Monday, October 15, 2012

PHS Fall Concert (Choir)

Tonight, Petersburg High School music groups performed their first concert of the school year. Amy is in the choir this year.

The choir performed four numbers (audio file links to each) –

  1. The Star-Spangled Banner
  2. I’ve Got a Name
  3. Deep River
  4. God’s Gonna Set This World on Fire



Sunday, October 14, 2012

Sermon: Two Facets of Godly Love

This is a sermon I preached at the Petersburg Lutheran Church today, October 14. In brief, the thesis is: Choosing to follow Jesus’ command to love as God loves risks suffering and sacrifice.

Here are my key points –

  • Love is not synonymous with a relationship
  • Love precedes any relationship
  • Jesus loved all, but he did not enter into relationship with every person
  • Love is a choice to serve others, to think good of them, and to work in their best interests
  • Love is a choice to give up (sacrifice) our rights, if necessary, in order to lift others up in service
  • Love can be rejected, abused, and may succumb to loss; resulting in suffering
  • Jesus chose to love this world, knowing that his love would be rejected and abused; but he also knew that the rewards of loving would be far greater than any sacrifice and suffering

Sermon text (doc)
Audio (20 minutes; includes reading of Mark 10:17-31, today’s Gospel portion from the lectionary)

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Being Consumed–The “Free Market”

The following are excerpts from the first chapter, “Freedom and Unfreedom”, of Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire by William T. Cavanaugh. In this chapter, the current state and practices of capitalism and the free-market are critiqued, and a more appropriate approach to the free-market, informed by Christian theology, are suggested.

“There is no point to either blessing or damning the ‘free market’ as such. What is required is a substantive account of the end of earthly life and creation so that we may enter into particular judgments of what kinds of exchanges are free and what kinds are not.”

“A market is free if people can satisfy their wants without harming others…”

“Augustine’s view of freedom is more complex: freedom is not simply a negative freedom from, but a freedom for, a capacity to achieve certain worthwhile goals. All of these goals are taken up into the one overriding telos of human life, the return to God.”

“Freedom is something received, not merely exercised. Therefore, in order to determine whether a person is acting freely, we need to know much more than whether or not that person is acting on his or her desires without the interference of others. In Augustine’s view, others are in fact crucial to one’s freedom.”

“… There are true desires and false desires, and we need a telos to tell the difference between them.”

“The key to true freedom is not just following whatever desires we happen to have, but cultivating the right desires.”

“… Augustine’s broader point about the relationship of desire to ends is valid, and it goes to the heart of our discussion of the freedom of the free market. The point is this: the absence of external force is not sufficient to determine the freedom of any particular exchange. In order to judge whether or not an exchange is free, one must know whether or not the will is moved toward a good end… Where there are not objectively desirable ends, and the individual is told to choose his or her own ends, then choice itself becomes the only thing that is inherently good. When there is a recession, we are told to buy things to get the economy moving; what we buy makes no difference. All desires, good and bad, melt into the one overriding imperative to consume, and we all stand under the one sacred canopy of consumption for its own sake.”

“To desire with no good other than desire itself is to desire arbitrarily. To desire with no telos, no connection to the objective end of desire, is to desire nothing and to become nothing.”

“The problem with the ‘free-market’ view is that it assumes that the abolition of objective goods provides the conditions for the individual will to function more or less autonomously. The reality, however, is quite different. For, as Augustine sees clearly, the absence of objective goods does not free the individual, but leaves him or her subject to the arbitrary competition of wills. In other words, in the absence of a substantive account of the good, all that remains is sheer arbitrary power, one will against another. This is what Augustine calls the libido dominandi, the lust for power with which Pharaoh was possessed.”

“In the absence of any objective concept of the good, sheer power remains.”

“[Business defending increasing disparity between executive and employee pay.] In other words, it it considered good business practice to maximize the disparity of power between employer and employee in order to increase the profit margin of the corporation. All of this is done in the name of ‘free’ trade. As Augustine saw, in the absence of any substantive ends, what triumphs is the sheer lust for power.”

“When they [businesses] blame the move [off-shoring of labor] on necessity, they recognize a very real sense that the ‘free’ market does not leave them free to act in ways that they might believe are more just.”

“Considerations of goodness and justice only seem to apply to the [theoretical] capitalist system as a whole. Friedman and other free-market advocates argue that capitalism as such is the best system based on its ability to give people what they want. A system that is allegedly based on individual rights is thus ironically justified by a utilitarian justification of the system as a whole, to which individuals and their freedom are sacrificed.”

“However, in order to judge which exchanges are truly free and which ones are not, one must abandon Friedman’s purely negative and functionalist approach to freedom and have some positive standard by which to judge… Once we admit that freedom defined strictly negatively is inadequate, we are pushing ourselves toward the recognition that Augustine was right; to speak of freedom in any realistic and full sense is necessarily to engage the question of the true ends of human life. Yet such ends are precisely what free market advocates would banish from the definition of the free market. To enter into judgments about the freedom of particular exchanges, we must abandon Friedman’s definition of a free market, and we must also abandon any claims for the goodness of ‘the free market’ as such. There is no point to claiming that ‘capitalism produces freedom’ unless one wants to claim that ‘any economic exchange that produces freedom is capitalism,’ in which case one has simply uttered a tautology.”

“There is simply no way to talk about a really free economy without entering into particular judgments about what kinds of exchange are conducive to the flourishing of life on earth and what kinds are not… From a Christian point of view, the churches should take an active role in fostering economic practices that are consonant with the true ends of creation. This requires promoting economic practices that maintain close connections among capital, labor, and communities, so that real communal discernment of the good can take place. Those are the spaces in which true freedom can flourish.”

Monday, October 08, 2012

Following by Not Following

As Christians we tend to have a stereotype definition of disciple. To us a disciple is usually patterned after The Twelve that Jesus selected, and who followed him during his ministry. This, however, is a very narrow definition of a disciple of Jesus.

We often forget that in addition to The Twelve, there were at least seventy (or seventy-two) others1 who were with Jesus during much of his ministry. Furthermore, Luke notes there were women who followed Jesus2.

We also have the idea that these disciples followed Jesus without interruption throughout his approximately three-and-a-half year ministry. But reading the different accounts of the calling of his disciples3, we can see that Jesus’ ministry was divided into phases: the early part appears to be more laid-back while the intensity increases during the latter phase.

We also make the wrong assumption that The Twelve (and the Seventy) represent the entire class of people who believed in Jesus. We need to recognize there were many more that believed in Jesus and were his disciples that didn’t follow him in the way the Twelve did4. We need to recognize the unique case of the Twelve (and possibly the Seventy). Jesus knew his time with them was very short, that he had to teach them a revolutionary way of thinking about the Kingdom that was contrary to everything that they had known, and that these were going to be the leaders of the new Kingdom after he was gone. These factors do not directly apply to followers of Jesus today.

Are there any examples of disciples who didn’t follow Jesus day-to-day? Yes. We find a brother and two sisters: Lazarus, Martha, and Mary of Bethany. Bethany and the siblings are first mentioned in connection with Jesus in Luke 10:38-42 when Jesus stops at their home and Martha chides Mary for not helping with hospitality duties. They are next mentioned in connection with Lazarus’ resurrection in John 11. Bethany makes its third appearance during Holy Week as Jesus’ place of respite prior to his arrest (Matthew 21:17; Mark 11:11,12; Luke 19:29). A fourth appearance is found in Matthew 26:6, Mark 14:3, and John 12:1-8 where Mary is found anointing Jesus with expensive perfume.

What can we observe from these friends of Jesus in Bethany? Unlike the Twelve and the Seventy, these friends with whom Jesus appears to have had a very close relationship, did not leave their homes to follow him. They stayed where they were, and their home became a place of refuge for Jesus. It was a place where they could minister to Jesus in their own way. They did not have the benefit of seeing and hearing Jesus on a daily basis, but they had a unique and special relationship with Jesus that could not be had while on the road and sleeping in the fields.

What should we conclude from this brief examination of three different types of disciples?

First, we need to broaden our definition of a disciple. Not all disciples of Jesus are called to leave everything behind to follow him. For some it may mean occasional periods of concentrated dedication during their otherwise, normal lives. For some others it may mean staying where they are, living life within its typical confines and serving Jesus in their own way.

Second, we must not take the unique situations of The Twelve and directly apply Jesus’ interactions with them to 21st century discipleship. We can seek to learn general principles and adapt them in appropriate ways. Perhaps some of Jesus’ extreme methods might be useful to some people, some of the time.

Third, we must recognize that every person is created uniquely, with unique combinations of gifts, abilities, interests, relationships, history, experiences, families, etc. We must not attempt to define discipleship in a uniform manner and fit people to that singular mold. Rather, we need to be sensitive to each person’s unique calling and not diminish how they have been fashioned to serve. There may be some that are made to give up all the comforts and security of modern culture and serve in areas totally foreign. Many others are not designed for that sort of service. All service is equally valuable and we must learn to recognize and appreciate equally the service that each person provides.

We can follow Jesus by not following – by rejecting the narrow definition of what following Jesus means.

1 Luke 10:1

2 Luke 8:2

3 John 1:35ff describes a call of the disciples immediately following Jesus’ baptism at the beginning of his ministry at and near the Jordan River. Matthew 4:18-22 and Mark 1:16-20 show some of the same disciples being called by the Sea of Galilee during a later period in Jesus’ ministry.

4 1 Corinthians 15:6. Paul writes that Jesus appeared to 500 of his disciples after his resurrection.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Meaning of “Sacrifice”

This morning I had about 30 minutes on the local Christian radio, KRSA, and discussed the topic of “sacrifice”. Below are my notes.

  • What does "sacrifice" mean? What images rise up when you hear that word?
  • Giving up or going without stuff. Giving up positions. Choosing to suffer hardships. Moving to a place away from comfort and convenience.
  • Most of us in developed nations don't ever really sacrifice.
  • What does it mean to sacrifice to God?
  • Romans 12:1-2
  • Paul writes that we are to offer ourselves as living sacrifices. Following verses seem to indicate this sacrifice is in the context of transformation of the mind and in learning humility and service.
  • This is in line with Philippians 2:1-8 – Jesus’ example of sacrifice
  • This ends with sacrifice demonstrated through death on a cross. Is death on a cross the sacrifice we are instructed to offer to God?
  • Luke 9:21-25 – denying self, taking up the cross
  • Is death the sacrifice, or is death the result of an earlier event that is the true sacrifice?
  • Sacrifice is giving up one's rights, privileges, entitlements.
  • Sacrifice is, most of all, giving up the right to vengeance and retribution, the right to seek punishment against those who have hurt us, abused us, betrayed us.
  • Sacrifice is the choice to let go of our hurts and instead embrace love and forgive those who have hurt us.
  • Luke 23:34-35 - this is the pinnacle of sacrifice. Jesus is the one human being in history who had the right, authority, and the power to exact vengeance and retribution upon all who hurt and abused him. But he chose to let it go and instead embrace forgiveness through love.
  • Micah 6:6-8 - what kind of sacrifice does God want?

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Book Review: Healing the Gospel

Healing the Gospel: A Radical Vision for Grace, Justice, and the CrossHealing the Gospel: A Radical Vision for Grace, Justice, and the Cross by Derek Flood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The primary thesis of this book, as I understood it is this: The retributive justice championed by the penal substitution model of Christ's atonement is false. Christus Victor, the classic and dramatic model of the atonement, reveals the other model for the falsehood that it is and then destroys it through the restorative justice that Christus Victor represents.

In short, all Christians and anyone interested in Christian theology ought to read this book. In the end you may still not agree with it, but it is important to understand the development of penal substitution theory that was based on the perspectives of the medieval church period. It is important to understand that there are other ways of understanding and interpreting the nature and importance of Christ's work through his life, death, and resurrection. It is important to understand that penal substitution is not rejected simply because it seems offensive, but because there is substantial biblical support for an alternative view, that in the author's and this reviewer's perspective, is more coherent with the whole of scripture.

Derek Flood does an excellent job of laying out the evidence for Christus Victor and against penal substitution. He goes through and logically dismantles the usual arguments in favor of penal substitution. He spends one chapter in this book working through the Suffering Servant passage of Isaiah 52-53 and shows that instead of God demanding some kind of punishment, it shows humans and the natural consequences of sin caused Christ to undergo suffering. The Appendix in the book is one of the most important portions as Mr. Flood works through the proper understandings of key soteriological terms: righteousness, justice, justifies, justification, and wrath. He shows how these should not be interpreted within a legal, forensic framework, but in a restorative and natural consequences framework.

This book builds upon Gustaf Aulen's original "Christus Victor" work. Aulen's work is quite scholarly and in it describes the history of the development of the three models - classic (Christus Victor), objective (Latin, penal substitution), subjective (moral influence) - of the atonement. Aulen's shows how classic is best supported by scripture and history.

What Mr. Flood does is take the next step. If one accepts Christus Victor, then the other models are not only inadequate, but they are false, particularly the penal substitution model. Mr. Flood explains how Christus Victor is, in particular, the antithesis of the penal substitution model and how the p-s model not only does not treat sin seriously enough, but it portrays a picture of God that is diametrically opposed to that which Jesus came to reveal.

Christians accept the Bible as the revelation of God. By "revelation of God" I don't mean in the sense of God reveals things but rather in the sense it shows humans what God is like. How one chooses to understand the cross and the atonement is critical for interpreting the rest of scripture. It is the lens through which we see God and how we portray God to others. If we get it wrong, we unknowingly end up lying about God. This book provides a clear differentiation between two ways of viewing God. It is critical to learn the support and reasoning behind the two opposed views and make the right choice.

View all my reviews

Book Review: Seven Glorious Days

Seven Glorious DaysSeven Glorious Days by Karl W. Giberson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The purpose of this book is to show that evolutionary processes can be one way of explaining the account of creation found in Genesis 1. Given the scientific data available today, the author's perspective is that theistic evolution is the strongest explanation for the universe and life as we currently understand them.

This book requires that readers set aside any sort of fundamentalist and historical reading of the Genesis account. It must be seen as an origin story that was an attempt by the early Hebrews to construct a meaningful narrative within the confines of their knowledge, beliefs, and culture. For most liberal Christians and those who do not hold to a literalist hermeneutic, this should not be a problem. For conservative Christians I suspect this book will be difficult to even read as it violates certain fundamentals that are part of that worldview.

Atheists will also find plenty with which to object. The author assumes the existence of God that is personally involved with the universe. Particularly in the final chapter the discussion is around how God can enter into the universe and guide its development within the confines of the natural order that he initially set up.

The book discusses various branches of science - cosmology, astrophysics, biology, to name a few - in support of theistic evolution. The author writes in a way that is accessible to those without extensive scientific background; it steers clear of highly technical language. I have some experience of sitting through technical lectures on cosmology and astrophysics and what the book offers appears to be coherent with available scientific data. Because of that I assume the data and interpretations given in other areas are also sound.

One issue that the author does not address is the existence of death before sin. This may be a problem for many Christians who take the position that death is a direct result of sin. However, it is possible to take several other positions that allow for the existence of biological death prior to a moral fall. By not sufficiently explaining this dilemma, I believe the author weakens his argument for theistic evolution.

Overall I found this book useful in learning about how one might reconcile scientific data with the creation account of Genesis. Whether or not one ultimately agrees with the thesis of the book, it suggests that one need not take a purely naturalistic, materialistic stance toward the evolutionary process.

View all my reviews

Monday, October 01, 2012

Exchanging One Legalism for Another

“Christianity is not about rules. It’s about a relationship.”

That or something similar to it is an oft-repeated phrase that Christians use to warn themselves against legalism. Legalism is commonly defined as following the law, the rules in order to merit God’s grace and consequently, salvation. Legalism is relying on one’s own efforts to be right with God.

I’ve been reading a number of books recently that deal with the topic of grace and relationships in the Christian life. All reject the kind of legalism that focuses on law-keeping and right actions. They all agree that the goal of the Christian life is to be in a right relationship with God.

Here is where I see problems with what I’ve been reading. Right relationship is often described in terms of right relational attitudes. The authors come up with a list of desirable, relational attitudes. What I see is a replacement of one set of rules for another. The reader is told to give up behavioral rule-keeping, but is then given a checklist of correct attitudes. Behavioral legalism is abandoned, but there is a danger of adopting relational legalism. Both are equally ineffective when it comes to getting into a right relationship with God.

Neither is the old legalism completely abandoned. Somewhere, almost invariably, is presented that as part of one’s own evaluation of their relationship to God, they will have taken off the old. And how does one evaluate whether or not the old has been removed? By appealing to the old rules, of course –  usually in the form of “not doing” immoral actions. There remains, then, a great temptation to revert to the rule-based method of defining what a right relationship looks like.

At this point an objection may be raised. Don’t many of the epistles contain exhortation to develop good fruit, i.e., proper attitudes, when in a right relationship with God? My question in response to to this objection is this: are these “exhortations” a prescription toward more sanctified living, or are they a description of what automatically happens in a right relationship? These lists (such as the list of spiritual gifts and immorality to avoid found in Galatians 5:16-23) can be seen as a way of measuring and growing a relationship with God (the prescription method). Or they can be seen as descriptive of what naturally happens with a Christian when they walk with God.

Specifically with the passage in Galatians, in our English translation we interpret the “but if you are led by the Spirit” to be a conditional. But it can also be understood to read “but because you are led by the Spirit.” The latter is more in line with how the section begins in v.16 where it reads, “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” This passage is not prescriptive. It is not telling the Christian to focus on either avoidance of the bad, or to focus on developing the right attitudes. It is simply descriptive of what happens when a person is in a right relationship with God.1

The problem with both kinds of legalism – rule-based or relationship-based – is the preoccupation with self. With the former it is navel-gazing asking myself, “Am I doing the right things and avoiding bad things?” With the latter it is still navel-gazing, asking myself, “Am I developing the right attitudes? Am I avoiding deeds of the old nature?” The focus is still “me.”

Jesus’ parable of the final judgment, the sheep and the goats, found in Matthew 25:31-46, illustrates the above. The sheep, on the right, have no idea that they are sheep and are in a right relationship with God. Their focus has never been on themselves and whether or not they are doing the right things, avoiding the bad, or having a right attitude toward God. Their preoccupation is service for others, without making a conscious effort to do so. The goats, on the left, are shown to have no genuine concern for others. Implicitly this indicates a preoccupation with self. The goats are “clean” as are the sheep. The goats are not overtly evil people. They, therefore, can be seen to represent those who claim to follow Christ, those who claim to belong to God. They are not in a right relationship with God because their preoccupation is with self (c.f., Matthew 7:21-23).

I think that one reason why relational legalism is such a temptation and trap is that Christianity has not adequately defined what a right relationship is. There is nowhere in the New Testament where we can find it explicitly defined. Thus we must resort to building a definition via inference. It is easy to take the lists of good, moral attitudes in many of the epistles and use them to build a definition. But as I wrote earlier, these lists are not prescriptive. We cannot grow our relationship with God by focusing on how short we fall of meeting these descriptions.

So how do we grow our relationship with God? How should we define a right relationship with him?

It is instructive to refer to John 13-17. In his final discourse Jesus could have said many things. But in John’s longest recorded single discourse, Jesus’ instruction is singular, in two parts: 1) Abide in me; 2) Love one another. Jesus could have listed all sorts of attributes and attitudes that he wanted his disciples to develop and by which they could measure growth. Jesus does nothing of the sort. His instruction to his disciples is to become preoccupied with him and with others; i.e., focus away from self. I believe that is the most concise and only definition of “right relationship with God” that we need. I believe this definition most accurately characterizes the “sheep” of the Matthew 7 parable mentioned earlier.

I agree that Christianity is right to warn against rule-based, behavior-based legalism. Christianity is right in emphasizing that what God wants is a right relationship with him. There is much in current Christian literature that is good, but I believe that many of them define “right relationship” in a manner that can lead to relational legalism. We must avoid that at all costs. Both types of legalism is essentially a focus on self. Jesus tells us that in order to avoid legalism and develop a right relationship, we must stop focusing on self.

We need to stop our navel-gazing. It is not about whether or not we see ourselves doing good or bad, or we think we have right or wrong attitudes. It is all about looking away from ourselves – and instead to God and toward people around us. If we focus on the goodness of Jesus, we will bear fruit without having to be conscious about it.

1 These morality lists are also cultural and literary conventions of the Greek and Roman world. The New Testament writers are simply following what is the norm for them and what their audience expects to see. That does not make such lists inappropriate, but neither are they strictly right or necessary.