Community

11 December 2011

I recently had occasion to hear from a disaffected pastor who felt that my talk about “community” was an affectation, an unnecessary flirtation with a popular buzzword.  That furnished me with an occasion to think a little more deeply (and theopoetically) about why community has become a pillar of my practical theology.  Below you’ll find some of my ruminations; I hope they’re helpful to you.

One person is a rotten image of the Triune God.

In the beginning, God saw that everything He made was good, except for one thing: a solitary person.  It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with the person: the “not-good-ness” was very specific: “It is not good that man should be alone.”  God is three Persons; one person is not a good image.

The fix?  God puts the man in a death-like sleep, tears him in two, and fashions woman — the crown and glory of man — from his very flesh.  She is different from him, other than him, not-him.  And yet, what does he say?

“This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.  She shall be called woman, because she was taken out of man.”

He sees her, and knows her for what she is.  She is his flesh — if you’ve seen her, you’ve seen him.  And then, you haven’t; they are different.

“Show us the Father,” Philip says to Jesus, “And it is sufficient for us.”

“He who has seen me,” Jesus replies, “has seen the Father.”  He later adds that He indwells the Father, and the Father indwells Him.  In big theological polysyllables, we call this perichoresis.  (That’s Greek for “dancing around,” by the way.)  In another author’s terms, “In Him dwells all the fulness of the Godhead bodily.”   This extends to the Church, and that’s only natural: we are the Body of Christ, of His flesh and of His bones, which is to say, His Bride.  And while He has ascended, the Body remains here on earth, a tangible witness to the Father.

A solitary person, no friends, no family contact, is a lousy image of God.  This is the image of the Trinity in the world: that we dwell in each other’s lives.  A lot.  In a husband and wife, this dancing around one another leads to nakedness and physical union, an intimacy so deep and glorious that it’s too dangerous to share with more than one person.  Too much glory can kill you.  On the other hand, that glory is also the ultimate picture of Christ and His church.

In other contexts, this dancing around leads to the shedding of masks and armor, so that we can see and love one another for who we are.  A different sort of nakedness, to be sure, but it’s still quite threatening, and we’re still tempted to start stitching fig leaves together.  Another person in my life is going to act like…well…not me.  He’s going to be himself.  In my life.  He might not like me; he might not do things like me.

That’s all true, and it’s my job to give him the freedom to do that, as a gift.  And to receive the same freedom from him, if he’s willing to offer it.  That mutual gift becomes a dance that lets us both be ourselves, in harmony, richer than we could be separately.  Sinners can’t do this naturally, but God never meant for us to be only natural; we were always meant to partake in the divine nature.  The dance depicts the Trinity, and the dance requires the presence and guidance of the Trinity, or it will never work.

When it does work…wow.  God has blessed me with this dance in a number of relationships, and I am rich beyond measure.  I can’t begin to express my gratitude adequately, but the very least I can do is name some names: my Sunday morning thinktank partners, Jim and Michele; my youth ministry partners, Joe and Becca; my “huddle,” Dave, Jody, Brad and Joe (again); my church family at The Dwelling Place, whose names are too numerous to list, but y’all know who you are; and saving the best for last, my Lady Wife, Kimberly.  I aspire to be the sort of blessing you have all been to me.

And you, gentle reader, wherever you may be: May God bless you with the same, and may you bless others with the same, that the world may know that the Father sent Jesus, and has loved us as He loved Jesus.


Mystical Union: Reading John 17:3

14 August 2011

In the ongoing discussion of 3D Theology, our esteemed opponents have taken significant exception to the way we are using John 17:3.  The various objections mostly have to do with how our reading of the verse conflicts with this theological formulation or that one, and are being dealt with in the venues where they were made.   To my eye, one particular point of discussion has been notably absent: discussion of the immediate context.  I’d like to remedy that lack today.

In a sense, this discussion needs to start in 1:1 — and some of the issues that will come up in the ensuing discussion can probably only be resolved that way — but for today, let’s just work through the beginning of this prayer.

  1. Jesus begins by saying that the hour has come, and then makes His request:
  2. He asks the Father to glorify Him.
  3. The purpose for the Father glorifying Him is so that He can, in turn, glorify the Father.
  4. He will glorify the Father because the Father has given Him power over everyone.
  5. The purpose for the Father giving Him power over everyone is in order that Jesus give eternal life to all those the Father has given him.
  6. And what is this eternal life?  It is to know the Father, the only true God, and to know Jesus Christ whom the Father sent.
  7. Jesus says He has, in fact, glorified the Father, and finished the work the Father gave Him to do.
  8. On that basis, He asks the Father to return to Him the glory He had before the world existed.

It all hangs together nicely, doesn’t it?  (For those of you who want to talk Greek, some comments are already online here .)

This is to say that eternal life is not a thing.  It is not a widget that Jesus puts in your pocket and then you walk away.  It is not a ticket stashed at the Will Call window by the pearly gates.

Eternal life is knowing the Father, and Jesus Christ His Son.  Jesus is the Life (14:6); the Father has life in Himself and has granted to the Son to have life in Himself (5:26).  Eternal life is ongoing relationship with the One who is Life.  Because He is infinitely faithful and He loves you, if you want a relationship with Him, you’ll have one.  He guarantees it.

Over time, eternal life looks like this:  first, you don’t have it at all; you’re dead in your trespasses and sins.  Then you believe, and you do have it.  Then, as you grow, you have more of it, until you have an abundant life (10:10), and the living water Jesus gave you becomes a fountain of life to those around you (4:14, 7:38).  Stop believing, like Thomas did (20:27), and you’re still a part of the family (1:12-13).  You’re born again; you can’t get un-born (10:28-29).  Eternal life is, well, eternal.  But like Thomas, you can lose a blessing (20:29), and of course you can fail to be a blessing to others.

Simple as that.  God is a Person–know Him.


Mystical Union: Understanding Works

7 August 2011

We are often fond of saying that justification is a gift, and sanctification is a lot of work, which is true in one way.  But what we often mean by it is that we do nothing in justification, and then sanctification is quid pro quo all the way.  That needs a rethink.

In Ephesians 2:8-9, Paul says that salvation — by which he means being made alive with Christ, raised with Christ, and seated with Christ in the heavenly places — is not of works, lest anyone should boast.  Boasting is excluded by God’s grace.

Thing is, this is also true of sanctification, is it not?  We don’t buy our way into spiritual blessing in this life any more than we buy our way into the family to start with.  Everything we have  — everything — is given by God.  “What do you have, that you did not receive?  And if you received it, why do you boast as though you did not?”

Why, indeed.

God blesses us in sanctification, to be sure, but it’s not a quid pro quo type of transaction, any more than justification is.  Sanctification is hard — very hard, at times.  But it’s hard because we’re sinners, and it runs counter to our nature to cooperate with God instead of rebelling against Him.  God is seeking to give us His blessings, to pour out far more than we can imagine, but there are certain relational blessings He simply can’t give us without our cooperation. You can give a rebellious 2-year-old a hug whether he wants it or not, but you can’t give him the experience of a good hug unless he’s willing to receive it.  If he fights you, you may succeed in getting your arms around him and squeezing, but relationally speaking, it’s hardly the same experience, is it?

Sanctification is, above all, a relationship with the living God.  Like all good relationships, it requires that we be willing to receive the other person.

But is this so different from justification?  As long as a person insists on working, on taking his destiny into his own hands, on keeping Jesus out of the picture, then he cannot be born again.  “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to be called sons of God….”

The difference is in scope more than in kind.  But we ought to expect nothing else: “Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh?”


Mystical Union: Eternal Life is a Dimmer Switch

31 July 2011

When we begin to talk about eternal life (or for short, “life”), we often adopt binary language — you got it or you don’t, end of story.  Then, as a separate issue, we discuss the matter of sanctification. There is, of course, a reason for this.  In the End, there are only two places to be, and two sorts of people to be in them.  Those who have life will live on the New Earth, where God will dwell with His People, and those who have chosen death will die in the Lake of Fire, eternally quarantined away from the God they so despised.  Among the folks who live on the New Earth, some of them will be spiritual giants like Deborah or Peter, men and women who receive great reward.  Others will be…how to put it?…largely spiritual failures.  People who, like Samson, might have shown a great deal of early promise, but frittered it away.  There is a sense in which these are separate issues, the one decided in an instant of faith and the other worked out over the course of a person’s whole life.

In deference to that separateness, many folks will drop “eternal life” language entirely when they start talking about sanctification.  Growing up, I can’t recall ever hearing anyone use “eternal life” language in connection with walking with God: “life” was always about justification, never sanctification.

This gets into your hermeneutics, and you begin to read any passage that discusses “eternal life” or “life” as if it were talking strictly about the new birth, which is a serious problem.

But a growing number of commentators have begun to realize that Scripture doesn’t quite speak in that way.  In many passages, eternal life isn’t something you get when you die; it’s something you have now (e.g., John 5:24).  So there is a growing desire to respond to those passages, but at the same time a great fear of impairing justification by faith alone by confusing justification and sanctification, and the result is an odd blend.  These folks discuss the new birth in terms of having eternal life, and then discuss sanctification/growth in terms of experiencing eternal life.

This is a quantum leap forward from where we were, and we should applaud it.  However, it doesn’t quite go far enough to really be following the way Scripture speaks of the issues.

In brief, it’s not enough to talk about having/not having eternal life, and then, separately, experiencing eternal life.  That’s helpful, but it’s not the way the Bible talks.  The Bible talks about not having life, then having it, and then having more life (e.g., John 10:10).

Here’s the difference.  The “having/not having vs. experiencing” model is like a conventional light switch and a blindfold.  The light is either on or off, but how much you experience the light depends on something totally separate — the blindfold.  Maybe it’s on good and tight, and you can’t see a thing, even though the light is on.  Maybe it’s slipped upward just enough that you can see down along the sides of your nose.  Maybe it’s gone cockeyed, and you can see out of one eye, but not the other…and so on.  The light being on is one concern; the blindfold is another, entirely separate set of concerns.

The “not having/having/having more” model is like your basic dimmer dial switch like you might find in a suburban dining room.  Turn the dial just a little, and you’ll feel the click as the switch goes from ‘off’ to ‘on.’  But there’s just a trickle of current flowing; you can barely see the light.  Keep turning the dial in the same direction, and the flow increases, the light gets progressively brighter.  On and off are still distinguishable states, but it’s all on one continuum, not two totally separate issues.

Jesus came that we might have life, and that we might have it more abundantly.  He gives us a gift in the new birth, and sanctification is, in this sense, a distinguishable, but not separate, affair.  It’s getting more of what you got to start with.


Mystical Union: Knocking the Bottom out of the Swimming Crib

24 July 2011

During the summer, people generally prefer to swim outside.  Although it is common to swim in pools these days, old-school swimming facilities usually depended on natural water features: ponds, rivers, and oceans.  An ideal natural swimming location would have clean water, a gradually sloping, sandy bottom, and very little current.  Such places existed, of course, but they weren’t as common as one might hope.  In response, waterfront staff developed a variety of work-arounds to allow swimmers to safely use the water in the absence of perfect conditions.

In situations where the water was very deep, or the current too fast-moving, one of those work-arounds was called a swimming crib.  The crib was basically a very large wooden crate, ballasted and tethered to function sort of like a ‘swimming pool’, immersed in the lake or river.  (You can see an example here.)  One of the most basic uses for a crib was to provide a shallow area for beginners to swim in water that was naturally very deep.  The lake bottom could be thirty feet down, but a 3-foot crib provided an artificial ‘shallow end.’

***

One typical take on eternal life is that it’s “living forever with God” — a simplification that I have certainly been guilty of, myself.  The focus is revivalistic, focused on a heaven-or-hell afterlife.  A person who ‘has eternal life’ is ‘saved,’ which means that he’s going to go to heaven when he dies…and that’s pretty much it.

Given that definition, the Gospel of John, which is very, very focused on eternal life, takes on the appearance of being all about whether people go to heaven or hell.  The purpose of the book, “that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you might have life in His name” is understood to be about taking people who were going to hell and making it so they’re going to heaven…and that’s pretty much it.

This is the theological equivalent of building a 3-foot swimming crib in some very deep, very fast-moving water.  Problem is, what we’re protecting people from, in this instance, is God.

***

Eternal life has to be “living forever” — otherwise, as Zane Hodges aptly observed, “eternal life” isn’t a very good name for it — but is that all we need to say about it?  Jesus didn’t think so.  “And this is eternal life,” Jesus prayed to His Father, “that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent.”

Eternal life, according to Jesus, is knowing God.  How?  Through Jesus, who said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”  That’s inexhaustible.  It’s far, far deeper than “going to heaven when you die.”  And while, of course, lip service is paid to this notion, in fact it is largely ignored.  We keep everybody in the 3-food swimming crib of going to heaven, when they could be diving deep into relationship with God Himself.

The solution?  We need to knock the bottom out of the crib.  This will undoubtedly be the occasion for much whining, but we have no right to speak in a way that stands between people and a living relationship with God.


Mystical Union: The Person Who Promises

27 March 2011

Richard has a vaguely Christian background — Jesus died on a cross, like that.  He never really thought about it much, but he lost his job three months ago, and this week he’s not going to make his mortgage payment.  Not knowing what to do, he took a long walk to try to clear his head, and happened to pass by the church on a Sunday evening.  People were going in, and he thought, “What the heck?  Nothing else is working.”

So he sat through the service.  Didn’t know any of the songs, but it sounded sort of nice.  A little weird, to be honest — something about Jesus shining, and a fountain filled with blood.  But they seemed like nice folks.  Then, somewhere in the course of the sermon, the pastor said this:

We were dead, separated from God.  But Jesus came to give us life!  People talk about Jesus dying on the cross, and that’s important, but many miss what it was all for.  He died our death so that He could give us His life — and He gives it as a gift!  We couldn’t earn it, and we don’t have to.  When we believe on Him, He gives it to us.  The barrier between us and God is lifted, and we begin a new life with God that lasts forever.  Even after we die, we go to live with Him.

Richard never heard this before, but for some reason he couldn’t really explain, it felt like someone had hit a gong inside his chest.  It was true; he knew it was true.  Right there, sitting in the back, he believed.

***

What’s wrong with that scenario?

Absolutely nothing.  Not a thing.  God saved Richard by grace, through faith, apart from works, so that Richard would have nothing about which he could boast.  All the credit and glory belong to God.  That’s Ephesians 2:8-9.

***

Christ saved Richard so that Richard could be united to His Body, the Church, and join in its labors: doing the good works that God commissioned us to do from the beginning.

***

What’s wrong with that way of describing it?

Nothing.

It’s Ephesians 2:10.

***

Jesus has an agenda, and He is carrying it out.  When He saves you, He unites you to Himself, and He is moving His Body with purpose, a purpose that will be accomplished: revealing the manifold wisdom of God to heavenly principalities and powers and growing itself up to match the full stature of Christ, the Head.

It is this Jesus, and no other, that promises you everlasting life as a gift, unto His glory alone.  He can make that promise because His purposes for you will be accomplished, and in the accomplishing He will be glorified.  The promise can’t be separated from the Person, and when you try, you dishonor your high calling, shame the name of Christ, and become a walking contradiction.

Which is to say that it’s bad to try to chop Ephesians 2:10 off of Ephesians 2:8-9.  What God has joined together, let not man put asunder.  So let’s not — not even in theory.


Mystical Union: Assurance or Documentation?

20 March 2011

As I’ve written about mystical union with Christ over the past two months or so, various points of resistance have appeared.  This week I’d like to address one of the big ones.  Some folks feel that this way of understanding relationship with God removes any real ground for assurance of salvation.

Let me be the first to say that if the accusation is in fact true, then it is absolutely damning.  Nobody should be ready to sign off on a theology that destroys any ground for assurance.  I would be the first one to dump it.

In this case, however, it’s just not true.  People who meet God don’t generally question the reality of the experience.  They do sometimes later doubt it — but the doubt generally grows up after they have drifted far from God, in the same way that a man who has been estranged for years from his wife begins to doubt whether he ever really loved her (or she him) at all.  No, at the time that a person meets God, he is generally pretty clear on what is happening to him.  You can see this certainty in Saul of Tarsus, the man born blind in John 9, Moses at the burning bush, and so on.  You can see it dawning slowly in Nicodemus, or bursting all at once into the consciousness of the woman at the well, or Nathaniel, or John the Baptist.  They know.  There’s no ground for doubt.

So what’s going on here?  Why do people feel like being at a meeting where God shows up would leave someone in a morass of uncertainty?

I’m kinda puzzled too.  Some of these people, by their own testimony, had assurance long before they got their theology of assurance sorted out.  I certainly did.  They know this; they give testimony to it.  And yet, they don’t seem to connect it to their theology.  When they talk theology, they talk as if assurance is impossible unless you get your theology of assurance straight.  This is just not true, and it was not true of many of them, for years.

As far as I can see, here’s the problem: these people don’t really want assurance.  They won’t be satisfied with being certain, themselves, that they have been saved by Jesus, nor with you being certain, yourself, that Jesus has saved you.  That is, they won’t be satisfied with the fact of assurance; they want to see an accredited process that leads to assurance.  They want documentability, something they can check from the outside, any time they want.  Something “objective” rather than just something they know.

That means that people have to get their propositions exactly right.

I toured the Osceola County Jail once, many years ago.  A guard explained how they let the inmates out for exercise, and had to log the time, date and duration of the exercise period for each inmate.  “If you can’t document it,” he said, “then it didn’t happen.”  I wondered then whether it was the inmates or the guards who were really imprisoned.

I’m still wondering.