was that too many churches had been betrayed by too-quickly baptized ‘believers’ who then, under ‘persuasion,’ gave the authorities information that allowed for the persecution of other believers.

To prevent these and other problems in the life of the church, the church had a training regimen called “catechesis.” A “catechumen” was a believer who was in the process between confession of faith and the conversion of their minds from a pagan to a Biblical world-view so that they would be prepared to enter into the full fellowship of the church via baptism (baptism, among other things, having an ‘initiation’ function). A very early and respected document, the “Didache” had this training function. Several commentators on 1 Peter believe it was written by Peter with just this new-believer-training-before-baptism purpose.

I heavily lean toward the Late baptism view – though am solidly in the Free Grace end of that debate. I believe that it is very important that a believer be baptized only if they can give both a credible AND informed confession of faith. It seems to me that this is both the testimony of scripture as well as the very early church.

So, yes, it does seem possible that Paul distinguished between his task of preaching and proclaiming the good news about Jesus, and the ‘follow-on’ work of pre-baptism discipleship and the performing of actual baptismal rites.


Paul Disobeys Jesus??

I hate it when I find stuff in the Bible that I don’t like. That really bugs me. This is not a typical example, but it is one that was rather arresting.

I’ve been reviewing the two epistles that Paul wrote to the Corinthian church for some time now. It somehow has seemed appropriate given my church, my newness to ministry, and some of the issues we all are facing over here. Some things in the letters are very affirming to our environment. For example, Paul’s clarity of teaching on the Lord’s Table – something very near and dear to our assembly. Some things in the letters are very challenging: handling conflict would be an issue for us – and nearly any other church. Some things seem pretty removed from our situation: not many of my brothers and sisters here are tempted to eat food offered to idols.

I came across a pretty unrelated section this morning. That is, unrelated to my church, but very much related to one of the infuriating themes in Paul’s dealings with the Corinthian church. I have written before of the church’s dysfunction and this church’s dysfunctional relationship to Paul (http://ericmesselt.blogspot.com/search/label/1%20Corinthians%206, http://ericmesselt.blogspot.com/search/label/1%20Corinthians%2010, and http://ericmesselt.blogspot.com/search/label/1%20Corinthians%2012). During all my reflection on the relationship that Paul had with this church, I nearly always put the blame for the dysfunction on the dorky believers in Corinth.

But there was this one episode that I tentatively suggested might be Paul’s fault. I wrote about that here: http://ericmesselt.blogspot.com/search/label/1%20Corinthians. I suggested that Paul may have made a ‘miscalculation’ in his insistence that he be so generous with the Corinthian church. That is, when he – out of grace and love and a desire to reflect the generosity of the gospel itself (2Cor 4:2) – did not make any demands or requests for the new Corinthian believers to financially support Paul (2Cor 11:9). We look at that decision and generally marvel in the giving and sacrificial posture that Paul adopted with these believers. However, this decision cost Paul – a lot. From that time to the writing of the two epistles, there was always an issue of Paul’s authority with this church (1Cor 1:12; 3:1-4; 4:1; 9:1-3; 2Cor 3:1-2; 10:8; 11:21-12:13) and the church’s inability to form a proper emotional bound with Paul (1Cor 4:14-16; 2Cor 5:13-12-13; 6:11-13; 7:2-4; 10:13-14; especially 2Cor 11:16-20). Even Paul acknowledges a potential problem when he states, “Or did I commit a sin in humbling myself so that you might be exalted, because I preached God’s gospel to you free of charge?” (2Cor 11:7) and “For in what were you less favored than the rest of the churches except that I myself did not burden you? Forgive me this ‘wrong!’” (2Cor12:13).

But as I was reading this morning, I came across this section in 1 Corinthians 9:14-16
In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel. But I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing these things to secure any such provision. For I would rather die than have anyone deprive me of my ground for boasting. For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting …

Paul remembers this right, of course: Jesus commanded that those who preach the gospel should earn their living from the gospel. He did this in Matthew 10:10. But then Paul says – this is astonishing! – that he did Not Obey Jesus! Instead, Paul turns Jesus’ words of commandment into a ‘right’ that Paul chooses to not exercise. Why? So Paul can “boast.”

The word that Paul uses for “commanded” is like a “specific arrangement,” or “direct order;” not a guideline, recommendation, suggestion, or discretionary policy. It is not the granting of a right. There is nothing optional about the word. There are other words for a softer ‘command’ and Paul didn’t use them. Commentators want to agree with Paul and so ignore this word or re-cast it as a suggestion.

I’m boggled by this. Paul seems to have made a deliberate choice to disregard Jesus’ plain arrangements for how the livelihood for preachers of the gospel is to be secured and, instead, embarked upon a frolic based upon the fact that it would make him able to boast about his generosity. To put it starkly: Paul chose between feeling good and obeying Jesus.

Now I can hear the howls of protest already. But let me remind you that Apostles are not infallible in their actions. We do affirm that Apostles were charged and functioned to accurately pass along Jesus’ teachings. Note the situation here: Paul DID accurately pass along Jesus’ teaching – Paul just didn’t obey Jesus’ teaching. And the result is that Paul’s relationship with the Corinthian church was pretty messed up.
Certainly not all of the dysfunction regarding the Corinthian church’s relationship with Paul can be laid at Paul’s feet. It is clear that the Corinthians were a pretty messed up church and they bear responsibility for their own sins. But it is worth noting that Paul’s relationship with the church was damaged based on his posture towards them about money. I’ve preached on this before: money and possessions have unexpected spiritual influence.

The lesson here is that if Paul had done his ministry as Jesus had instructed, it seems that his relationship with the Corinthian church would have been healthier.


Love One Another; Deleted Scenes

I preached a sermon in mid-August called, "Love One Another." I wasn't able to get all of my thoughts in so here are some that didn't make the cut...

I started my sermon by reflecting on the text in 2 Corinthians 6:11-13We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians, and opened wide our hearts to you. You are not restricted by us, but you are restricted in your own affections. As a fair exchange-- I speak as to my children-- open wide your hearts also” I commented on this odd emotional non-response that Paul received from this church he had planted.

This got me thinking about an often-ignored aspect of our spiritual lives: emotional health. We – especially in our movement – are very willing to acknowledge that we need to grow in -
  • obedience – we need to act with discipline and self-control
  • rational processes – we need to think clearly
  • faith – to use our capacity for hope and future thinking to see what God will do
BUT we are suspicious of issues of the heart. Even though we really appreciate other believers who are emotionally mature and healthy, we have seen so many abuses of “emotionalism” and get a bit skittish when we talk about emotional expressions in the Christian life. We don’t like to talk about this stuff and we don’t know how to talk with each other about each other’s emotional health, and even more to the point, growth. Yes, it seems to me that we should be helping each other to grow emotionally.
As to loving each other, there are three kinds of love that we can express in the church. No, these don’t relate to the three Greek words; these are ideas about loving each other:
  • Justice – doing love in our community and society
  • Truth – caring enough for somebody to tell them the truth
  • Grace – usually what we over-emphasize: giving people a break, avoiding confrontation
- when we emphasize one of these to the exclusion of the other two, we get into trouble
I was thinking about how we can love each other in very pragmatic ways and thought of 1 John 3:17-18If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.” It occurs to me that James and John (especially in 1John where he hammers in the idea that we must love our brothers) are completely synched-up on this; it makes one wonder if they ever sat down over a coffee and shared their concern for pastoral compassion ministry…
Valuing our “Community”
One of the hit TV series of the ‘90’s and new millennium was “Friends;” before that, it was “Cheers” (trading alcohol for caffeine). As our society and families break down, we have looked for a new sense of belonging, group, affiliation, and friends. Americans have famously been called, “a nation of joiners.” As much as we talk about ‘rugged individualism,’ we like coming together. And if this is true for Americans, the most individualist culture on the planet, it is even more true for the rest of the world: humans are social beings.
One of the things we sometimes forget to appreciate is that when we are converted, not only do we get a new heart that now wants to please God and live in obedience to him, but we also enter into a new community of spiritual brothers and sisters, the church: especially the local church – an assembly of other Christians who want to please God and live in obedience to him
Conflict is one of the barriers to loving each other. It prevents love – puts a cap on it. Conflict among believers is so important that Jesus and Paul spend significant time on it in Matthew 5, Matthew 18, and 1Corinthians 6 – as well as several other shorter sections of scripture. Most Christian conflict resolution occurs through the common-sense application of these scriptures. Some of you in this room need to take these scriptures seriously and attempt reconciliation with your brothers or sisters: not that you will achieve it, but you must – in so far as it depends on you – live at peace with all men


God as “Daddy”

I have heard preached for many years the idea that we, as Christians, have a “Daddy” relationship with God. Here’s an example from a recent work I read:
Jesus constantly addressed the Almighty, eternal, infinite Yahweh as “Abba,” an intimate, warm, familiar word a child would use for “Daddy.”

So I decided to track that down and nail it analytically. After all, I’m a seminary graduate and such; I’ve got this very nifty Bible software; and I know a little about Biblical languages. I can nail down exactly how "constantly" Jesus used the word, "abba." My point wasn’t to find that this is not true, but to quantify it so I could preach something like: “85% of the time, Jesus address God as ‘Daddy’ and that should tell us something about the relationship that he has secured for us with our Creator…” – or something like that.

So here are the facts: there are two words for “father” used in the New Testament. The first is the word, pater (which is similar to the Latin) and the other is the word, abba. The idea as usually preached is that pater is a formal address (“My most honored father”) while abba is a very familiar address (“Daddy, my knee has a boo-boo!”). The message is that certainly we can address God with respect and honor, but we can also address him as “Daddy” who cares deeply for us. Therefore, according to this idea, the overriding message of the Bible is that there are two ways of relating to God, as father or daddy.

So I fired up my Bible software and turned on my Greek language Thinking Cap. And I prepared myself for slogging through all the occurrences of “Abba” in the New Testament. So I performed the appropriate word search. Here’s what I found:
  • Uses of the word, pater: 167 (one hundred sixty seven).
  • Uses of the word, abba: 3 (three: Mk 14:36; Rm 8:15; Ga 4:6).

Unfortunately, I actually read my Bible. Again, my seminary professor’s words rang in my ear: “Don’t read the Bible!! It’s a dangerous book and will mess up your theology!” And this from a Systematic Theology professor. Of course, he was being mercilessly ironic by saying that. In fact, his clear point (and now I say the same thing) is that you *must* read what the Bible actually says. And when the clear teaching of the Bible conflicts with your theological notions, your notions must yield.

So here’s the reality: Jesus overwhelmingly refers to God as pater (father) and only once as abba.

Opps. Hear the sound of a hundred sermons based on the point that Jesus “constantly addressed the Almighty, … as ‘Abba’” going down the giant dustbin of bad exegesis.

So. Hmmmm. That’s not good.

Now one thing that an educated man is supposed to learn is ignorance. That is, I learn more so I can learn how much I don’t know. When I studied both Greek and Hebrew in seminary, I learned that I really don’t know very much about those languages. So I went to a real expert in Biblical languages and asked him about the abba and pater difference. Here’s what he told me.

The idea that pater and abba somehow signal two different kinds of relationship with a father is false. The two words come from two different languages and mean the same thing. Exactly the same thing. Pater means father in Greek and abba means father in Aramaic. Aramaic was the day-to-day language spoken by people in the Middle East and likely the language that Jesus spoke most of the time. Greek children who had a cuddly relationship with their daddies could call him pater. Middle Easter children of that time who were in a strained relationship with their father could call him, Abba.

Now there is a particular gramatic form that abba communicates and that is the Vocative. For you non-grammarians out there, the Vocative form is used by some languages as a form of address. Examples might be: “Father – look out!” or “Daddy, can you come here?” or “Old Man, who do you think you’re kidding?” – the idea in the Vocative is that you are trying to get the attention of the person you’re addressing by using their name or title. And when you look at the usage of abba in the New Testament, that’s exactly how the word is used – as a form of address.

Conclusion: there is No Difference between abba and pater - they both mean father.
Now the question is why would Jesus and Paul use Aramaic in those three instances? Notice this: in each of those instances, they also use the Greek word (abba ho pater is translated, “Abba, father”). When Jesus uses the word, it may be that Mark is attempting to communicate that Jesus’ feelings were so authentic that he used the language of his youth. When Paul uses the word, it may be to make a connection to a mixed audience of Greek and Aramaic speakers.

Maybe some of you language experts out there can help me out. What do you think?


Worship – Deleted Scenes

I preached on some ideas about worship recently and did not include all of my thoughts and have since then realized I needed to make some clarifications.

First of all, preaching about worship is a tough sermon to listen to. I mean, it’s what we are supposed to be doing right now, even as the preacher is talking. So there’s a natural defensiveness that can affect us as we listen to a sermon on worship during a time of worship. We can ask: “Am I doing the right thing? Do I have the right attitude? Will he say something that I’m doing is wrong?” So this can be a weird time.

Something that I’ve recently become aware of is the linkage between worship and food. Yeah, it seems weird to me, too. But consider these passages: Ex. 24:9-11; Dt. 14:23, 26; 1Tm 4:1-4; Neh 8:9-10. There’s an odd, unexpected connection between worship and eating. In fact, the passage from 1 Timothy says that it is pagans – who don’t know how to truly worship – who will tell you to abstain from food. John Ortberg said, “In general, I believe we have underestimated the importance of pleasure in spiritual formation.
I think that we underestimate the importance of joy and celebration in our worship. I spoke about the small steps I’ve made to be a better worshipper when I come together with the other believers at my church. I started by saying we need to engage our minds more and I don’t think that will meet with much resistance from this congregation.
I then said that we need to engage our hearts more (that is, our emotional life) in worship and used the Biblical example of David (a “man after God’s own heart”) who was clearly an emotional man, worshipped God emotionally, and seems to have been approved for that. That will leave some of you in the congregation cold. There is a strong feeling (isn’t that ironic?) that emotions are to be highly suspect. People trust their “heads” more than their “hearts.” Some people feel uncomfortable when they witness strong emotional expression.

As someone who is well practiced at trying to suppress my emotional life for several decades, I think I have some grasp on this phenomena. It seems to me that some people who are suspicious of emotional expression react that way NOT because they are not emotional people. Quite the opposite. They are VERY emotional people and realize that their emotional life gets them into trouble. So like the mythical Vulcans in the Star Trek legend, they work very hard at suppressing their emotions. Rather than allowing their emotions to be expressed in healthy and mature ways, they keep a lid on it. They probably pride themselves (there’s some emotional stuff right there) on being able to stay “cool.” And like those Vulcan characters, they are very uncomfortable with witnessing emotional “displays.” Why? Because it reminds them of their own seething feelings and they fear that they will lose control. Control is pretty important.

Now – and I’m speaking to myself, as well – the better thing to do is look at ourselves, realize our weakness, and not condemn those who do it better. That is, I may not be able to raise my arms far over my head in worship. But to those who can, and are doing so in an authentic manner, I should look to them as better worshippers than I. It’s alright that I’m not as further along. I need to recognize and admit that I am the weaker brother and strive to be stronger. My current weakness is no reason for me to insist that the stronger brother should be prevented from truer, better, and whole-hearted worship.

So if you find that you just can’t bring yourself to clap, raise your arms, or be very expressive in worship; really, that is OK! This is NOT the kind of church that insists that you must do those things to “prove” you are a real God worshipper. I am merely encouraging you to take the next, best step to increase your capacity for worship. I would further ask that as others are trying to take those steps for themselves, that you not prevent their expression of Biblical worship.


Give Your Pastor A Break

This is going to be a bit more of a rambling blog than usual. I had a weird experience this last weekend. And I need to be careful as I know this can be taken as being negative or critical of the very people I serve and journey with in my faith. That is not my intent.

We had a time of sharing and I mentioned, with some feeling, that I'd experienced a discouraging week. It had started fine, but a variety of things had not turned out well, there has been some criticism of the church (very unjustified), there are some painful decisions to make, and by the end of the week I was feeling a bit down.

As I was sitting there during our worship time, I was thinking through my little pity-party with a Biblical perspective. I remembered how happy I am to be here, what a privilege it is to do this kind of work, how graciously Jesus has provided for me and my family, how I have watched people in the last week go through gut-wrenching suffering and have been able to comfort them. Folks, I'm in the front row of what God is doing in some lives! To restate it, I came out from a hard week and into the room worshiping Jesus with my fellow Christ followers - and I could respond with joy. That was a great experience!

I shared from Psalm 13 which, like several other Psalms, has the same message: life seems bad, really is bad, but come into worship and you feel better. I was reminded of this and suddenly felt badly for those people who don't have the opportunity to engage in real worship, who do not have a vital relationship with Jesus, who do not (or even Christians who will not) take the time to worship and thereby are left to stew in their own minor miseries until the stew becomes a new misery of itself. Anyway, and I could go on – it was a pretty powerful moment for me.

The weird thing – well it seemed weird to me – is that people were reacting to the thought that their pastor was anything but happy, joyful, and content. Now, in the specifics I understand that there are reasons for some folk to over-react. But there can be some odd expectations of what a pastor's emotional health should be like.

Let me part the curtain a bit. Your pastor occasionally gets discouraged, even depressed. The only one who doesn't seem to be so afflicted is Joel Olsteen and I kinda wonder at that guy. But, hopefully, your pastor does not stay there in discouragement. How? Because of his own walk with the Lord and your prayers. But to think less of or, even worse, criticize your pastor for being occasionally down is very bad.

And it is more than – shall I say it – insulting to imply that your pastor who's had a bad week is not living in faith? If the apostle Paul could admit to his occasional discouragement and suffering, then you've got to look Paul in the face and tell him he didn't live by faith. And then he'll stand aside and you can talk to Jesus. Here was the person who was foretold to be a "Man of sorrows, acquainted with grief." Go ahead, look Jesus in the face and tell him that he lacked faith. Being sad is not necessarily an issue of faith.

I understand that we want our leaders, especially in the church, to be better than us. But setting up those expectations in an unrealistic manner will only encourage a great sin: the sin of hypocrisy. That is, rather than being honest or "authentic" with their discouragement, your leaders will just lie to you. Why? Because you want them to. Your unrealistic expectations will tempt your brother to sin. And they will eventually not be able to lead you because they can never tell you what is really going on in their heart.

Be mindful of the expectations you have of your pastor.


Michigan Transitions – E

I’ve been in southeast Michigan now for six months and a few other things have come on the “hmm, this is different” radar.
  • One of the things that was actually attractive to us when we came to the area is that there are more people here. My wife and I grew up in metropolitan areas and we understand traffic, congestion, and suburbia. In a sense, coming to the suburbs north of Detroit was like coming home.
  • Humidity – West of the Rockies, we just don’t get real humid weather. Even in the northwest where it rains frequently and moss grows on house rooftops, it doesn’t get as humid as the south and Midwest parts of the continent. Being here about half-way through the summer, I am reminded of a meteorological reality: summer rain is a regular thing. In southern California, you get your last rain in May and it doesn’t rain again until October. Even in the northwest, you’ll get summer showers, but they are brief and light storms. Here near Detroit, when it rains in the summer: it dumps in a thunderstorm and the puddles last for a couple of days.
  • Additionally, as I was driving around, another reason there is so much water in the air is clear: not only is Michigan bordered by four of the five Great Lakes, but there are a gazillian smaller lakes and ponds scattered throughout the land. There is probably some study to show the percentage of water surface to land surface here and my guess is that the percentage is much higher here than anywhere in the west.
  • The terrain is also different. It is flat here. Again, in the west you don’t have to search far to find a hill or mountain somewhere in your view. On one hand, this can be disorienting for me as during certain times of the day in certain weather (noon-ish with overcast skies), I can’t tell compass direction. On the other hand, it does give a wider vista. Somehow sunsets are more spectacular.
  • The coastal northwest does one better, of course. The prevailing tree type is tall and narrow. Therefore, even driving along the Interstate, you can actually have your view of the terrain blocked by trees. In southern California, there aren’t many trees so your view of the terrain is remarkably clear.
  • At least in this part of Michigan, this flatness translates to a pleasantly broad landscape. The roadways are built with wide margins between street surface and sidewalk. The notorious “Michigan Lefts” do have the benefit of creating wide medians along major streets.
  • “Pop.” OK, this is pretty mundane but I grew up calling soft drinks, “soda.” Here, you go into a restaurant and when the waitress asks what you want to drink, saying “soda” is going to create confusion. “Pop” is the term. And there is a fairly important devotion to regional favorites. Vernor’s ginger ale is bottled locally and is a favorite (though not drunk as frequently as is claimed, I observe). Additionally, “Faygo” is a local soft drink bottler with their own brands and flavors.