What a dentist taught me about pain, death, and the love of God.

Creative Commons: Azlan DuPree, September 2010 "Suffering Is Permanent"

Creative Commons: Azlan DuPree, September 2010 “Suffering Is Permanent”

I have a daughter whom I love more than life itself. She’s wildly intelligent, talented, passionate about life, and has a smile that can melt my heart, even at it’s hardest.

I’m crazy about her.

Recently, my daughter had an accident. She tripped, hitting her front two teeth on a piece of furniture.

They bled.

She cried.

Her blood staining the shoulder and chest of my shirt. Noticing this, she looked up at me and said “daddy, I’m getting blood on your shirt.”

“Baby,” I said, “I don’t care about my shirt.”

I held her for a long time in the waiting room of our dentist; waiting for the inevitable to come- the news that her teeth would need to come out.

The teeth extraction appointment was scheduled, we drove to the nearest pedodontist (who was an hour and a half away), and we entered the room.

The hygienists were there, the table was reclined and realizing what was to come, my little girl sobbed.

Because they couldn’t risk her moving during the procedure, they had to restrain her.

As they tightened the restraints around her little wrists, my little girl sobbed, “Daddy, hold me! Please, daddy, hold me!”

I sat next to her head. Kissing her forehead. “I can’t baby, but it will all be over soon, I promise.”

“This is what’s best for you, and I’m here. I won’t leave you. I promise”

Her 3-year-old mind couldn’t understand. How could it? All she knew were her wrists being bound, and pain like she never knew before.

And her daddy watching it happen.

As it happened, as she cried for me, I muttered, through a throat constricted by tears, a promise that I loved her and would never leave her.

***

As the Church, we’re concluding our journey through the season of Lent. Lent is a season of pain and of restriction; a season of extraction. A season where we mirror Christ’s death on a cross by surrendering our own lives. A surrender that leads to our own death to self.

A death to pride.

A death to arrogance.

A death to anger.

A death to self.

We want the outcome of this death- the Life that follows- but we don’t want the pain that comes from dying.

It’s in this season of silence, pain, extraction, many of us (like my daughter) don’t understand what’s happening to us.

Maybe its physical sickness. Maybe is divine silence during our time of prayer. Maybe its physical, emotional or spiritual pain unlike we’ve ever known before.

No matter what it happens to be, the truth is it hurts. In our pain, silence and confusion, with tear-stained faces, we call out to God with a desperation we’ve never known before.

“Please, Daddy, take me off this table!” we beg.

Yet, He doesn’t.

And we weep, not understanding why.

***

The church doesn’t know what to do with this sort of pain, this kind of anger, this depth of sorrow. We gather together on Sundays, paint on faces of hope and happiness, sing songs of joy, and “amen” sermons on the love of God.

Yet, during the week, our experience is anything BUT joyful, hopeful or filled with divine peace.

The most painful part of these moments are, however, not that we feel this depth of sadness, anger, or pain, rather it’s that the church isn’t often willing (or unsure of how) to invite this pain into the light.

And so, in our uncertainty or unwilling, our services are filled with songs that say,

“Our hope is built on nothing less, than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.”

Yet, on the inside we’re actually singing the songs of the Psalmist,

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest. (Ps 22:1-2)

***

After the dentist pulled that final tooth, they un-strapped my little girl from that table. Once the final strap was released, she jumped into my arms- burying her head in my chest, sobbing.

I held my daughter in that corner of the dentist exam room as tightly as I had ever held her before. I kissed her, stroked her hair, and tried to soothe her rapidly beating heart. She didn’t understand what just happened, she didn’t understand why.

And so I just held her, kissed her, and sang quietly in her ear.

***

The most painful part of the Christian experience can be those moments when we’re in the deepest reaches of darkness, sadness and despair; when the pain is at its greatest, we cannot feel the presence of our Father, and when we cannot hear the soothing songs he sings, nor the warmth of his touch on our forehead.

In those moments we feel so alone.  And we don’t know how to move forward.

In our mind, we know God will never leave us nor forsake us, however that is little consolation to our hearts in the midst of the emptiness.

The truth is, one will never know why God behaves as he does, and I’m not here to explain his movements. It’s beyond my understanding.

However, I believe, deeply, that in those moments, God is pleading with his Church to be that soft touch, that warm voice, and that loving kiss which reminds people they are not alone in the midst of their pain.

I wondered, as I cuddled my baby girl, if maybe God quiets his own voice in order to allow his Church to speak love into the hearts of those around them; allowing them to be the voice of love and compassion people are desperately looking for.

I have a dream that the church will live into this invitation to mourn/doubt/grieve/suffer with others.

To do this, though, we must be willing to embrace people at their messiest. We must be willing to sit in their pain, let their blood stain our shirts, and their doubt about God and faith linger in the air around us like cigarette smoke.

I want to be that kind of pastor, and want to be part of that kind of Church community.  Mostly, though, I want to be the church that allows people to bleed on their shoulder while assuring them that it’s okay.

Why Franklin Graham is wrong about Ferguson (and what it means to be people of life)

[Trigger Alert: This post is about Police Officers, racism, and systemic inequality. I cannot stress it enough: this post is not a statement against those who wear the badge (I have a deep respect for our police force), rather it’s written out of a desire to continue conversations that will move us forward to peace and reconciliation.]

franklin Graham

Ferguson is in the news once more.

It’s not that surprising, is it? After all, the topic of the past year has been racial tension and police brutality. It’s been everywhere. Over the past year, we’ve been witness to countless protests, written editorials, panel discussions and pundit opinions (read: diatribes) on this issue.

Jumping into the mix is Rev. Franklin Graham, son of well-known evangelist, Billy Graham. He recently wrote on his public Facebook page:

“Listen up–Blacks, Whites, Latinos, and everybody else. Most police shootings can be avoided. It comes down to respect for authority and obedience. If a police officer tells you to stop, you stop. If a police officer tells you to put your hands in the air, you put your hands in the air. If a police officer tells you to lay down face first with your hands behind your back, you lay down face first with your hands behind your back. It’s as simple as that. Even if you think the police officer is wrong—YOU OBEY. Parents, teach your children to respect and obey those in authority. Mr. President, this is a message our nation needs to hear, and they need to hear it from you. Some of the unnecessary shootings we have seen recently might have been avoided. The Bible says to submit to your leaders and those in authority ‘because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account.'” 

His argument is a common one that goes like this: “If people just listened to police officers, obeyed them, and followed the law, then we wouldn’t have instances like Ferguson and New York.”

On paper, this seems valid. I mean, if I’m honest, his statement jives with my own personal experience. For instance, when I’ve been pulled over by a police officer, I would place my hands on the wheel, have my license and registration ready, and was careful to co-operate with anything the officer requests of me.

To this day, I’ve never been shot, even though I’ve been stopped by police multiple times. My experience seems to prove Graham’s point.

There is one just problem; My experience is not universal. It’s far from it, actually.

There is a vast spectrum of experiences that prove another truth; that co-operation and innocence doesn’t always end in peace, that obedience doesn’t always lead to justice. All around us, the voices of our minority brothers and sisters are pleading with us to listen to their stories and experiences.

Sadly, Graham, and much of Evangelical America, isn’t listening.

Context matters

In his statement about obedience and submission, Reverend Graham is completely ignoring a contextual truth within Ferguson, and within cities across the country; the issue of racial profiling and systemic racial injustice.

The New York Times recently released a study conducted by the Justice Department that found, “Ferguson police routinely violated the rights of blacks.” This article opens by saying,

Ferguson, Mo., is a third white, but the crime statistics compiled in the city over the past two years seemed to suggest that only black people were breaking the law. They accounted for 85 percent of traffic stops, 90 percent of tickets and 93 percent of arrests. In cases like jaywalking, which often hinge on police discretion, blacks accounted for 95 percent of all arrests.

It goes on to say,

The report, based on a six-month investigation, provides a glimpse into the roots of the racial tensions that boiled over in Ferguson last summer…Racial bias is so ingrained, the report said, that Ferguson officials circulated racist jokes on their government email accounts. In a November 2008 email, a city official said Barack Obama would not be president long because “what black man holds a steady job for four years?” Another email included a cartoon depicting African-Americans as monkeys. A third described black women having abortions as a way to curb crime.

Reading Graham’s quote, followed immediately by the Times article, leaves me with two thoughts. 

First, Reverend Graham is letting his politics interfere with his pastoral/prophetic responsibility.

Sound harsh? I don’t mean it to be. Speaking from my experience as a pastor, I know as well as any that it’s nearly impossible to keep one’s politics out of their hermeneutics and, consequently, their Sunday sermons.

We preach what we believe, and we believe in our politics.

I genuinely don’t begrudge a man or woman for having a political leaning; be they Republican or Democrat. Such is our right as Americans.

do however criticize Graham’s willingness to let his politics stand in the way of speaking truthfully about a very difficult, painful and complicated situation.

As pastors, there are moments when we must stand in unity with our brothers and sisters, and call out those who are being unjust. In doing this, there will times when we must call for others to stand in defiance of those who are in authority over us.

Our Christ-following leads us to protest.

In our protesting, are we as Christians to do it with love, compassion and Christ-likeness? Absolutely.

However, as the church, it’s one of our greatest callings and responsibilities to stand against injustice. What we are seeing in Ferguson is systemic injustice, and Rev. Graham’s words only discount what is happening all around us.

Second: Graham’s call for minorities to respect authority, because it’s ordained of God, is wildly hypocritical.

In an essay he wrote back in May, 2014 titled, “The Flood of Compromise,” Graham wrote:

On the heels of these upheavals [speaking of Gay Marriage], it was particularly jolting when those who call themselves Christians departed from the clarity of God’s Word…The very day World Vision announced its great compromise on a basic truth of Scripture…the Supreme Court began hearings to determine if the Green family, owners of Hobby Lobby, should be required to provide life-terminating drugs and devices in their employee health care plan, contrary to the Christian family’s spiritual convictions. The contrast was stunning. While the Christian-owned business stood up against a federal government bent on forcing them to compromise the right to life…”

Graham, in his own words, speaks glowingly of those who were willing to stand against a government denying rights to life, all the while he refuses that right to those who are angry about the denial of justice to minorities in America.

Instead of acknowledging that there is racial inequality within our justice system, and calling for this change, Graham tells those who are victims of such inequality to essentially “stop being criminals” and all their issues will disappear.

The problem, however, is we can’t have things both ways.

We can’t require of people obedience to civil authorities when it’s politically convenient for us, and then denounce it when it’s politically inconvenient. My friends. That’s text-book hypocrisy.

Life in Technicolor

Should the church fight for pro-life issues? Absolutely.

The value of life is a battle that will be forever worth fighting for. However, in our battling, we must not forget that to be pro-life means we’re required to fight for every life, regardless of where it’s found.

Pro-life means we fight for the care of the immigrant, the minority and the marginalized.

It means we fight for those who are…

Jewish.

Islamic.

Homosexual.

Heterosexual.

African-American.

Native-American.

Republican.

Democrat.

All. Life. Matters.

Farewell to arms

What Rev. Graham is saying, even if he doesn’t mean to, is that life is only worth something if it’s white, middle class and American. The problem is, however, that even if he doesn’t actually mean to preach this message (which, I’m sure he doesn’t), his words still convey it.

Therein lies the real problem; the problem of words.

Words inspire people. These people create and inspire social movements. Those social movements shape our nation’s laws. Those laws then shape social systems, and it’s those systems which oppress people.

The church would do well to remember this.

Rev. Graham isn’t just speaking words into the abyss. He’s speaking words which eventually oppress. Not in some generic, political-correct kind of way, but in a real-life-flesh-and-blood-kind of way.

The church must change her words.

We desperately need to find new words. Life-giving, soul-renewing, justice-loving, grace-restoring words. We need to rediscover our God-given prophetic imagination, and in our rediscovery, we must find our way towards compassion for others; especially when it’s “The Other.”

Because only then will we find our way forward in this divided and broken world.

Friends, we might not always have these chances to speak words that can change the world around us. With this in mind, may we speak our words well, with boldness, and as they leave our lips, may they bring life.

Why I would attend the wedding of a LGTBQ family member or friend.

ringsRecently, I read an article written by a well-known Southern Baptist thinker who stated the reasons he would not attend the same-sex wedding of a family member or friend.

As I read this, I recalled a conversation during a M15 side-session dealing with homosexuality and the church. In this session, a question was posed asking if the audience would attend the wedding of their gay or lesbian son or daughter. The one asking the question said they would not, while Dan Boone (the speaker for this session) and the majority of the audience (consisting of primarily pastors and leaders) said they would.

As an ordained minister, and someone who has been wrestling with these questions myself, I want to share a few thoughts as to why I would attend.

You versus Me

As Christians, somewhere along the line, we have come to this belief that if we disagree with someone, we have to show it through our refusal to spend time with them. For many, disagreement must result in exclusion. Disagreement means keeping someone at arm’s length. We might have coffee with them, but we must always make sure they know this isn’t a true friendship. There is a serious issue standing in the way of real community.

We see this happen politically (republicans and democrats, along with those who vote from them, refuse to talk to one another).

We see it theologically through our arguments and refusal to listen to those who think differently (oh, how many times I’ve heard people say Catholics aren’t Christians).

And we see it in this conversation dealing with LGBTQ equality and marriage.

This question is nearly always posed like this: “If we attend the wedding, aren’t we saying we affirm that union?”

However, I think there is a deeper question being asked.

This question being, “if I attend this wedding, what would people think of me?”

This past year I listened to the speech of a very well-known evangelical leader who represented a very well-known evangelical organization. This leader told the story of how he has a very good friend who is gay, and is married. This friend currently lived in a city where this leader would soon have to spend a few days. When this gay couple found out, as an act of hospitality they invited him to stay at their home. He accepted. Soon, the organization he represented asked him to cancel, saying their constituents wouldn’t understand and it would give the organization a bad name. An order he followed, refusing the hospitality of his friend, which (understandably) hurt his friend and placed a wedge between them.

This leader used this story as an example of times when Christians must do difficult things in the name of Jesus.

However, I’ll be honest. I don’t accept this.

What’s in a name?

We are Christians. Christ-followers. Little-Christs.

As Christ-followers, we are commanded to model our lives after Jesus.

This leads to the question: How did Jesus live?

Jesus enjoyed being with people. Especially those on the outside.

He spent much of his ministry eating, laughing, and loving people the church refused to love or acknowledge.

He ate with tax-collectors, prostitutes, and affirmed the place of women in society. (Lk 5:27-32)

He made a Samaritan (those who Jews saw as sub-human, half-breeds) the hero in his sermons. (Lk 10:25-37)

Consistently, Jesus refused to let the respectability of the church dictate how he loved.

This resulted in him being called a glutton and drunkard and the friend of sinners (Matt 11:19).

Why a wedding and dinner are the same

Many will say, “but dinner and weddings are very different things. I will eat with my lesbian or gay friend, but a wedding takes it to another level.”

Using a modern cultural perspective, this would be true.

However, in the time of Jesus, to accept the invitation for dinner, and to eat at a person’s home, was a statement that you approved of them. That you loved them. That you affirmed them.

Not only did Jesus accept these invitations, he often did so without requesting a change of life/opinion/action. He sometimes requested this, but not always. Over and over, Jesus ate dinner with outcasts, and only offered his presence. (Lk 7:36-50, Matt 9:9-31)

Change was never a qualification for belonging. Did change happen? Absolutely, but in its own time. At the pace and speed of the Spirit.

Ultimately, I would attend this wedding because I believe Jesus would attend. Love should compel us to attend.

My question is this:

Why wouldn’t we go to the wedding of a gay or lesbian family member or friend?

Why wouldn’t we show that we love them (even in disagreement)?

Most importantly, who cares what others think of us?

After all, if our actions receive the criticism of those within the church, we can rest in the knowledge that we’re in good company.

Thoughts? Would you attend the wedding of a LGBTQ family member or friend?

Admitting My Trust Issues with the Church

(A note before we begin: I try to hold a “No Generalizations” policy…and I admit that this article will be filled with them. Please understand that these words aren’t the end-all-be-all…rather, I hope them to be a conversation starter. My hope is to encourage honesty, the sharing of differences, and the safety to examine those differences together.)

There’s a funny meme that is circulating the web that goes like this:

trust issues

Trust issues. As I listen to millennial pastors and leaders (a generation I, myself, belong to), and then compare that to what I hear from earlier generations of pastors and leaders, I am finding there is a very real and growing difference in the way we see the church.

This difference of opinion is often the unspoken and under the radar message behind every issue and disagreement hashed out in public and private.

Within the tribe I serve, the Nazarene church, this mistrust among millennials has been exacerbated over the past year through the public mishandling of a situation with the denominational publishing house, and now through the confusion over the removal of a beloved professor at one of our denominational Universities.

This post is not an attempt to place blame or innocence on a particular party, rather it’s my attempt to help explain some of the growing frustration and mistrust inherent in the younger leaders and thinkers within our denominational context. (This post will exclude some of my readers who are not Nazarene, for this I apologize)

So, to the leaders of the church I love, a few thoughts.

Pastor” is no longer a universally defined term: Our worlds have shaped us differently.

For those over the age of 40, you were reared in a culture which celebrated the church and her clergy, and by in large, the Church honored this trust. Many pastors over 40 grew up listening to great pillars of the faith like Billy Graham and Francis Schaeffer speak of what it means to follow Christ. Western culture respected Christians, and respected those who served in vocational ministry.

Sadly, this is no longer the case.

For those of us under the age of 40 (or more specifically, under the age of 30), we’ve witnessed a steady stream of mismanagement, cover-ups and abuse. From the sexual abuse cover-ups in the Catholic Church, to the recent allegations made towards Mark Driscoll, to the handling of the NPH situation, the increased exposure from social media has made the flaws of the church evident to all, and these flaws make it hard to trust institutional church for fear of being hurt and mislead.

As a millennial pastor, and for many who share my age and vocation, our baseline to nearly every decision made is general skepticism. Simply put, we have a hard time trusting a leader and their decisions when the primary reason offered is the title or position they hold.

Authority and respect are no longer assumed realities.

Maybe they should be, unfortunately it’s not that simple.

Experience has proven otherwise.

This leads me to make a request.

Be patient with us

For those who get frustrated with the growing, vocal, and often frustrated millennial generation; please understand where we are coming from.

Please understand that the experiences of many, and the mistakes of the few, have planted the seed of doubt in an entire generation’s heart and mind, and through this doubt, for right or wrong, we now process everything the church does.

Because of this, trust is no longer assumed.

Honesty is everything.

At the end of the day, all we ask is for honesty. Please don’t play politics with the church we love. Please don’t cover up. As a leader, if you make a decision, explain it clearly, openly, and allow for conversation. We might not agree, and that disagreement might be heated, but know that we will certainly respect you for how you came to, and executed this decision, and will gladly continue walking the journey of faith with you.

Finally, please hear this:

For a leader to refuse honesty and dialogue means they are refusing inclusion into the community. This then becomes a universal issue, regardless of which generation you belong, for nobody wants to live in a house where they are not welcome.

On The Church, Empathy and Our Desperate Search for a New Way Forward

we cant
Note: This was written prior to grand jury decision regarding the death of Eric Garner. While he’s not specifically mentioned in this essay, his death is certainly on my heart as I post this now. May we find a new way forward. Together.

As many of you know, I grew up in Ferguson.

The school I attended was a mile from the now smoldering ruins of one of the twelve burned out buildings that inhabit this beautiful city. These buildings are a visual reminder of racial division and systemic injustice, and these frustrations have spilled out onto our streets in the forms of riots and peaceful protests.

As the city I was reared in was in upheaval, and as I followed social media, one thing became more and more apparent to me; our country, and our church is losing the ability to empathize with others.

to killEmpathy. The unique ability that humanity possesses to, as Harper Lee once wrote in her classic To Kill A Mockingbird, “climb into [another’s] skin and walk around in it.”

As a 3rd generation pastor and a 4th generation Christian, on an ever-increasing basis, I am experiencing this lack of empathy within the Church Universal.

Over and over again, our pastors and laity find themselves, on so many issues, getting caught into the mindset that there is “us” and “them.” As we continually divide ourselves, the gap between us grows deeper and wider.

When the world is black and white, we cannot empathize.

We can only segregate.

We can only isolate.

We can only divide into two camps; each camp tossing labels and generalizations like hand grenades with the innocent ones getting injured by the shrapnel created by our words and actions.

We, however, are not a people of verbal and theological violence. We are a church of peace, and empathy must become, once more, the cornerstone of our faith. For it’s empathy that will allow us to have a reasonable and gracious dialogue because it’s empathy which allows us to find common ground.

Empathy takes us from the black and white and into a world filled with color and beauty.

We must make empathy a priority.

Western culture is changing quickly, and the good people who fill her seats have been caught up in this cultural shift. What once worked and made sense to the church no longer does. Our future, once secure, known, and comfortable has become unknown with fear replacing security.

Fear of the unknown. Fear of the other.

In recent years, I have watched as denominations and churches begin the endless process of fortification.

These being the church’s attempts to protect ourselves against the threats outside our walls, and being fueled by a blind determination to defend our “rights.” The difficulty in this lay within the Biblical reality that rights are not promised, and instead we are commanded only to love and forgive.

We follow a God who gave up his throne to become lower than the lowest servant. We serve a Savior who ignored cleanliness and sabbath rules to heal, restore and empathize with those on the margins.

My tradition, the Church of the Nazarene was formed out of this empathy. Our forefathers and mothers filled the streets through a determination to listen to the songs of the suffering. Only a Christ-filled empathy drives people to this.

Only the light of the Gospel can drive away the fear of the other, which keeps us from our command to go and make disciples. For what on this earth should we fear?

We are promised that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God.” (Rom 8:38-39)

Do we actually believe this?

So may we be a church which chooses empathy over condemnation. May we remember people are not to be feared. May we invite those who think, believe or behave differently than us to speak in our midst. May we listen to their stories, because the only way to drive out fear is to replace labels with names.

For in learning names and hearing stories, we are reminded once more that we are not surrounded by enemies but fellow-humans- men and women-who are all created in the image of God.

Port-A-Potty Righteousness: Philippians 3:7-11

philippians

We’re neck deep into a series on Philippians. When I originally planned this, I had it marked out about 8 weeks long. However, as things like this go, we’re on our 8 week, and still only half way through.

You know, there are loud conversations about what the Bible is, or what it isn’t. There are opinions on all parts of the spectrum, but if there is one thing I’m reminded of as we work our way through this ancient letter, it’s that the Bible is so full and rich of truth. We can argue day and night about what the Bible is or isn’t…but we discover first hand, as a community, as we work our way through this book, we find its filled with a far deeper and richer truth that impacts my life, and I would guess your life, in ways we never expected, right?

This is the beauty of scripture. It leads us to truth.

Last week

We talked about the scandal of grace. We talked about how, in spite of all the ways we try to wall up the Kingdom of God, and in all the ways we try to define who is in and out, at the end of the day, it’s not our actions that save us, rather it’s the life, death and resurrection of Christ that brings about new life.

We ended last week reflecting on how we try to keep people out. What lines we draw and who we believe can be in and out.

This week, we’re going to continue on with this. In many ways, this is the part 2 to last week’s part 1.

So, to tie the two together, we’re going to start by reading our passage last week and then will move straight into the passage this week.

Let’s read together: Philippians 3:1-11

Further, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord! It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you. Watch out for those dogs, those evildoers, those mutilators of the flesh. For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh— though I myself have reasons for such confidence.

If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.

But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in[a] Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. 10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

What’s going on?

Last week, we talked about how Paul listed all the reasons he should be righteous and in the in-crowd- spiritually speaking.

He was a man of status. A man of education. A man of heritage.

Whatever was to my profit, whatever I gained is now a loss. He had everything going for him. Paul’s job was not something he chose as a college grad…it was something he wanted and was being pushed towards as a child.

This man’s identity was wrapped up in who he was, what he believed and how he behaved.

The great reversal

This belief that righteousness came by definable terms ruled Paul’s life. The pharisaical order (to which paul belonged) believed that God was going to come when Israel behaved and followed the law fully.

Because they were the only ones who followed the law, they believed themselves to be the only ones righteous and it was everyone else’s fault that the messiah hadn’t come.

They were the in crowd. They were the righteous. And everyone knew it.

But something changed in Paul. 

What once gave Paul great pride and status, and what the world once saw and interpreted as righteousness (Godliness), Paul now believed was all loss.

There was a day when each of the things Paul did, the actions made and the beliefs he held were credited to him as right standing before God.

If you think of it this way, every time he followed a rule or a law, he made a deposit, and because he was very good at follow rules, Paul’s self-righteous bank account grew and grew.

His account ledger, when he balanced it out, was filled with righteous actions and was overwhelmingly positive.

Damascus changed everything.

There is a moment, however, when Paul becomes a believer in the way of Jesus.

And after doing that, he was brought to reconsider everything he believed up until that point.

When Paul said he “considers”…he’s saying he had come to consider it. This was a post-conversion understanding.  It was unnatural to him. It went against his sensibilities and Christian training. This new belief was that Christ and Christ alone leads us towards understanding what is real, true and worth value.

But that’s not all…

Paul doesn’t stop there. It’s not just physical assets, and it’s not just legalism that has been carried over into the negative category.

It’s everything.

Any method for advancement. Any method of control. Any method for gaining approval. Anything that we feel like we can do to earn God’s favor. Any rule, law or human justification is a complete and utter loss. 

Paul doesn’t stop there.

These works. This man-based righteousness accomplished human power and all that comes with it, Paul calls “skybala” or “filth.”

It’s actually a much stronger word that “filth.”

Skybala means excrement, dung or refuse.

Like this guy...but far more, well, used...

Like this guy…but far more, well, used…

Very literally, it’s a greek slang that translates very closely to the english word “crap.”

What Paul is getting at here is the understanding that “Righteousness through human strength and through human works must be expelled out of the Body and into the toilet as quickly as possible and without any prejudice.

There is visual interplay here. The understanding the filth of legalism, and understanding the necessity of the Body of Believers to rid themselves of it, is extremely important!

When we begin to be cleansed of this legalistic mindset or belief, and as we grow in our faith in Christ, we’ll find we are changed in ways rules and expectations never could.

Change happens because of the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord.

Surpassing value is the knowledge of Christ Jesus.

If everything except Christ is filth, the only thing of value, the only thing of worth, is Jesus. And that means, to follow him, everything must be on the table. Everything else we hold to as our foundation, or as essential to our happiness, must be discarded.

That sounds harsh, doesn’t it?

We must come to understand that, no matter how important something might feel or seem, Christ is above it all.

There’s a basic re-teaching of what we believe Righteousness, or Right-ness with God, looks like:

For centuries before Jesus and for centuries following, the church has often preached grace, but practiced man-defined Righteousness. We all realized its far easier to define people by rules and people’s ability to obey them.

We talked about this last week.

And, we must not forget that rules are put in place for the right reason, right? I mean, “Thou should not murder” is a great rule. One that societies, typically (though, not always) adopt…

However, while rules have their heart and intention wrapped up in good motives, whenever laws and rules dictate our righteousness, those rules will almost always go from being something that helps us obey to becoming a noose around our necks.

The more we struggle and fail, the more it tightens, and the more it tightens, the more the rules get more rigid.

This happened to the Jews.

What began as “remember the sabbath and keep it holy” turned into 39 activities you were forbidden to do on the sabbath.

This list included the activities:

Sowing, Plowing, Reaping, Binding sheaves, Threshing, Kneading,

Baking, Shearing, washing, beating or dyeing wool, Spinning, Weaving:

including Making two loops, Weaving two threads, Separating two 

threads, Tying, Untying, Sewing two stitches, Tearing, Trapping, 

Slaughtering, Flaying, Salting meat, curing or scraping or cutting hides, 

writing or erasing 2 letters, building or tearing down, starting or 

extinguishing a fire, or hitting with a hammer, and finally taking an 

object from the private domain to the public, or transporting an object in 

the public domain.

The law, as Paul says in other letters, was put in place to condemn…to show us how broken we were.

And he tells us that there is no hope for improvement through the law.

Improvement only happens one way…through Christ.

In spite of all things he’d accomplished in his life, Paul responds by saying:

I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

This is what it means to be a Christ follower, guys. To come into contact with Jesus and to be changed by that experience.

After all, it’s impossible to experience the love of God, to sacrifice of Jesus and the life that comes from that, and not be changed somehow.

To be in communion with God and with the community of believers is the means of restoration and redemption.

Not rules. Not expectations.

But, love.

In this passage, one theologian talks about Paul becoming obsessed with Christ in his theology.

But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in[a] Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. 10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

Where once the law defined us, now Christ defines us. He’s what binds us, heals us, redeems us, restores us, renews us. 

May we remember this.

Two takeaways:

These takeaways are a product of a beautiful conversation I had after service last week with several of you. So, as we begin, I want to say thank you!

  1. The Holy Spirit does the changing and will do it in His time.

It’s incredibly easy for us to see someone come to Christ, and expect them to arrive, and we begin to quietly…or not so quietly…begin to show our disapproval or disbelief in their behavior. Maybe they’re not changing as quickly as we think they should. Maybe they still smoke, drink, chew or maybe they still love a girl who does. And somewhere along the way we believe it’s our God-given responsibility to grab them by the scruff of their neck and drag them kicking and screaming.

That’s not necessarily right, and it’s not necessarily grace…even if we believe it to be.

We need to understand that conviction comes from God. And we need to understand that conviction of wrongdoing doesn’t usually happen when we think it should happen.

We also need to understand that what I’m convicted of isn’t necessarily what you’ll be convicted of.

And so, understanding this, we need to be willing to live in the mess with one another. To offer my story to you, to offer how God has changed my heart, and to walk along side one another.

Now, I admit, this is somewhat messy. This is somewhat like Spiritual Anarchy…at least, that’s what it feels like, right?

After all, if I can’t tell you what you should do, then who’s going to keep us in line? What will keep us from going off the deep end?

This brings us to number two.

2. We must learn to trust the movements of the Spirit

As Nazarenes, we believe in something called prevenient grace. This is the belief that the Spirit is working on the heart far before we ever come into contact with them. We believe there isn’t  a spiritual conversation that happens ahead of God’s timing.

We must be patient. We must be gracious. We must be loving, and in that patience, love and grace, the spirit will work.

I believe, nearly ever single time, He’s doing something deeper than we can see.

Where we see someone who is an alcoholic, Christ sees someone searching desperately for love, and an identity.

And this is where we find our role as the church.

We are a place that should welcome everyone. Period.

We do not exist to fix people. We exist to point people to Christ.

In Christ Alone, or the Scandal of the Invitation: Philippians 3:1-6

philippians

Today, for lack of a better term, we’ve got a doozie.

Let’s dive right in…Philippians 3:1-6:

Further, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord! It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you. Watch out for those dogs, those evildoers, those mutilators of the flesh. For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh— though I myself have reasons for such confidence.

If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.

We’ve all heard it preached…

(If you do this…you’re not a Christian)

(Christians don’t do this….)

(Look this way, act this way, talk this way….)

(They don’t drink, smoke, chew and date girls that do)

(Hair cuts/length, skirt length)

(Cards, movies, dancing, bowling alleys)

It’s this theology of works, and it finds its way into our teaching. If we are all extremely honest, it seems to always be around, doesn’t it.

It was the same in the early church.

History*

There was a proud lineage in the Jewish tradition. The Old Testament was filled with the saints of the ancient faith. Moses, David, Abraham and on and on.

They had a language. They had deep and meaningful tradition.

One of these traditions was circumcision.

Now, today, we’ve lost a lot of the deep meaning behind circumcision, and why this passage is such a scandalous passage. To understand it, we must go back to Abraham.

Abram was transitioning during the great migration, and moving from the cradle of civilization, and moving west.

And during this move, God connects in a real way, and he calls Abram. He tells him that he’ll be the father of a new nation. Abram loved this promise.

He knew this would be a promise that he would have a son.  (Genesis 12)

“I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.

But this promise took many years to fulfill.

Abram gets frustrated. He had waited years to live the fulfillment of Gods promise. When was God going to follow his part of the deal?

Abram lets God know his frustration, and God responds by asking Abram to go outside and take a look at the night sky.

Above him were the countless stars.

Photo Credit: finolexblog.com

Photo Credit: finolexblog.com

Looking back at the understanding that the Jews viewed the heavens, the stars, as God’s royal court, this statement that God makes, your family, your court, will be larger than my own, has unbelievable ramifications.

Abram, your house will be bigger than mine!

Think about that for a moment.

And so, Abram, being a man of his culture, asked God to make a covenant with him.

To make a promise. To bind them together.

This was important for people in this land. It was wild, and without numbers, a person could expect to live long.

There were bandits, thieves and crooks all around. Death was not far away for those who journeyed alone.,

So, men would covenant together.

John, owner of sheep. Ryan owner of cows, would say, my herds will be yours, and yours will be mine.

We’re familiar with this understanding within marriage.

Two would become one. What one did, the other must do.

To make a covenant together, the heads of households would take animals, cut them from nose to tail, lay them out, and let the blood and insides spill out into the middle.

As God instructed Abraham to do, he  “went and got  a three-year-old female calf, a three-year-old female goat, a three-year-old ram, a dove, and a young pigeon.”

They would then, walk through the middle, signifying that, should I break my oath here today, may this happen to me. May I be cut in two, and my blood cover the ground.

They then walked, saying as the moved, that the two would become one.

There would be no separation, no individuality, anymore.

And so, you have to wonder, did Abraham walk through? Did he run?

Either way, he walked the path, and waited. Probably shooing the birds as he waited. Waiting again for God to move.

Which, God eventually did.

Waking Abraham from his dream, God spoke these words:

 After the sun set, Abram slept deeply. A terrifying and deep darkness settled over him.

13 Then the Lord said to Abram, “Have no doubt that your descendants will live as immigrants in a land that isn’t their own, where they will be oppressed slaves for four hundred years. 14 But after I punish the nation they serve, they will leave it with great wealth. 15 As for you, you will join your ancestors in peace and be buried after a good long life. 16 The fourth generation will return here since the Amorites’ wrongdoing won’t have reached its peak until then.”

17 After the sun had set and darkness had deepened, a smoking vessel with a fiery flame passed between the split-open animals. 18 That day the Lord cut a covenant with Abram: “To your descendants I give this land…

This was a covenant that was made with blood. Actually described as, God cut a covenant with Abram.

It says that, if necessary, one was willing to lay down their life for the other.

A mark

A couple of chapters after this covenant, God comes back and tells Abram that he would like to ratify this covenant. He didn’t want to change it. He wanted to add to it.

You see, he wanted there to be a permanent scar on Abram and all who followed him. Abram needed to give something to God.

This is what God says:

“As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants in every generation. 10 This is my covenant that you and your descendants must keep: Circumcise every male. 11 You must circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it will be a symbol of the covenant between us.

Abram, and all the men who would follow him, would be set apart by the scar they bore. The blood they shed. They would be set apart.

But Abram was not the only one who gave a part of themselves to God. That took on a scar.

God told Abram:

 Abram fell on his face, and God said to him, “But me, my covenant is with you; you will be the ancestor of many nations. And because I have made you the ancestor of many nations, your name will no longer be Abram but Abraham.

And he told Sarai:

God said to Abraham, “As for your wife Sarai, you will no longer call her Sarai. Her name will now be Sarah.

The beauty of these changes aren’t the changes in the name, it’s the meaning behind the changes.

The name for God in the Old Testament is, Yahweh, or, in Hebrew would be written without vowels…looking like this:

YHWH.

Abram then became Abraham. Sarai became Sarah.

The ancient Jewish scholars wrote that, when God said you’ll be the Father of many nations, he was saying, I’ll be giving you a piece of my name.

Literally, I’ll give you the “H’s”

And so, God and Abraham both gave up a piece of themselves. They took on the other. And both now carry a scar.

Circumcision meant something significant to Israel

Yet, for the significance of what it meant before, after Christ, even in it’s theological importance, it isn’t the main thing.

When Paul talks about Salvation, he warns against teachers and preachers who talk about grace/acceptance coming from anything other than Christ. (more on that next week)

How do we, as the church, do this?

How do we attach these extras to the church?

There are many ways we’ve been guilty of this:

Non-essential Theological views:

(creation, baptism, etc)

Political views

(One must be a republican to be Christian)

Sexual Preference

(Only heterosexuals are welcome)

Worship Style Preference

(No Drums! Why only hymns?)

These things matter to us. If they didn’t, it wouldn’t hurt us when someone disagrees. 

We are so adept at making the wrong things the main things. We make Christianity about people acting like we think they should act.

We welcome them into the kingdom, and we load them up with expectations, rules and guidelines. And in doing this, we miss the point.

Part of the irony Philippians 3, is the wordplay and how Paul calls these leaders out.

First, he calls them dogs. 

Now, its important to specify, Paul is calling the preachers and teachers who are preaching that salvation only comes through Christ AND circumcision. It’s both/and.

Paul says, “no!” And calls them one of the worst things you could call a respectable jew; a dog.

This is so horrible because, in calling them dogs, Paul is insinuating that they are unclean, that they are scavengers and guilty of eating garbage.

The act of Paul saying this, he is telling the church in Philippians that, in spite of what these teachers believe and teach, they aren’t clean and pure. They aren’t the ones on the inside anymore.

Under the old law, they fit, and they were clean (through their actions), however under the new covenant, they are unclean.

For it’s not what we do that saves us.

It’s Christ alone.

Any attempts by the church to dictate terms by which men and women can be part of the kingdom, outside of faith in Christ, is an attempt to control who is in and out of the KoG.

He then ends by saying, he’s done all the right things. He was circumcised as he should be, he was a hebrew, was a pharisee (educated and knowledgeable in the Law), and followed that law down to the letter.

But this was not enough.

This the hard question: How do we do this? What is our circumcision?

How are we trying to control the movement of the Spirit?

Do we elevate sins over others?

Do we require a new believer (or un-believer) behaves and acts like us before belonging?

Are we willing to engage and live life with someone who doesn’t think like we do?

 

*I would like to offer a special thanks to Mike Breen at 3DM for the brilliant scholarship connected to the cutting of the Abrahamic covenant. Much of this content comes from Breen, and any rights to this content is his. 

Farewells and the Splendor of Trembling: Philippians 2:12-18

philippiansToday we’re continuing our look through Philippians, specifically dealing with 2:12-18.

The past few weeks, we’ve been talking about the Splendor of God. We have talked about his great sacrifice. We have talked about how he refused to operate under the normal means of power, rather, he showed humanity a new way.

It’s really easy to get lost in those passages. The splendor of Christ, the power of the cross, and the hope of his resurrection are such powerful images and examples of love, that often we can stop there.

There is something important about making sure we always look at Christ, right? We should never lose sight of the cross, and how that sacrifice has freed us to live lives otherwise impossible.

The Cross should lead us outward

It can’t end at the cross. It can’t stop with Jesus dying on the cross and coming to life again. This must become real in our own hearts, right?

This must, in some way, transform us.

This transformation must also move outward and begin to transform the world around us. So, today, we’re going to look at what this looks like.

First, let’s read our passage together. Philippians 2:12-18:

12 Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.

14 Do everything without grumbling or arguing, 15 so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.”[c] Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky 16 as you hold firmly to the word of life. And then I will be able to boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor in vain. 17 But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you. 18 So you too should be glad and rejoice with me.

So, what’s going on here?

As Christians, it’s really easy to spend our time with our head in the theological clouds.

More concerned with being right than with being Christ-like.

Paul, with the theological weight of the past chapter still simmering, tells the Philippians to bring it back to their own lives.

What does Christ’s life, death and resurrection mean for us? What does it mean for us to live lives that doesn’t just exist in our theology, but spill out into the world around us?

Working out your salvation

Now, after all we’ve read these past few weeks, we come to this command which was given by Paul.

Paul tells the church in Philipi to work their salvation out with fear and trembling.

Often, this is taught as a command to do salvation right.

We interpret this as, we must follow the rules, the commands, and live lives that are good enough. In other words, we must do the hard work to be saved.

Sometimes, we’re taught that Christ’s death didn’t accomplish the whole thing. It didn’t quite go 100% of the way…that we need to go 10% (and in our minds, how often do we believe this to be a 50/50 venture?)

Part of the problem, when you begin to talk about working out your salvation, is that it begins to be something that is about being saved.

We’ve all been in the pews when we hear sermons that make us feel like any sin, any wrong doing against God, puts our salvation at risk. And so, to secure our place in the Kingdom of God, we re-confess, we re-dedicate our lives to God.

Now, there’s something beautiful about rededication. Saying, God I’ve strayed a bit, and I want to come back to you.

However, must be careful to understand that God never left. His grace never left. And our actions aren’t what saves us.

Christ’s death is.

So, when we begin to talk about this passage, and when we begin to study what it means to work out our Salvation, we must understand this important thing: We are saved by the grace of God. Period.

Not by works. In this, we cannot boast.

Salvation is something we accept. Never something we do.

However, what we see here, is that while Salvation isn’t something we’ll ever earn, it is something we must be diligent to work through.

When Paul says this, he’s not not telling us to work “for” our faith, instead he’s telling us to work “out” our faith.

There is a very big different here.

To work out

The word being used here is Katergazomai, which means “to bring about” or “to carry out.” This isn’t about earning a seat at the table, rather, it has everything to do with putting faith into action.

This isn’t a one time event. It is a consistent and ongoing effort. It’s something you work on and do over and over again.

What does this look like?

Paul uses Chapter 2 to define this for us.

In verses 1-4, we talked about working together as a unified body pushing and striving towards a common goal. Ignoring differences of opinion, and unifying under the banner of Christ.

In verses 5-11, we talked about how love empties self, and in that emptying becomes its fullest and most beautiful self. We saw this modeled by God. And we see the challenge to imitate that.

In verses 14-16, we’re talking about what it looks like to cease arguing and instead, live as an example, or light, to the world around us (more on that in a moment!).

To work out our salvation means that we find a way to exist together in harmony. We refuse to let differences divide us, and we do so with fear and trembling.

Fear and trembling

Now, this is a bit of a misleading phrase. We see this, and we immediately get the image in our minds of an innocent person cowering in the corner in response to an angry, and abusive Father.

Let’s move away from that.

Fear and trembling has nothing to do with fear of life.

Rather, it has more to do with a deep respect or awe.

Fear and trembling is how a person goes to through their marriage ceremony.

Fear and trembling is how a person feels when they hold their first child.

Fear and trembling is how Moses approached the burning bush.

Fear and trembling is that deep appreciation of the magnitude of the moment we are in, and a deep understanding of what is required.

And because of this understanding, because of the reverence and awe that’s brought into the conversation, we are forced to take the situation seriously.

So, we must take this working out of our salvation seriously. We must take our response to it (not our validation or our completion of salvation) seriously.

And when we do this, Paul tells us that what this must look like.

Complaining and arguing. 

Do everything without grumbling or arguing, 15 so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky 16 as you hold firmly to the word of life.

Now, part of the reason this was Paul’s main challenge is contextual. The church in Philippi was experiencing quite a bit of internal discord. However, the more I experience the Christian faith- particularly, Christianity publicly, I see wisdom and great importance of this challenge:

Complaining:  The word Paul uses here for com paining is “Gongysmos” which means grumbling. It’s actually an onomatopoeia (like bang, or crash, or click). It’s a word that is intended to bring an audible connection, not just an intellectual one.

Arguing: The word used for arguing is “dialogismos.”

These words aren’t all the interesting on their own. However, there is something Paul is alluding to in these comparisons.

In Exodus, we read about Israel. God’s chosen people. Called to be an example to the world of God’s love and God’s sovereignty over all other deities.

However, through the book of Exodus, we see over and over, discord, distrust and frustration by both Israel and God.

They are always complaining; about food, water, walking, etc. Often, the say being in slavery is better than being with God.

They argue amongst themselves. Constantly.

And the world sees.

The world always sees, right?

We’ve seen this in the Christian church.

Rob Bell.

Farewell tweets.

The world watches us as we deal with our own. How are we responding to each other when we aren’t on the same page?

How are we acting?

Are we grumbling. Complaining. Arguing. Throwing one another under the bus?

Or are we finding unity in Christ?

Are we dedicating our lives to love in the same way Christ offered to us; without conditions.

Or do we bicker.

Paul writes about

To Paul, Salvation leads to obedience and obedience leads to evangelism.

There is a progression here

Paul is teaching us that when we’re brought into the fold, brought into the family, we’re called to be part of something bigger than ourselves. We’re called to sacrifice our preferences. To give up our separate identity.

We’re sons and daughters of the King.

When we do that, the world takes note.
When we’re able to put aside our pride, our theology, our politics, and instead, focus on unity, that is the greatest for of evangelism possible.

It’s engaging. It’s inviting. It’s contagious.

A King Below: Philippians 2:9-11

A little delayed, we’ll be continuing our discussion on the book of Philippians. 

philippians

Today, we’re working through the second part of our early church hymn found in Philippians 2.

Last week we took a look at part one. As a short refresher, let’s read it again together.

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;

rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
    being made in human likeness. 

And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!

Last week
We talked about how Christ refused to use power over people to bring about his plan. He refused to consider his divinity as a tool to help him gain an edge. Instead, he chose to push against the established system of power through his willingness to lay down all rights and privileges, and to allow himself to be killed as a common, forgotten slave.

The story doesn’t end there

Does it?

Christ willingly walks to his death. He goes there naked, bleeding, humiliated, and filled with an endless love for his creation.

After his death, Jesus’ disciples mourned felt afraid. If this could happen to Jesus…then what would happen to them?

But it wasn’t the end of the story.

Jesus was buried. Laying in a tomb for 3 days.

But this wasn’t the end of the story.

Christ conquered death. He rose again, and he ascended into heaven.

A miraculous birth.

A meaningful life.

A sacrificial death.

A death-conquering resurrection.

However, Paul reminds us that is wasn’t Jesus’ divine birth, it wasn’t his miracle-filled ministry, it wasn’t his gruesome death, and it wasn’t even his resurrection that acted as the catalyst for what we read next.

It happened because, well, let’s read why:

Philippians 2:9-11:

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,

that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

What’s happening here?

In this passage we’re reading some serious theology. We’re reading foundational stuff about the Christian faith, and especially in regards to the divinity of Christ.

We’re reading a core passage that helps us understand the doctrine of the Trinity.

For those of us who have been in the church, and really, for those of us who are new to faith, I think we miss the truth impact of what’s being said here.

Christ exalted.

Equal with God our Father.

Judaism was a monotheism

For us, Christianity has always been about Jesus, right? We’ve grown up hearing things like, “Jesus is the way”…or “What would Jesus do?”

wwjd

Our Church year revolves around Advent (Christmas and the celebration of birth of Jesus) and Easter (remember Christ’s death and resurrection).

advent

Jesus is part of our cultural theological framework. There has never been a time in our lives that he wasn’t a foundational part of our faith.

This isn’t the case for those within Judaism. Their entire existence, they existed as a people who served and followed YHWH. God. Nobody else.

They (nor any of humanity) had any concept of the Trinity. They had no understanding of Jesus. From their limited experience, it was God and God alone.

But Jesus always existed. He was always one with God; always his equal.

The scholar, Dean Flemming said it this way:

The point is not that Jesus was given a higher status than he had prior to his becoming a man (against Cullmann 1963, 174–81). Rather, the verb means that God lifted Jesus to the highest position possible. It is a place where he is publicly and universally recognized as equal in status with God the Father (vv 10–11). (BBC)

Jesus gives us a picture of who God is and what he values:

One of the most beautiful parts of the life and death of Christ is that he puts skin and bones on a very un-known God.

Throughout the Old Testament, we see God only through the mouth of an extreme minority; a handful of men called by God to be his voice to the people.
Abraham. Moses. The prophets. The High Priest.

To the Israelites, God existed in the Holy of Holies; a special room designated as a place off-limits to all but a select few.

God was always present, he was always working towards redemption, but he was not accessible, and because of this, Israel didn’t know him.

This changed with Jesus.

In Christ, we see God’s mission, mercy and passion for the least of these on full display.

We also see him coming up against generations of theology, and when the walls of theology couldn’t contain him, and when his actions, grace and forgiveness felt too freely offered, they despised him.

I think there’s a lesson in there somewhere…

However, when Christ came, his acts of sacrifice and selflessness, weren’t just a means to an end. They were core a core part of the Identity of God.

The pastor, Brian Zhand nails it when he said:

In Christ, we see a God who would rather die than kill his enemies. 

When Paul talks of Christ being elevated, he is talking about God showing the world the majesty and power of Christ.

The Beacon Commentary says it this way:

It follows, then, that we cannot start with a definition of God and try to fit Jesus into it. We must look first to Jesus himself, who reveals to us the identity of God. If we want to know what God is like … God is like Jesus.
Understanding this can and should have powerful ramifications on our lives.

angry godHow many of us carry the image of an angry Father-God through life. A bitter and resentful God who beats us with a cane every time we mess up. A God who demands our groveling at his feet, just so he doesn’t strike us down?

Oh, the angry deity is taught, and for many, this God is a projection of their own experiences with an abusive Father. It’s hard for the word Father to be used without all the baggage that comes with it.

And so, we have Jesus. A fully God- fully man, living, breathing, walking, talking, healing, redeeming, forgiving example of who our heavenly Father truly is. 

Therein lies the beauty of this passage.

We no longer have to wonder what our heavenly Father is like. When Paul writes this hymn into the book of Philippians, he’s teaching the Philippians, and each Christ-follower after them two things:

First: In Christ, we can be certain that we have a heavenly Father who knows us and the struggles we face at the deepest level.

Paul describes Jesus’ incarnation as his self-emptying, enslavement, humiliation. These words suggest Jesus’ deep identification with our human situation. 

We can live confidently in the knowledge that the Son of God stands in solidarity with the poor and the powerless, the suffering and the vulnerable, the lowly and the marginalized, because he has shared our fate. 

He is truly a God who is for us. 

He is “God with us.” Jesus’ incarnation meant not just becoming human. It also meant embracing the poverty, powerlessness, and death of a slave. It broadcasts the limitless nature of God’s love through Christ.

Second: Power structure, as defined by our culture, and as we have always known it, through the life and sacrifice of Christ, no longer holds weight or truth.

It was said that what Christ’s life, sacrifice, death and resurrection all amounts to is a devastating critique of Caesar and his world (as well as our current world). In Christ we see the one who was humiliated and crucified by Roman power, yet who is declared universally sovereign.

This directly challenges the empire’s version of how to achieve world rule. The story of a self-emptying Lord not only subverts Caesar’s claims to universal dominion but also turns the whole Roman value system of what constitutes honor and power on its head.

It tells us that we don’t have to behave, defend, and be the aggressor anymore.

The cultural narrative of the dominant, self-seeking, me-first necessity is not true, and must be named and rejected.

We must, instead remember that Christ modeled what it looks like to reject that struggle for power, and instead modeled sacrifice, and in that modeling sacrifice, was shown to the world as the King above all.

Christ is king.

To this king, in the end, everything that has ever been created, in heaven, on earth, or in the spiritual realm, will bow in submission to him.

What this means for us

Who is Christ to us? Is our God a sword wielding, angry/abusive, or vengeful deity? If so, how can we begin to allow the character of Christ begin to disassemble those beliefs?

As Christ disassembled these beliefs, we must also ask ourselves if we patterning our lives after him?

Are we sword-wielding Christians? Or are we dedicated to laying down our lives for the world possible offenders in this world?

Power vs Humiliation, or when God becomes a man (Part 2)

Pope Francis

Yesterday, we talked about how Christ came to earth, and chose to not wield his power over humanity. He instead chose to come, and give up his rights to power.

This is in stark contrast to the Roman understanding of power.

Emperors used their divine status to gain power, popularity and prestige.

They claimed divine ancestry, asked for people to make sacrifices for their forgiveness of sins. Roman Caesars would claim to be the “son of god.”

And they ensured that this divine status remained through brute force and demands of complete unity of focus and worship.

The masses often proclaiming, “Caesar is lord.”

Two deities square off.

Let think about something together; what happens, in our culture, when two men or women of power come into conflict – be it ideological, theological, politically, or economically with one another?

The puff their chests. They remind people of their status, accomplishments. They ask or demand for people to see the letters before their name, the their alma-mater, and their what they’ve accomplished at work.

They take a power-over approach. And we, as a culture, celebrate it, don’t we?

We celebrate the alpha male.

Western culture celebrates the powerful.

From Superman…

To Liam Neeson…

And when we’re not celebrating the power-over, violent heroes, we’re electing the square (read: strong) jawed men for president…

Slate Magazine once wrote:

Working with subjects rating photos of hundreds of faces, [Princeton University Psychologists] Todorov and colleagues have developed computer models of how faces can suggest character traits like trustworthiness and likability. The competent face shape is masculine but approachable, with a square jaw, high cheekbones, and large eyes. When people say Romney just looks presidential, this is the image they’re summoning.

Even down to our facial structure, power- be it real or assumed- matters to us.

Our culture celebrates the self promoter.

Our culture celebrates the boot-strap grabber.

Marlboro manBut we followed a man who voluntarily gave up every stitch of power that he possessed.

He was there when the Earth, stars, and universe were created. In fact, we’re told that all that exists was created through him.

Christ possessed all power, under heave and on earth, and he gave it away. He confronted a system of oppression, both politically (in Rome) and religiously (in the Pharisees and religious leaders the time) by being the least among them.

He gave of himself. Over and over and over again.

Paul tells us that Christ…

    …humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

The cross.

A slaves death. A disgraceful death.

A Roman citizen (a person of human worth in the eyes of Rome), if executed would have been beheaded. It was a civil death. A death worthy of a Roman son or daughter.

A non-Roman citizen, though, would suffer a different fate.

The Romans were creative with the ways they killed their criminals.

For non-Roman citizens sentenced to death, they could be sentenced to die any number of ways:

▪Being burnt alive

▪Being bound by the feet to the tails of wild horses and dragged to death

▪Being torn to pieces by wild beasts

▪Beaten to death

▪Burned with plates of red-hot iron

But for a slave, a person of zero cultural worth or importance, Rome reserved the most painful and humiliating death of them all. The cross.

The Beacon Bible Commentary talks about this cross this way:

“The Roman writer Cicero called it “the most cruel and abominable form of punishment” (Verrine Orations 5.64; cited by Bruce 1983, 54). “The very word ‘cross,’ ” he cautioned, “should be far removed not only from the person of a Roman citizen, but from his thoughts, his eyes and his ears” (Rab. Perd. 16; cited by Hengel 1977, 42). In other words, cross was an obscenity not to be mentioned in polite Roman society.

What made crucifixion so appalling in Paul’s world was that it combined excruciating torture with total humiliation (Hooker 1994, 8).Victims were paraded through the streets publicly, open to ridicule from bystanders, crucified naked, left to hang sometimes for several days, with even their bodily excretions in full view.

The victims’ bodies were usually left exposed to be eaten by birds or wild animals, with the remnants tossed into a common pit (the Gospels note that Jesus’ burial was an exception to this practice; see Matt 27:57–59). The absence of a proper burial heaped further humiliation on the victims and their families (see Osiek 2000, 63). (BBC)

The social stigma attached to crucifixion was further extended by its close identification with slavery. In fact, it was so common for slaves to be crucified in the Roman world that crucifixion came to be known as the “slaves’ punishment” (Hellerman 2005, 146–47). No one would have had to alert the Philippians to the connection between Jesus “taking the form of a slave” (NRSV) and his death on a cross. Everyone knew that crucifixion was the penalty for slaves” (BBC)

The death of the people’s king

The greek philosopher Plato, once said that if a truly righteous man ever existed, humanity would crucify him.

In him, humanity would see everything that it wasn’t.

In Christ, the religious elite witnessed something they desperately wanted: respect.

They lived their lives- be it through fasting, following rules, or using the law to condemn- in an attempt to prove their greatness.

Jesus lived his life to show his love.

He refused to participate in the system as it was designed.

He didn’t seek the approval of the powerful. He conversed with prostitutes.

He didn’t proclaim monetary righteousness. He invited the rich to give all they had away.

He was radical. He didn’t see himself as a deity able to control others. Rather, he chose to take a downward path towards humility and humiliation.

That’s hard for us to understand, isn’t it?

What this means for you and me

How do we use our voice, our power, our influence and our economic system to advance our own causes?

Are we, as christians, using the gospel to bully people into believing like you and me? Or are we using choosing the way of sacrifice to show people what Christ is offering?

The truth is that, when Christ refused to wield the power of his Divine Nature to bring about the Kingdom, that took from us any ability to use our own power to bring about the Kingdom.

When it’s our weight being thrown, it’s not longer a Christ-centered movement. It becomes my own personal vendetta.

When we create a fiction around our lives, tailor our story so others will think more of us, and when acclamation of power matters more than genuine honesty, we can know that we’re not living like the King we’ve been called to emulate.

It’s difficult work, being part of this kingdom. It costs us everything, and requires we hold on to nothing.

But in the holding on to nothing, we will find that we gain everything…but more on that next week.