Looking Lectionary: Trinity A/P1 A

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Reading: Matthew 28:16-20

To me, the Great Commission is one of those “guilty shifting in your seat” passages in the Bible. It’s something I know about, something I intellectually understand to be necessary. But I don’t always see evidence of this conviction – that it’s vital – when I look at my life. I think I can trace this – I’m going to say reluctance, but “apathy” would work just as well – to three things:

I doubt Jesus’ (earthly) authority

Terrorism, wars, violence, corruption. Sometimes it’s hard not to feel that Terry Pratchett was right when he wrote,  “Light thinks it travels faster than anything but it is wrong. No matter how fast light travels, it finds the darkness has always got there first, and is waiting for it.” If God is so good, I think, then… Then.

But I wonder if it shouldn’t be, “Despite God’s goodness…” Despite God’s goodness and greatness, there are those who choose the other things. I don’t even have the luxury of assigning blame here because I’m often one of them. To truly acknowledge Jesus’ authority is to submit to it, and I don’t always want to submit to God.

I don’t think everyone deserves Jesus

It’s not like I walk around, point at people and declare, “You there! Yes, you sir! I don’t think Jesus ought to like you!” And yet… And yet. There are moments when I find myself in some situation where I’m not only judge and jury, I’m jailer too, jailing someone away from Jesus in my thoughts. (Atheists on r/Christianity, for instance.) I do this by withholding – no, hogging – no, hoarding – grace. I so often deny others this thing I get so freely and so abundantly.

Why do I do this? Aside from the usual prejudice and self-righteousness, it probably has a lot to do with deservingness issues. I think I worry that if Jesus loves others – especially the ones I don’t – he’ll “run short” on grace and there will be less for me. Or, more worringly, he will expect me to love them too…

I don’t really want to obey Jesus

I wanted to write that “it’s hard to submit to Christ when the sins are fun”, but honestly, it’s hard to submit to Christ even when the sins aren’t fun, even when they are life-wrecking and gut-churning and terrible. Obeying all of Jesus’ commands brings out a donkey-like obstinacy in me that I’m usually unaware of and have no reasonable explanation for.

I wonder if my reluctance to do the Great Commission isn’t rooted in the concomitant accountability the work brings. If I am to do the work of the Great Commission, then spiritually-speaking, I have to show up, shoes shined; I have to continually confront my fallen nature with its butt-savedness, I have to constantly revise my assumptions about myself, others and the world around me in light of Jesus’ righteousness and salvation. And that means obeying, and obedience means surrendering to God’s authority.

Service

If one of our “services” as Christians is to encourage people to return to the world’s rightful ruler, to try to reach absolutely everyone, and to do so as an act of faith and obedience, then I wonder if it’s not as much a service to ourselves as it is to God and to other people. You can’t exceed at the Great Commission unless you trust in God, live in close relationship with Jesus and work in the Holy Spirit. And perhaps that’s no accident: wouldn’t it be just like God to give life to those tasked with this life-giving work?

Blessings,

Lee

Looking Lectionary: Pentecost Day A

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Readings: Acts 2:1-21; John 7:37-39

A few years back I was getting chemotherapy at a government hospital in Pretoria. One day an old lady was there for her treatment the same day I was. She asked me a question – something about procedure – but because she had such a heavy Scottish accent I had trouble immediately understanding what she was asking, even though she was speaking English. When I’d run it through my noggin’ and answered her, I could tell it took her a few seconds to process my (Afrikaner) accent in turn, even though I too was speaking English.

I was reminded of this incident when I went through the readings for Pentecost day. In Acts 2 the disciples witnessed the outpouring of the Holy Spirit – as a “tongue” of flame that rested on each of them – and they were able to declare God to many different people in their own languages and dialects. The sarcastic comments that they were drunk probably indicates that this wasn’t a staid affair: the disciples were ecstatic and emboldened, as we see in Peter’s subsequent speech. The crowd was astounded.

Beholden to our faith traditions or upbringing, I think we sometimes forget that the Holy Spirit is multilingual. We become used to hearing the cadence of the Holy Spirit’s voice in certain ways, certain places, certain music and rituals. There’s nothing wrong with this: we each have a “faith” mother tongue, a language we understand and speak well, one that expresses us best. But ours isn’t the only language the Holy Spirit speaks, teaches, guides and leads us with, and ours isn’t more or less legitimate than, say, French is to Finnish.

At her heart, the Holy Spirit is an interpreter. She interprets the heart of God for us and interprets our hearts back to God. In John 7 Jesus told his disciples that they had not yet received the Spirit because he had yet to be glorified (crucified). If Jesus had been the heavenly-to-earth dictionary, allowing us to make sense of God, then the Holy Spirit is a Babel fish*.

As an interpreter, however, the Holy Spirit isn’t just limited to heavenly/human conversations. The Holy Spirit is an active participant in human-to-human dialogues as well. In a faith marked by vast differences in practices and adherents, and in a world noisy with different spiritual “speech”, the Holy Spirit helps us to speak each other’s language. Like the Scottish lady and I, it might take us a moment, but if we are committed to hearing and to being heard, the Holy Spirit will “do the talking.”

Blessings,

Lee


* With apologies to Douglas Adams.

Looking Lectionary: Easter 6A

 

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Image source.

 

Reading: John 14:15-21

“I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” John 14:18 NIV

John 14 is the first chapter of the “Farewell discourses”, John 14 – John 17, in which Jesus prepares his disciples for his death and resurrection and their post-crucifixion life. He delivers these discourses after the “last supper” on the eve of his crucifixion. The major themes include Jesus’ relationship to the Father, the believers’ relationship to the Trinity, the coming of the Holy Spirit, and the church and persecution.

Nestled in John 14, Easter 6A’s reading has a chiastic structure, leaving John 14:18 (quoted above) as the central thought. I think there are a few things we can tease out from John’s focus on this particular verse:

  • In first-century Palestine and other patriarchal cultures, widows and orphans were incredibly disadvantaged as they were typically outsiders to the large family structures that ordered life, power, position and wealth. Jesus would not leave his disciples and other believers as “outsiders” to the Kingdom of God – rather, they would be heirs (John 14:2).
  • “I will come to you.” John is teasing a few things here. On one hand, he’s probably referring to Jesus’ resurrection appearances (as in v19). But he’s also talking about the Holy Spirit (the Advocate mentioned in v16) and possibly Jesus’ return at a later date.

In a sense, then, it’s as if Jesus doesn’t leave his disciples at all.

But sight, as we saw in Easter 5A, is persuasive and fickle. In the same way that his disciples struggled to acknowledge that in Jesus they saw the reflection of the Father, they would come to struggle with Jesus’ identity as the Son. And so Jesus promises them the Holy Spirit, who “will teach you everything” (v26). He staggers his promises of presence; drawing his disciples into him, into the Father, into the Holy Spirit. Jesus teaches his disciples not to rely on what they see, but on what they know as truth: “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.”

These days we tend to trust what we see rather than what we know. It’s our obsession with what we see that often leads us astray; that leads us to focus on externals, on snap judgments, on laborious theology, on prejudice, on what Jen Wilkin calls the “Instagram subculture of Christianity”. Vision-focussed, we demand bigger and better church services; we demand a kind of “Christian lifestyle” that’s big on visuals but not so big on content; we value presentability rather than honest brokenness, with little room or patience for anything that isn’t an immediate Experience™, that doesn’t play well or easily.

Jesus’ presence, on the other hand – his actually coming to us, his bringing us into his Father’s house – is an unseen, moment-by-moment, truth-by-truth thing. Like the twelve disciples, there will be many times that we doubt it. In these “blind times”, the times that wouldn’t make for a great Instagram post, we rely instead on Jesus’ promise that we won’t be left behind as orphans.

Blessings,

Lee

Authority in the Christian blogosphere

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Christian women find their voice and live out their callings online

Two weeks ago Tish Harrison Warren wrote a piece for Christianity Today titled “Who’s in charge of the Christian blogosphere?” In it, she wonders whether the kind of platforms people – especially women – gain through blogging should be accountable to some kind of ecclesial structure, much like pastors are theoretically accountable to their denominations.

Warren posed the piece as a rumination on responsibility: how can we make sure these bloggers – many of them laypersons, their “only” virtue being their popularity – “do” theology responsibly? She cited Jen Hatmaker as an example. Hatmaker – who has been in ministry for two decades and is a published author and popular speaker – recently announced that she is supportive of the full inclusion of LGBTI people in the church, a decision that proved unpopular in the evangelical world. (Read her response to the immediate flare-up of criticism here.)

Warren’s article wasn’t well-received, at least by my Twitter timeline’s standards. Warren was criticised for singling out Jen Hatmaker in a way that came across as chastising: how dare Hatmaker, “only” a blogger, deviate from the evangelical bottom line? The article read and felt like a gendered attack, Hatmaker acting as the negative example of what happens when those outside formal structures don’t toe the line.

Warren has since issued an apology to Hatmaker, but the article is still up on Christianity Today – the first part of a series called #AmplifyWomen. It’s ironic and telling that the first article in this series wasn’t about amplification at all, but about control.

Warren wouldn’t be the first woman delegated to keep her fellow women in check. One comes across it often; if you need an example, just skim any article relating to women on The Gospel Coalition blogs (alas, a favourite teacher of mine, Jen Wilkin, has participated in something similar). Warren has come across as sincere in her Twitter replies to criticism and praise, but I doubt she realises that a lot of her article’s backbone is internalised misogyny.

Make no mistake, the issue at play in Warren’s piece isn’t responsibility or accountability. As quite a few influential bloggers have pointed out, they are accountable: to their personal relationship with Jesus Christ, to the church or spiritual communities they form a part of, and to their friends, families, and peers. In fact, one could argue that the response to Warren’s piece is an indication of how much accountability there is in the popular Christian blogosphere: her article didn’t remain unchallenged, and the criticism was mostly fair and well thought out.

No, the issue Warren’s article skirts around is control. Unfortunately, there are still many church traditions where women aren’t allowed to preach, speak or teach (or if they are, it’s only to other women or to children). In these denominations, women aren’t allowed to have authority. So when these women, who are forced into silence by their churches, turn to the Internet to share their voice and listen to the voices of others like themselves, this presents a conundrum to the men and women in church denominations who delineate the function and authority of women. How do you control women speaking outside the traditional sphere of the church?

Well, you can’t, not without making it exceedingly obvious that the issue is really control rather than authority. If you’ve followed any of these popular female bloggers, authors, speakers and preachers (Jen Hatmaker, Rachel Held Evans and Sarah Bessey to name the bare minimum), you realise that their passion and gifts are Spirit-derived, unlike the man-made ecclesial structures that would insist they aren’t allowed to write Spirit-filled words or share Spirit-filled truth or preach prophetic, Spirit-filled prophecies. If it becomes clear that so many women have the gift of teaching, preaching, and disciple-making outside official church structures, you have to ask yourself: are these women and their ministries the problem, or the fact that so many churches continue to deny them?

It’s interesting to me that, around the same time this piece was published, an editor over at The Gospel Coalition went on a Twitter and comment rant against what he calls “discernment bloggers”. He had had a run-in with the women who run Spiritual Sounding Board and The Wartburg Watch, both websites dedicated to blogging about spiritual abuse in the American church. This editor, Joe Carter, called blogs like these divisive and the women who run them “broken wolves in sheep’s clothing”.

Call me crazy, but I spot a pattern here: women who won’t adhere to the “it’s all fine, it’s alright” party line of patriarchal, male-dominated church and spiritual traditions are called out by the benefactors of those traditions when their unsanctioned, Spirit-filled commentary hits too close to home. These churches, like Warren’s article, claim it’s about God-ordained authority; but it’s really about male-centric control. If God gives women authority to witness outside the church, then their authority isn’t in question.

As someone who had once lost her voice to an oppressive, male-dominated church situation and rediscovered it through blogging, I cannot overstress how important the voice of female Christian bloggers are. Even when those voices are more conservative than I am or have a theology that differs from mine, I’ve been enriched by the writing and teaching of Christian women who blog, both those with large followings and those with a smaller audience. Sometimes simply the reminder that there are powerful, Spirit-led women using their gifts is more of a comfort than I can say.

Christianity is a much bigger place than any one church, any one denomination, or any one pastor would have you believe. Faith, discipleship and following Jesus don’t heed the lines humanity draws around them. More often than not, the Holy Spirit uses those lines as starting places rather than as borders. These lines are porous, made to break through, much like sheep pens are meant to be left if the flock are to find places to graze, explore, grow and mature.

When an article like Warren’s appears, I see it as an indication that things are right rather than that things are wrong. It means that somewhere, someone is toddling from their sheep pen, following their Shepherd out into the world. It means that someone has chosen to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit rather than the strictures of men.

Looking Lectionary: Easter 5A

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Reading: John 14:1-14

“From now on you do know him and have seen him” (John 14:7b)

To have seen God! We Christians have a tendency to romanticize the fact that the old prophets, like Abraham and Moses, had face-to-face encounters with God; “If that had been us,” we lament, “we wouldn’t have doubted half so much!” But for your average Jew, the sight of God was unimaginable. The great I AM was shrouded in tabernacle and temple and the Holy of Holies: visited once a year, glimpsed only by a man set aside for the job in holiness and righteousness.

So when Jesus told his disciples that they knew the Father and had already seen him? This was a big deal. A hold-your-breath moment. Staggering. It’s perhaps unsurprising that Philip asked, tentative, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” For Philip and the rest, it could not compute that they had somehow seen the Father without realising it – this was the God who set Moses’ face aglow with his presence. How could they have missed it?

We see things through the filter of our minds, both on a physiological and psychological level. Our unconscious filters out details it deems unimportant, so there’s truth to the fact that we struggle with seeing things objectively when even our observation is suspect. Add our psychological filter – biased to self and relating everything to the self before “plugging it into” other perceptions, and it’s obvious that our “sight” as such is compromised.

Jesus’ disciples, Jews that they were, had learned to see – or not see – God in a particular way; one that didn’t account for the incarnation of God the Father as the Son. That God would thus reveal himself – his heart, his mind, his very character – in a man named Jesus was astounding. It’s why Jesus went to such pains to drive the point home that if the disciples had seen him, known him, then they had seen and known the Father; moreover, that even as the Father dwelt in Jesus, and Jesus in him, the disciples and believers would come to dwell with God in his house. John, in his wordy way, closed the loop between believers and God, a loop that had been open a long time.

Nowadays we have the benefit of the revelation of Jesus Christ. In relationship, we see the whole of the Trinity revealed in Jesus: the Father he revealed, and the Holy Spirit left behind as a constant revelation. But I wonder if religion sometimes “shifts” our sight away from this incomprehensible, astounding vision of God’s heart to something that fits more comfortably within doctrine and liturgy and an hour on Sunday; and if we aren’t poorer, blinder, for the difference.

Jesus is “the truth, the way, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Apart from Jesus, our vision of the Father is foggy, limited; woe to us, then, if we lose sight even of him: this Nazarene with his compassion and his dusty feet, revealing God’s love in diseased skin touched, blind eyes healed, stooped backs righted, dead people raised.

Understood this way, we come to dwell in this vision of God, this reality of who God is; and this reality is his kingdom, come.

Blessings for your week,
Lee