Archive for the ‘Bible’ Category

There’s no need for me to add my voice to cacophony out there telling the world why Harold Camping has been before and is currently wrong about the Rapture and coming apocalypse. For Christian insiders like me, it began as a joke; another nut with extraordinarily poor textual criticism skills shouting from the rooftops about the end of the world. Then it turned slightly more maddening as we realized that some naive believers were following Camping, but worse, his crazed misconceptions about Scripture and Jesus were becoming a obstacle to faith for those  searching for faith and another obstruction for those already opposed to it.

But in these last hours, I’ve become more understanding of both Camping and some of his followers, not of their eschatology, mind you, but their emotions; their longing. What if today were the rapture (which many Christians don’t believe in and haven’t historically)? What would it mean for you? Let me tell you what it’d mean for me.

If Harold were right, my mother would be reunited with her best friend, her mother. My mother might also know more or see more about her two sisters who died at the moment of childbirth.

My wife would be reunited with her father who died far too early. And my two daughters would get to meet their grandfather, a great man who loved them before he knew them.

And all the other people in our family, deceased grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins; the whole lot would come together once again, because death has been conquered by Jesus. That’s a little bit of what it would mean for me.

But it’s not only about death and resurrection, is it?

The Kingdom of God (which is not someplace you go after you die, by the way) is the place where everything is done as the King would have it done. That means, if Harold were right, my daughters, would no longer live in a world consumed with the threat of terrorism, war, or nuclear disasters and/or holocaust, or famine, nakedness, and disease. They wouldn’t even have to negotiate the terrorizing social structure of Junior High School. I wouldn’t see marriages fail and children abused. None of us would be witness to slavery, the mistreatment of women and minority groups around the world. If Harold were right, I’d never again sit next to a hospital bed with a dying parishioner. I performed the funeral for a 7-month old once, watched his mother weep uncontrollably for days, if Harold were right, I’d never have to do that again.

If Harold were right, at 6pm tonight there would be renewal breaking out across the globe, complete with a New Heavens and a New Earth. There would be singing on Zion’s glorious summit and the lion would lay down with the lamb. If Harold were right, we’d have a reconciliation celebration. If Harold were right, the Jesus I now see dimly, I would then see face-to-face.

Wouldn’t that be good?  Doesn’t part of you wish Harold were right? I do!

With all the talk about hell recently, we may have looked past the simply fact that the return of Jesus is not, in fact, Doomsday; it’s Joyday, Renewalday, Lifeday, Perfectionday. And we belong to that day!

Maranatha! Come, Oh, Lord!

The Arrest

Posted: April 21, 2011 in Bible, history, reconciliation, words, writing

This is the devotional I gave at Redwood Church’s Passion Week service.

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That night itself was pregnant with the pangs of irony and opposites.  As the mob marched with torches and lanterns—in search of The Light.  Gathered in anger, anxiety and anticipation soldiers, Priest, police and Pharisees brandish their weapons to make war against the Prince of Peace.  Judas backed by army, but lacking integrity, leads the crowd in search of The Way.  Men connected by their own desire to snuff out The Life.

And of course, in a manner completely opposite of what anyone would suspect, instead of running away, Jesus steps forward.  After a night of praying that this moment would not have to come, Jesus does not hesitate to walk the road He and His Father have chosen.

The scene is so much different than you’d expect it to be.  In the recesses of my mind it has always been like a movie. They’ve got the building surrounded.  The roadblock is in place; the city is under siege.  Drop the bunker-buster. That’s how you arrest someone that’s dangerous.  It’s John Dillinger outside the movie theatre.  It’s Elliot Ness racing horseback across the countryside, while the Canadian Mounties rush down from the hills above.

But that’s not really what happened here.  Sure they thought, no they knew, that Jesus was dangerous.  So they send a “detachment of Roman soldiers” to make sure that nothing went wrong.  And just in case that wasn’t enough the Jewish Temple police came along for the ride.

A detachment of Roman soldiers?  That could have been up to 600 men.  The chief priest and the Pharisees?  That is serious religious and political power.  Not to mention all the hangers-on and rubber-neckers.  What they were doing tonight was too important.  This arrest couldn’t go wrong!

The last thing they needed was this arrest to go like the first six times they tried it.  Sometimes they were scared that the crowd would revolt, other times Jesus just walked through them because it “was not time.”

But then the one thing they hadn’t planned on happened.  When Jesus reveals who He is, it is they who step back and fall to the ground. It in all there clandestine proposals to rid themselves of Jesus, through all the late night planning sessions, back-room deals and political back scratching when the moment comes to apprehend Jesus they find it is they themselves who are arrested.

It’s not our Lord who shirks back in the moment of confrontation.  It’s not the Christ who suddenly feels the thunder of His heart pounding away in His chest.  It is not Jesus whose hands and voice shake and crackle with nerves in the moment of truth.

Jesus is captured, not because of their might, but because of His strength.

But the question is “why”?

One of the things that is so often lost is the fact that Jesus, is not murdered or assassinated. Judas doesn’t hand Jesus over—Jesus hands Himself over.

Sure there’s a mock trial and cruel beatings.  But it’s Jesus who says in John 10:18, “No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.”

Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “the one way to show love to an enemy is to refuse to defeat him…if you hate your enemies, you have no way to redeem and transform them.”

And the Thursday arrest that lead to the Friday of pain, was the mark of our redemption.  Because we all live as enemies to the cross. Jesus chose His capture that night.  Because in that night, He chose you!

Knowing that you weren’t going to be everything that you could have been.

Knowing that in your brief time on Earth you would turn away from Him countless times.

Jesus knew that we’d speak harsh words to one another, seek out our wants before the needs of others. Jesus knew that we would read and study God’s word and still not do it.  He knew that we would break our promises to people we care about.  He knew that we would be inclined to make other people suffer before we chose to sacrifice.  He knew that we’d rather take than give.

I suspect that if Christ had wanted to he could have walked out of the garden on Thursday and avoided the pain of Friday.  He could have rallied His supporters and fought the powers.  He could have done all of those things and much more and still been Jesus.  But He couldn’t have done those things and been Hosanna—the one who saves!

Make no mistake about it. Jesus suffers to save us from our sin…and from ourselves.

It is His unfailing love, His great compassion that blots out our transgressions.

Without Jesus’ choice to suffer the fierce suffering of the cross, we are lost in the woods.  We cannot help ourselves.  No one here, no one anywhere is good enough to save themselves.

D.M Stearns was preaching in Philadelphia.  At the close of the service a stranger came up to him and said, “I don’t like the way you spoke about the cross.  I think that instead of emphasizing the death of Christ, it would be far better to preach Jesus, the teacher and example.”  Stearns replied, “If I presented Christ in that way, would you be willing to follow Him?”  “I certainly would,” replied the stranger without hesitation.  “All right then,” said the preacher, “let’s take a first step.  Jesus did no sin.  Can you claim that for yourself?”  The man looked confused and surprised.  “Why, no,” he said. “I acknowledge that I do sin.”  Stearns replied, “Then your greatest need is to have a savior, not an example!”

In the wake of Jesus’ death, our Lord leaves us with a lot of things. An example, a comforter, a source of strength in times of weakness.  But in the garden, He willingly leads the crowds to His own death, because we need a Savior.  He has heard our deepest cry to the heights of Heaven: “Hosanna!  Save Us!”

As we explore the basics instincts (though not uniform beliefs) of Anabaptists, let’s pause for a moment to talk a little bit about the Schlietheim Confession and what it says about Anabaptists. During the Reformation and the Radical Reformation, three streams of Anabaptist believers came together in Switzerland to concretize a central set of beliefs and practices; practices which largely distinguished the Swiss Brethren (the other, non-pejorative name for Anabaptists) from the Reformers and the Catholic Church.

Among the items discussed were Baptism (to be administered to those who have chosen baptism for themselves); The Oath; The Sword; The Ban; Eucharist; piety and the role of Pastors. Having discussed baptism, we move on to The Oath.

The conversation regarding “The Oath” in Anabaptist traditions is simple: No oaths should be taken! While this has not historically included an orthodox confession of faith; “Jesus is Lord,” it has, to some degree or another included nearly every other oath imaginable – including the Apostle’s Creed, and, for some, oaths of office and giving civic testimony. There were two dominant reasons for the prohibition against oath-taking in Switzerland. For one, Anabaptists were reacting (rightly or wrongly) to a Catholic Church that insisted all kinds of oaths and verbal commitments and believed the Reformers intent to continue taking oaths to be a half-measures. The early Swiss Brethren, did not see this cacophony of oaths in the scriptures, and did not feel they were appropriate for Christians. Second, Anabaptists took literally Jesus’ command to assuage oath-taking (Matthew 5.34).

How Anabaptists determined what to do about oath taking reveals a significant theme in the religious life of Anabaptists. That theme is one of reading the scriptures free of traditionalism. While there are some difficulties in approaching the biblical text this way, the benefits, it seems, outweigh the deficits. Both the Catholic and the Reformed Tradition  in the 16th Century, as they do today, read the biblical text through the lens of the tradition itself. They are concerned with and give privilege to what others inside the tradition have written and said before (yes, I know this is an oversimplification). Anabaptists feel no compulsion to do so. While what Popes,  Martin Luther, John Calvin or Martin Lloyd Jones said about an issue might be good — or even right — Anabaptists do not appeal to them as being authoritative. Though most Christians do not think they read the Bible through a traditionist lens, Anabaptists have enshrined the value. Therefore, when a traditional belief or practice is questioned (take the traditional understanding of hell, for example), Anabaptists don’t feel a need to protect it, and would never refer to the “teaching of the church.”

Many times, new Christians or church members ask me, “What does your church believe about _______?” Typically my response goes something like this, “Well, people in our church believe a variety of things about ________.” This, I find, leaves people feeling dissatisfied. And many pastors, teachers and Christians within other traditions find this unbelievable. But nearly always, the questions people ask regard something non-essential, i.e. “Is this a Republican or Democrat church…?”

Anabaptists have always believed that thoughtful, spiritual people can come to their own conclusions about non-essential matters and, more importantly, we can lovingly coexists in disagreement. At the root of this is something many contemporary Christians refuse to believe: On some issues the Bible isn’t necessarily all that clear. In response, Anabaptists seek charity is non-essentials, which can only be done when believers rightly understand the place of tradition.

It is right and good to know what others have said and thought concerning the scriptures. These men and women should be both living and dead. The present moment is not privileged in BIble reading; we need to reflect upon and learn from our sisters and brothers. At the same time, Anabaptists know that God still speaks a fresh word, free from the constraints of other and older interpretations whose age or prominence does not necessarily equate to rightness.

Once you see how an Anabaptist approaches baptism, it becomes easier to understand why and how s/he makes determinations about other issues. At the heart of much of anabaptism is choice, more accurately, at the heart of anabaptism is the lack of coercion.  For many Anabaptists, Jesus is the one who humbled Himself unto death. He forced no one to embrace Him, to follow Him, to worship Him. This is more than a type of libertarian freedom, but a commitment that Jesus does not force His very self on anyone, even knowing that the curtailing of such freedom is in the individual’s best interest.

One of the places this is evident is in Anabaptists’ approaches to church/state issues. Since both the Catholic and Protestant churches continued to baptize infants, which made citizens of the baptized, when Anabaptists refused baptism to children they were also making a statement about empire, kingdom and state. The early Anabaptists (and I’m compiling three separate groups in the 16th Century Radical Reformation) saw the state as antithetical to the kingdom of God. In response, the church was to remain distinct from the state (we’ll talk about The Schleitheim Confession next time). The early Anabaptists witnessed how devastating the entanglements of church and state had become and they wanted no parts of it. At all!

Clearly, some Anabaptist groups have taken this impulse to separation to an extreme; the Amish for instance. Behind the Amish itch to create a separate world is a deeply held belief that intermingling with “the world” would corrupt the church. History, including the Reformation itself, has given us much evidence that they were and are right. However, the limitations of separatist movements is nearly self-evident.

The way this instinct in Anabaptism gets played out among mainstream Anabaptist like myself is predominately in the political realm. Caricatures of evangelicals are what they are, but I have never been a congregant of a church where American Flags adorned the walls; though you would see flags from  countries where the church supported missionaries. In Anabaptist churches you will be hard pressed to find church leaders advocating a particular political agenda, or suggesting to congregants who they should vote for. As a matter of fact, in most of the churches I have been a part of, if someone were to do so, many people would be offended, even if they agreed with the politics themselves. In Anabaptists churches You will not typically find big to-dos on Memorial Day, Veteran’s Day, and the 4th of July. We find ways to both honor the service of our members who have sacrificed for America and acknowledges that all humankind are our brothers and sisters. 

Our instinct is that church and state don’t mix. What’s more, for many Anabaptists, open political discussions in church would be considered coercive. Politics change, Jesus does not! We make our camp on Jesus, everything else is too transitory. Anabaptists see the church as a kingdom within a country, and while you are free to advocate in whatever way you like outside church life, Anabaptists are suspicious and uncomfortable with political advocacy inside it. As a matter of fact, early leaders in my tribe, like David Lipscomb, abstained from participation in civil government and, believe it or not, some of our current thought-leaders do so as well.

This approach to church and state is strange to many evangelical and Catholic believers.  But Anabaptists have never minded being thought of as strange.

More to come…

I was raised, and remain, in a somewhat Anabaptist faith community (Churches of Christ). Most people don’t know what Anabaptism is, even people who are a part of Anabaptist’s communities and hold Anabaptist’s commitments often don’t know. This has happened because true, historic Anabaptism hasn’t ever been terribly popular. What remains in the 21st-Century are vestiges and fragments of 16th-Century Anabaptism – Mennonites, Churches of Christ, Amish, Brethren, etc…. This is unfortunate, because I, for one, believe recovering that the heart of Anabaptism is crucial for communicating faith in Jesus as we lean into the future.

Therefore, I want to give some space to articulate the best parts of Anabaptism. I want to describe what Anabaptism is and how it differs from popular, American evangelicalism and the emerging and strengthening, hard-edged, mean-spiritedness NeoReformed movement in America.

Let’s begin with the most obvious commitment of Anabaptists: Believer’s Baptism. Anabaptist means “re-baptizers.”  During the Reformation, as Martin Luther was breaking with the Catholic Church, many, particularly in Switzerland, believed Luther’s Reformation wasn’t going far enough. Thus the “Radical Reformation” was birthed.

The root issue was pedobaptism (infant baptism). Anabaptists, through their reading of scripture, determined that baptism was a practice for people who choose trust in Jesus for themselves, rather than received faith as a family heritage. In days when baptism into the church was tantamount to becoming a citizen of the state/empire (we’ll talk about Anabaptist’s views of church and state later), Anabaptists  said “No,” and began to “re-baptize” one another.

At the time, the church the world over baptized infants, making them both citizens of the church and the state. Anabaptists believed this to be improper. Luther and the Reformers, for their own theological and sociological reasons, maintained the practice of infant-baptism. This simple commitment that discipleship into the way of the Lord should be volitional is what made the Radical Reformation radical.

While lots of groups now practice “believer’s baptism” this wasn’t the case in the 16th-Century. The early Anabaptists were counter cultural, bucking the established church, the emerging Lutheran church and the state all at the same time. This instinct towards anti-institutionalism remains part of me and Anabaptism. And if you think the mode of baptism isn’t or shouldn’t have been a big deal, I will only point out that many of the Radical Reformers were hunted down and killed for believing it was.

Earlier in my pastoral career I attempted, as many have, to distance my theology from the hard, sectarian stance on baptism I inherited as a youth. Fortunately I did. And fortunately, I didn’t. I maintain that God enters a relationship with a person whenever God chooses and it’s not my place to say when that is (Through the years, some Anabaptists had come to believe that baptism was somehow magical and was the only hope anyone had of knowing God). Yet at the same time, I think there is something vitally important about each person making a personal decision to take on Jesus for themselves. Faith is not something your parents can bestow.

There you have it, the beginning of what it means to be Anabaptist. What do you think?

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A Snarky Note:

Oddly, many people in my tradition have come to practice a defacto infant-baptism as we press harder and harder to baptize children younger and younger. Parent’s who won’t let their kids choose their own order off the menu at Chili’s are baptizing their children at terribly young ages out of a fear that, “They might not ask again.”

Please!

Unboxing the NIV 2011

Posted: March 17, 2011 in Bible, history

Just received my new NIV 2011, which replaces the NIV 1984 (the most popular English translation ever) and the TNIV (which was better than the NIV, but ruffled some feathers). At any rate, for serious study, I still prefer the NRSV (widely thought of as “the scholar’s Bible), but for teaching and preaching on the popular level, the NIV is a safe choice (because that’s what most people have).

Here’s my unboxing:

I’m very stoked, pumped, excited, and animated to be heading to Rochester College this May 16-18 for “Streaming: Biblical Conversations From the Missional Frontier”. Streaming is an in-depth exploration about the adventure of ministry. It  will focus on the book of James and will offer ministers and church leaders biblical resources to help them lead God’s people in a missional era. Mark Love – the churches of Christ missional yoda and peculiarly dedicated Bob Dylan fan, has put together, along with JoPa Productions, an awesome line-up of missional thinkers.

The featured speakers will be Scot McKnight and Miroslav Volf! Wow!!

Many of you already know Scot McKnight. He’s a Christian blogosphere rockstar (if there can be such a thing), has written a first rate book on how to read scripture and is not afraid to call John Piper’s questions of whether or not “Jesus preached Paul’s gospel” stupid, well “irritating!” His newest book is One.Life.

Perhaps less people know Miroslav Volf, but you should. Volf is as first-rate as first-rate gets when it comes to theology, and his book Exclusion and Embrace is a modern-day classic when it comes to race, identity and reconciliation. His newest release, Allah: A Christian Response is supposed to be excellent as well.

Just those two guys make Streaming worth the mere $189 for the registration. Plus, other incredible folks you’ll want to be around will be there. People like me, Jack Reese, Tony Jones, and Doug Pagitt.

I hope you’ll join me this May in Michigan.