Tag Archives: Paul

Kicking Left Behind…in the Behind

I miss the Con Air and Face/Off Nic Cage.  Courtesy wikipedia and fundamentalism.
I miss the Con Air and Face/Off Nic Cage. Courtesy wikipedia and fundamentalism.

Rapture fever is back, as a new iteration of the Left Behind film franchise prepares to slither onto screens, this time sans Kirk Cameron. (How desperate is Nic Cage getting, anyway?)  Now is as good a time as any to kick Left Behind in the behind and reiterate that the rapture, quite simply, is a lie.

Leave aside the fact that the word “rapture” never once occurs in Scripture. Forget that the concept is part of a system not invented until the 19th century.  Don’t even mention the observation that the rapture would mean a kind of two-stage return of Christ, which the Biblical text does not support.  Focus, instead, on this: the one text that rapture preachers can (kind of) point to has nothing to do with a rapture.  As Mickey Efird writes,

“Since Jesus has conquered death, so those who are united to God share in this great victory. Therefore, those who have already died, rather than being in a secondary position with regard to the final victory of God, are in a primary position.  The reason for this is that they are already with the Lord. They are in a real sense already experiencing the joys of the final consummation.  This seems to be what Paul means by the expression ‘The dead in Christ will rise first.'” (Mickey Efird, Left Behind? [Macon: Smith & Helwys 2005], 40.)

If that doesn’t suit you, NT Wright has another reading of this infamous passage, stressing Roman imperial imagery in Paul’s language.  The point is simple enough: the Darbyist rendering of this pericope is only one of many which are plausible, and is far from the dominant reading throughout the history of the church and among top contemporary scholars of the Bible.  At minimum, the dispensational rendering is hardly enough of a home-run around which to build an entire eschatology.

Of course, dispensationalists will point to other passages to prove the rapture, including Jesus’ fuzzy parables (“one will be left in the field!”) and arguments from silence (after chapter 3 in Revelation, the word church is not found again until the end!).  All of these are specious, though, and nothing carries the weight of the aforementioned Thessalonians passage.

I have referred to rapture theology in the pulpit as, “escape hatch religion.”  This is why it matters that Christians do not buy into this popular but horrific doctrine: it turns the ministry of the church into gnostic bunker-huddling.  The rapture reverses the logic of the incarnation, actually.  On the Darbyist scheme, Christ was incarnate of the Spirit and the Virgin Mary so that he could one day rescue the church out of a world going to hell.  So much for, “Thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”  Abraham’s mission, fulfilled and intensified by the faithfulness of the Messiah, has been mutated from blessing the world through the elect into saving the elect and letting the world go to pot.

So give the rapture a good swift kick in behind.  It’s not just un-biblical, it’s not just bad theology, it is a pernicious lie.  The good news is that God loves His creation and His creatures.  Jesus came to renew both, not save one at the expense of the other.  Thanks be to God.

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St. Paul and John Wesley as Theologians

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Part of N.T. Wright’s project in Paul and the Faithfulness of God is to show how and why St. Paul invented the discipline of Christian theology through the course of his pastoral ministry. To sum up a complex argument, Wright suggests that Paul had to practice what we now call Christian theology because neither the central worldview symbols of Judaism nor those of the pagan world could bear the intellectual freight needed to sustain his new faith communities. Wright is, of course, no suppercessionist, but he argues that the creative reworking Paul does in light of the Messiah’s revelation means that something new – this thing called theology – was needed (necessity being, of course, the mother of invention). Against many who have attempted to see Paul as primarily an “occasional” or “contingent” writer with no discernible core, Wright suggests there is a recoverable worldview and theology at work in all of his letters. Near the conclusion of Volume 1, he reflects:

So when people say, as they often do, that Paul ‘was not a systematic theologian’, meaning that ‘Paul didn’t write a medieval Summa Theoligica or a book that corresponds to Calvin’s Institutes,’ we want to say: Fair enough. So far as we know, he didn’t. But the statement is often taken to mean that Paul was therefore just a jumbled, rambling sort of thinker, who would grab odd ideas out of the assortment of junk in his mental cupboard and throw them roughly in the direction of the problems presented to him by his beloved and frustrating ekklesiai. And that is simply nonsense. The more time we spend in the careful reading of Paul, and in the study of his worldview, his theology and his aims and intentions, the more he emerges as a coherent thinker. His main themes may well not fit the boxes constructed by later Christian dogmatics of whatever type. They generate their own categories, precisely as they are transforming the ancient Jewish ones, which are often sadly neglected in later Christian dogmatics. They emerge, whole and entire, thought through with a rigour which those who criticize Paul today (and those who claim to follow him, too!) would do well to match. (Paul and the Faithfulness of God [Minneapolis: Fortress 2013], 568.)

The heirs of John Wesley have often faced similar criticism. Sure, he wrote a little commentary and many sermons, and we have some lovely correspondences, but we don’t have the big volumes like those stirring Calvinists do. But, starting with folks like Albert Outler and Thomas Langford, the 20th century saw the rebirth of an attempt to take Wesley seriously as a theologian. Perhaps not a systematic theologian of the academic model, but a practical theologian whose work was indelibly marked by his calling to serve actual Christians on the ground. That kind of work has its own disciplines, unique rigor, and fruitful insights for the renewing of the mind (see Romans 12:2) that Christian theology seeks to make possible.

The best theologians, in my experience, are people who have actually served the Church with all its attendant warts and scars. Bishop Wright is an example of this trend and, if Wright is correct, the first theologian was also a pastor. If his argument holds for Paul, I think there is also something here for heirs of Wesley. He, too, had a coherent theology that emerges as you actually immerse yourself in his work. The Methodist Godfather, also like Paul, has often been dismissed as unsystematic and “occasional.” And finally, Wesley – again like Paul before him – thought through his pastoral-theological work prayerfully,  and with a degree of care that all who seek to do the work of parish ministry (or the work of a theologian) would do well to imitate.

wesley reading
“It cannot be that the people should grow in grace unless they give themselves to reading. A reading people will always be a knowing people. ”
― John Wesley

Book Review: The Jew Named Jesus

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     I rarely read hot-off-the-presses books (you might say ‘cheap’, but I prefer good old-fashioned stewardship), so getting to read Rebekah Simon-Peter‘s new book The Jew Named Jesus: Discover the Man and His Message was a real treat.*  Equal parts memoir, salvation history, and a challenging call to the church today, Simon-Peter’s highly personal new book addresses some crucial questions in the life of the church.

Simon-Peter’s story is a fascinating one.  Raised a Jew, and spending time in both Orthodox and Reform circles, she experienced a dramatic encounter with Jesus that led her to search.  That quest eventually brought her not just to to the church, but to seminary and ordained ministry as a United Methodist Elder.  In this respect, she has much in common with Lauren Winner, who has also narrated her journey from Judaism to Christianity.  Most interesting here is Simon-Peter’s search for identity: her entrance into the church made her an outlier in many Jewish circles, while the Jewish identity and faith she wished to still claim caused her challenges in reading the New Testament and understanding her identity as a Jesus-follower (marrying a Catholic do doubt made things interesting as well).  On p. 21, she describes herself as a “Reform-Odox-Metho-Juda-Lic.” (!) Most fascinating are the tidbits about her work, as a Jewish-Christian clergywoman, with an African-American UM congregation.  There are serious implications here for Jewish-Christian relations and for how the church relates to Jews who have come to follow Christ.

Furthermore, Simon-Peter does an admirable job dealing with some very heady problems in post-Holocaust New Testament studies.  The horrors of the Shoa loom large across any contemporary discussion of Jewish-Christian relations, and Biblical interpretation is front and center in these debates.  Her chapters address weighty biblical and theological questions: “Was Jesus A Christian?”; “Did the Jews Reject Jesus?”; “Did the Jews Kill Jesus?”; “Has God Rejected the Jews?”  Sadly, these answers are not obvious to many today in both academic and ecclesial circles.  The identity of Jesus as a Jew is still a source of embarrassment both for the Anglo church and for scholars who have preferred to see Jesus as a radical or revolutionary rather than a faithful Jew of the 1st century AD. Likewise, the critical place of Israel in God’s plan (“salvation is from the Jews”), which has not been undone but fulfilled in Christ, is often missing in much Christian thought and speech.  Simon-Peter provides a helpful corrective on these and other points.

While not an in-depth scholarly treatment, she does address these vital topics in ways that would be accessible to anyone.  For clergy and those who have studied either comparative religion or Biblical studies to a significant degree, I would hope that much of this is not new.  For those who have not explored these matters, however, this is an excellent and worthwhile introduction.

A couple of concerns are worth mentioning.  It’s a fairly skinny book, at around 100 pages of text.  I imagine this has to do with the targeted audience; I found myself wanting deeper exploration in several areas, but a shorter work probably prevents many who should read this from being scared off.  About 3/4 of the way through, I was worried Simon-Peter was not going to mention some of the central themes of the so-called New Perspective on Paul, which has been largely shaped by the concerns she raises.  Near the end she gets there, writing:

“The point is that we are so accustomed to seeing Paul refracted by Luther’s fights with the church, that it’s difficult to see and hear Paul on his own terms.” (80)

That said, I would have liked to have seen more engagement with this literature reflected in her endnotes (folks like Krister Stendahl, E.P. Sanders, and Doug Campbell come to mind).  Instead, she relies a bit heavily on Amy-Jill Levine (an excellent source, to be sure), particularly her Jewish Annotated New Testament.  A couple of times Simon-Peter references less than impressive sources such as the notes or introductions from the NIV Study Bible or New Interpreter’s Study Bible. Her argument would be bolstered by reckoning with what Lesslie Newbigin called “the scandal of particularity,” which helps explain why 21st century people find the concept of chosenness so deeply offensive.  Likewise, some engagement with Barth’s concept of election (in which election becomes about Jesus rather than double predestination of the “true church” in today’s aggressive neo-Calvinism) could be fruitful in her attempts to connect Israel’s vocation to the Church’s mission.

Simon-Peter does some of her best reflection when making use of interlocutors such as NT Wright and Diana Butler Bass. Her writing style is easy to read and informal, and she uses enough humor to keep you interested.  Occasionally her language is a bit imprecise or unexplained (for instance, on p. 86 she uses the phrase “universal salvation” in passing with no elaboration). By and large, though, these are minor quibbles with an otherwise well-done book that serves an important role in the current conversations between Christians and Jews.

The Jew Named Jesus addresses questions that are too often ignored and mishandled.  Centuries of getting these things wrong laid the groundwork not only for vicious anti-Semitism in Europe and America, but for the near-extermination of the Jewish people at the hands of baptized Christians.  Much is at stake here.  As a pastor, I still get asked some of these questions regularly.  After a recent trip to Israel, more than one parishioner asked me, “How could someone live over there, see all those places, and still not believe in Jesus?” Early in my ministry, I watched in horror as a pastor performed a clunky Messianic seder** at a youth group meeting complete with an altar call and everything (I later discovered that the UM Book of Worship instructs, rightly so, that such celebrations are disrespectful unless led by a Jew).  Worse still are the blatantly racist comments one still hears on the mouths of too many churchgoers, at least here in the Bible Belt.

But such misunderstanding and ongoing division will not endure into the eschaton.  Simon-Peter’s closing chapter, “A New Heaven and A New Earth,” may be her best.  “Something more powerful than ‘us versus them’ awaits us,” she says hopefully in the concluding pages. (102)  Amen, and come, Lord Jesus. We your people – both the branch and the “wild olive shoots” –  await your Kingdom. (See Rom. 9-11, which Simon-Peter uses several times.)  Help us to anticipate it, celebrate it, and lean into it now.

*A copy of this book was provided to the author for the purposes of review.

**My favorite line from the book confirmed a long-held suspicion of mine about Messianic Judaism: “They seemed to me to be no more than Evangelical Christianity covered with a patina of Hebrew.” (101) She goes on to say that Messianic Judaism has matured greatly in recent years, which I long to see confirmed myself.  Nonetheless, that line caused me to laugh our loud.

Respect the Gift: The UFC Light Heavyweight Champ on the Stewardship of Talent

UFC LHW Champion Jon Jones just dropped some truth at the UFC 165 Tickets On-Sale Presser yesterday to promote his upcoming title bout with contender Alexander Gustafson.  Following the stunning knockout of Anderson Silva at UFC 162 last weekend, Jones indicated this was a bit of a wake-up call:

“I think that Anderson Silva is a magnificent fighter,” he said. “I think he has extraordinary gifts. I think he’s gotten to the point where he really believes in his gifts, and he’s comfortable with the gift and he abused his gift. He disrespected the gift by disrespecting his opponent. Martial arts are traditionally a sport that’s based around honor and integrity and treating people with respect, and he somehow lost sight of that, and he paid the ultimate price for it.”

For the UFC uninitiated, Silva was KO’d because – depending on who you believe – either his showboating or his unorthodox strategy finally caught up with him.  As he has done many times before, he dropped his hands during the fight, goading Chris Weidman to come forward and engage him, even going so far as to feign being hurt.  As one headline put it, the former Middleweight champ was “slain by his own arrogance.

It strikes me that this is a danger for all of us.  Whatever your gifts, whether they are physical or intellectual, whether you are a leader or an artist, a professional or a student, we must beware of the temptation to “get comfortable” and thus “disrespect” our gift.  I am reminded of St. Paul’s words to his protege, Timothy:

For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.” (2 Timothy 1:6-7)

We call these talents and natural abilities “gifts,” because they come to us from outside of ourselves. Christians believe that “every good and perfect gift is from above.” (James 1:17)  I found Jones’ words a humbling reminder of what it means to be the bearer of God’s good gifts. Let us not abuse our gifts, but rekindle them to the glory of God and the service of his kingdom.

Eugene Peterson on Growth, Change, and Fads

Sunday I preached on Christian maturity and holiness, playing off of Colossians 1:28:

“It is him whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ.”

In my preparation I came across an excellent quote from Eugene Peterson’s Leap Over a Wall, a collection of reflections on spirituality from the life of David.  He talks wisely about the difference between growth and change, and consequently the value of both the old and the new:

“When we grow, in contrast to merely change, we venture into new territory and include more people in our in our lives – serve more and love more.  Our culture is filled with change; it’s poor in growth.  New things, models, developments, opportunities are announced, breathlessly, every hour.  But instead of becoming ingredients in a long and wise growth, they simply replace.  The previous is discarded and the immediate stuck in – until, bored by the novelty, we run after the next fad.  Men and women drawn always to the new never grow up.  God’s way is growth, not change…David at thirty-seven was more than he was at seventeen – more praise, saner counsel, deeper love.  More himself. More his God-given and God-glorifying humanity.  A longer stride, a larger embrace.” (136)

Peterson incisively names one of the besetting tragedies of our day: the idolatry of novelty.  This is true in fashion and entertainment, but also in the world of business and the church.  We hop from one thing to the next – like a frog jumping from one lily pad to the other – staying “interested,” but never growing.  Getting stimulation, but never going deep.

But God’s way is growth.  Our goal as the church is the same as was Paul’s – to present people, not just who have been “saved” or who “got Jesus” one day in the 70’s – but who are “mature” in Christ, who have spent their days following Jesus going deeper and growing more in discipleship.  These are not Sunday Christians easily imbibing just enough of the gospel so that they can remain apathetic, but engaged Jesus people who have made their lives a continual and growing sacrifice of worship to their Lord.

As John C. Maxwell has said, “Change is inevitable. Growth is optional.”

Charles Cousar on Galatians 3:28

In preparation for my sermon I came across a quote in Charles Cousar’s commentary from the Interpretation series.  He expresses a sentiment that I first learned from my teacher, Douglas Campbell, but puts it in a succint fashion that is worth sharing:

Galatians 3:28 has enormous implications which Paul himself could hardly grasp, much less implement, and which remain for the church to carry out. (Cousar, 87)

How true.  Campbell taught me to see that what Paul did to the division between Jews and Greeks is a far more radical shift than he often gets credited for.  Yes, Paul could in places be friendlier to women, and more programmatic in his (potential) opposition to slavery.  But if Gal. 3:28 is understood in its context, the place of women and other minorities in our churches becomes a no-brainer.  Alas, we still have a ways to go.

“Jesus Didn’t Tap” says the Green Power Ranger

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Jason David Frank, a lifelong martial artist most famous as the Green Ranger on the original Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, has recently decided to get into mixed martial arts (“MMA”, or ‘cage-fighting’ for the uninitiated).  He also has a clothing line…about Jesus.  Check out the gloves in the above picture, as well as the t-shirt below:

// <![CDATA[// Seen guys wearing Tapout or Affliction t-shirts? Well, this is the Christian version…whatever that means.  Here is the description from the website:

Jesus Didn’t Tap was one of the first Christian based MMA clothing companies to hit the scene. In the sport of Mixed Martial Arts, to “tap” is to quit or give up. The message of the Jesus Didn’t Tap line is that Jesus didn’t quit after going through unimaginable suffering and pain when he was crucified on the cross. The company aims to represent both the competitiveness of MMA and honoring God in all of their designs and hopes it will help spread the Christian message of salvation to a whole new audience.

First of all: there are more than one Christian MMA companies??  Oh well.  The problem with this is that, in MMA, to “tap” essentially means to submit.  And while they are correct that Jesus didn’t give up due to pain, they seem to overlook the fact that Jesus’ crucifixion was essentially an act of submission.  Philippians makes this clear:

Philippians 2

5Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
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Who, being in very nature[a] God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
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but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
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And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

This plays on two facets of Jesus’ crucifixion, one of which is usually emphasized to the detriment of the other.  One the one hand, the cross did display the power of weakness the shame the strong, the total abandonment of human power and the acceptance of a shameful and common death – the death of slaves and traitors.  This is the Christology seen in Paul, who tells us that God’s power is “made perfect in weakness.”  The cross is the prime example of this.

On the other hand, Jesus’ torture and execution required a great deal of fortitude, will, physical endurance and spiritual strength.  Paul told Timothy that God gave us a Spirit of love and discipline, but also of power.  The Bible is clear that the anointed of the Lord do receive power from on high – they slay Philistines with the jawbone of an ass, administer kingdoms, suffer torture and imprisonment.  And so, while the cross is a display of weakness, it is also an exhibition of spiritual strength par excellence.

These are hard to hold in tension.  For instance: Neoconservatives who love Jesus will emphasize power and control, the Pantocrator, the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, and the strength that comes from conviction and duty.  Pacifists and many more Christians who trend left will,  on the other hand, emphasize the weakness of Jesus (and the church) and the power of holy defeat to overcome the strength of the world.  They are both theologies of the cross, but of very different varieties.

I respect Mr. Frank for being open about his Christian convictions, and for attempting (in his own fashion) to get “the message” out there.  But here, as usual, popular expressions of Christianity lack both theological substance and intellectual nuance.  Sigh.  These folks mean well, and have given us a good opportunity to think about the meaning and message of the cross.  There are worse things to sell than Jesus MMA shirts.

At any rate, Jesus did tap.  Thanks be to God.

Things I Never Expected as a Pastor: Jewelry Parties

After a meeting this evening, I was invited (unbeknownst to me) to a jewelry party.  One of my members was throwing a Mary-Kay-esque jewelry party and needed a 10th person to get some kind of bonus prize from the company rep.  She asked me to come by the room afterwords but didn’t say why.  Upon entering, I learned that I had filled out the magic number and she got a prize.

At first I was annoyed.  “This is what my time is being used for??”  But then I paused.  I was being arrogant.  I’ve been arrogant.  To an extent, I think, I’ve let an elite seminary education get in the way of my ministry.  After all, the Christian movement gained much of its momentum by the one who wrote,

I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.  (1 Cor. 9: 22b-23)

Sometimes being a pastor means being a counselor.  Other times a teacher.  Sometimes it might mean babysitting, or video games.  Sometimes it is as high and lofty as Holy Communion.  And maybe, just maybe, sometimes being a pastor means being a warm body at a jewelry party. 

Why the hell not?