The Communion of the Saints: Our Faith

I believe in the communion of the saints… The Apostles’ Creed states the basic beliefs of the Christian faith or the conditions for our communion. Chief among these beliefs is the divinity of Jesus and our acknowledgment of his exclusive claims.  Jesus said,  I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. John 14.6. And in the early church Christianity was frequently called, as it is in the Book of Acts, “the Way” (Acts 9.2, 19.9,23) Jesus is not one way among many to God, but the way. He is saying, in effect, I am the way (to the Father) in that I am the truth and the life. This goes against popular thinking that all major religions are equally valid and basically teach the same thing. In this line of thinking, it is arrogant to say your religion is superior and try to convert everyone else to it because surely all the religions are equally good and valid for meeting the needs of their particular followers.

Some even think that religion is the major obstacle to world peace today, and that religion (and for purposes of this discussion we’ll allow that Christianity is a religion) should be outlawed or kept privately because it just separates people and makes them enemies because as they morally improve themselves they think they are superior to others. And Christianity can and does have this effect, if and when, it is reduced or perverted to the idea that we are to  lead a good life so that we can go to heaven. But Christianity is not about this at all. Far from it! Jesus does not show us how to live so that we can merit salvation. He comes to forgive and save us through his life and death in our place. And our message can never be about hate or superiority when it is about him. Our message is about a man who died for his enemies, saying Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing! When this is at the heart of our faith we cannot act in violence and oppression against others. Instead our calling is to lead a life of love that reflects what Jesus has done for us. But this is the condition and foundation of such a faith: that one not merely believe in Jesus’ humanity or goodness, but in the divine claim Jesus makes about himself, as the way to reconciliation with God that is his alone.

Resurrection Meaning

 First Corinthians 15.20-22 and the Meaning of Christ’s Resurrection

The resurrection of Jesus ended all the claims of God’s justice against those who trust in him as the Son of God.   As Tim Keller puts it, the resurrection was God’s way of stamping PAID IN FULL right across history so that nobody could miss it.

Consider the following summary of Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 15.20-22.  Going in reverse order through these three verses, look first at verse 22 –  As is Adam all die. The sin that entered the world through our first parents brought with it an undeniable reminder of its presence: death. When Adam sinned a corrosive and insidious element entered into the human race. We may through some convoluted means, deny the existence of our sin, but we cannot deny the reality of death. And, death, the scriptures teach is proof of sin. Like the stinky smell they put into natural gas so that you are alerted to its presence, death is the stink God put into sin to alert us to its presence.

And now, verse 21 For since death came  through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. Because sin and death came by humanity, it must be dealt with by humanity. Since death came by a man, it must be dealt with by a man. This was the mission of Jesus. He was born of a woman,  so truly God and man but conceived by the Holy Spirit, so not a natural descendant of Adam. He was the only member of the human race to be truly free of sin and thus able to satisfy and carry the infinite weight of the demands of God’s justice.

Finally, verse 20: Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. The proof that Jesus accomplished the payment for our sin and satisfied the demands of God’s justice is demonstrated in his resurrection. It is the proof of his success. It confirms that the brutality and anguish of Calvary were significant beyond mere dimensions of human suffering. Death is now destroyed. And as surely as the first fruit is the beginning of an agricultural harvest, so Christ’s resurrection is the first ripe piece of fruit that indicates many others are coming.

For Paul, the resurrection of the dead had, in a real way, already commenced with the raising of Jesus. And after he personally encountered the resurrected Messiah, it was the resurrection that became the foundation of his belief.  Without the resurrection there was no hope, but with the resurrection sin was paid for, death defeated, and a new world, a whole other world, was waiting for him, and all of us.

 

Christ, our Representative on the Cross

into your hands I commit my spirit  Luke 23.46

The argument that Paul makes throughout the New Testament is that in some mysterious, but real way, Christ represented us on the cross. This is why he writes in Romans 6.8, we died with Christ or again in Gal.2,  I have been crucified with Christ. Not only did Jesus substitute himself but he represented us as well. A substitute takes someone place, but a representative binds those he represents to the actions he takes.

As our representative Christ binds us to what transpires at the cross. He is our substitute because he took on himself the penalty we deserve for our sin. But he is also our representative, binding us to his actions, making his actions our own. As Christ commits his soul to God, he represents all of us.

Let us remember that it was not in reference to himself alone that Christ committed his soul to the Father, but that he included, as it were, in one bundle, all the souls of those who believe in him, that they may be preserved along with his own… John Calvin

What we so often refuse to say, refuse to do, Jesus says and does for us. You and I  cannot fully or completely resign ourselves or commit ourselves to God. Our nature is to resign ourselves from Him. We want to quit God. But Jesus represents us to God as we need to be represented, and so, in a way, makes heroes of us all. Into your hands I commit my spirit.  Gathering us all “in one bundle,” Jesus makes the commitment to God for us that we cannot make for ourselves.  Into God’s hands, he commits all who believe. He will deliver your soul safely into God’s hands, justified, free from punishment, safe from Satan and every sorrow. No matter what you have done, God will listen to him on your account. Even at our death we can look to him, as  Stephen does in Acts 7.59 and say to him, Lord Jesus receive my spirit! Christ’s affliction began and ended with holy resignation. In the beginning he yielded his will, in the end he yielded his Spirit. So should all our afflictions be marked with the resignation of our will to the will of God in Christ and so all our afflictions will end with the resignation of our soul to God’s hands. The more frequently we do this while we live, the more easily we will do this when we die.

Shame and Salvation

Jesus, Conqueror of Shame

Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Hebrews 12.2

In an article published in the Atlantic Robert Karen once wrote that shame is “like a deformed body part that we organize our lives to keep ourselves and others from seeing.” The accuracy of this insight is born out by the Scriptures. The term used for “shame” in the Bible, and from which “ashamed” comes, means precisely this. And these same terms could easily be translated “deformity” or “twisted” or “disfigurement” or even “ugliness.”

In Psalm 25 when David prays do not let me be put to shame, he is describing his fear of  having his sinful ugliness exposed for all the world to see. The solution to our moral deformity, to the sin and the shame that so easily entangles us, the writer of Hebrews tells us, is that Christ endured the cross, scorning its shame.

According to the Scriptures’ view of sinful humanity we are morally deformed and the only hope for us is that there is one who understands our shame, and is not shocked by the deformity of our souls. One who can make us whole again. Let us then fix our eyes on Jesus! He has conquered shame. The cross was the emblem of the disfigurement and deformity of sin, the shame of the human race, and it was a shameful way to die. It was so degrading that no Roman citizen could be sentenced to crucifixion. His death on the cross assures us that Jesus has plumbed the depths of human shame. He never sinned, but he has fully experienced sin’s shame. Now he is at the right hand of throne of God. In his resurrected power, Hebrews 7.25 says he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them. His joy, his living, his passion now is for US. The law of God exposes us as morally disfigured creatures, but through Jesus’ death on the cross and his constant intercession we are being transformed and made precious and wonderful. And if he knows everything about us and he knows the worst about us and yet loves us, then of whom shall we be afraid? Shame’s power has been broken and the life we live now, we can live by faith in the Son of God who loved us and gave himself for us. And that is a comfort to us like we’ve never known before.

 

Nearing the end of Lent

The Passion of the Christ: Vera Icon?
As we approach the end of Lent and begin heading for the empty tomb, I recommend a viewing of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. The incompatibility of the Son of God undergoing the shameful and hideous death of a convicted felon is lost in our modern times. Herein lies the value of  Gibson’s film. He has successfully shocked both the pious and the pagan in this gripping account of Jesus’ last hours. In the apostolic era, believing that the Son of God willingly underwent such a death was unthinkable and required a supernatural faith (1Cor.1.23). We, however, live in a time when contradictory notions of all sorts are believed with little trouble. Gibson’s presentation of the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Christ will not permit such complacency. Believers are provoked to wonder and unbelievers are to worry over the personal implications of this man’s death.

The brutal treatment and bloodthirsty condemnation of Jesus as depicted in the film has caused many to fear a backlash of anti-Semiticism even though some of these same critics have offered that Gibson is not anti-Semitic nor is there any anti-Semiticism implied in the film. After listening to these concerns it sounds like the fear is that the world is filled with people who hate the Jews and will use any means to incite the population against them. Along this line of thinking, Gibson’s film is like a package of razor blades in an insane asylum, and we must keep it out of the hands of the crazies.  I have tried to sympathize with this point of view, but the concerns have been overstated. Overall, Gibson’s work keeps within the lines of the gospel account. The film portrays the Jewish people broadly and charitably, they are honest and corrupt, caring and callous, heroic and heinous, much like any other people or culture. Film critic, Michael Medved, also a practicing Jew, has observed, “… the fact that persecutors and bigots have distorted teachings of the New Testament for their own cruel purposes doesn’t mean that those Gospel texts, sacred to all Christians, must be scrapped, revised or ignored in a serious work of cinema.”

The traditional Stations of the Cross are used as a device to structure the Savior’s torturous trek to Calvary. Some of these incidents are included in the New Testament, but most are from Roman Catholic tradition. Gibson seizes these moments and exploits their  dramatic depth. Jesus’ words to Mary and Simon the Cyrene’s agreement to carry the cross are especially poignant. Many won’t know the identity of the woman who bravely offers a towel Jesus uses to wipe his bloody face. She is the woman who according to Roman Catholic tradition later took the cloth with the bloody imprint of the Savior’s face to Rome. The towel was called the “vera icon” from the Latin for “true image” and known along with other relics deemed genuine as “true images” or the “veronica,” hence the identity of the momentary heroine on the path to Calvary: Veronica.

The characterization of Satan in the film is the most subtle and imaginative treatment of the devil since C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters. We might object to the presence of devil as conflicting with what we are told in the gospel account. The presence of Satan, however, is a useful dramatic device through which redemptive history is collapsed into the limitations of a film and the larger purpose of Christ’s sufferings is discovered. As Jesus rises from prayer and crushes the head of the snake crawling on the ground at his feet, he fulfills the earliest prophecy of his coming (Gen.3.15). The interaction between Christ and Satan in Gethsemane is not taken from any of the gospels, but through unmistakeable imagery and action, Gibson reminds of Creation and Fall and the larger reason for Jesus’ mission. Satan knows why Jesus has come, and the threat of our redemption is seen in the eyes of this intriguing and desperate creature.

This is an extremely violent and bloody film, and no film in recent history has evoked such concern over its graphic portrayal. I suspect the disapproval of many critics is less the voice of reason and more the complaint of the age old human/gnostic tendency to sanitize Christianity, emphasizing the teachings of Jesus and presenting His death by crucifixion as either tragic or false.  Gibson’s film is timely as it comes when the reading public has grown accustomed to the more “acceptable” and fictitious accounts of Christ’s life and death. Consider how bestsellers like Karen Armstrong’s History of God or Dan Brown’s more popular, Da Vinci Code have championed less-than-divine ideas about Christ. The success of books like these, depends, to some degree, upon their readers distaste for a bloody atoning sacrificial death on their behalf.  In contrast, Gibson’s work rests squarely upon the received historic truth of the Messiah’s death as the Lamb of God, slain for sinners. As film critic Roger Ebert has put it, “…The Passion of the Christ,” more than any other film I can recall, depends upon theological considerations.”

Gibson’s film is the artistic creation of a man committed to a particular theology. The Roman Catholic crucifix is the consummate expression of his faith. In this view, Christ became a willing victim on the cross and in a real sense, remains so forever as a victim that He might be continually and regularly offered in the Mass. The theology of Rome and the Mass in particular are the bedrock of Gibson’s own thinking. As a Protestant, of course, I have substantive disagreements with the theology of Rome, but Gibson’s film is an achievement for us all. The world will not be changed through this film, but those who have condescendingly and casually dismissed historic Christianity now have Gibson’s film with which to reckon. He has brought them the image of Christ from the perspective of Christianity. Like the legendary Veronica, he urges us all to believe it is the real thing.

Leadership in the Church

Prayer, Hope, and Theology

…say to Archippus, ‘Take heed to the ministry which you have received in the Lord, that you may fulfill it.  Colossians 4.17

This past summer there was a report of dolphins beaching themselves and dying at Cape Cod. No one was sure why it was  happening. Dolphins are extremely social creatures and swim together. After a multitude of tests and site studies, marine biologists concluded that one of the more likely explanations for this behavior was that the dolphins were following a disoriented leader.

Ministers, elders, really all of us, must always be checking our own orientation because others are following us. In this text from Colossians, Paul speaks about the fulfillment of ministry. How are we to fulfill the ministries to which God has called us as elders of the church? It is the divine origin of the ministry that Paul wants us to grasp – a ministry “received in the Lord.” “Take heed” or “better watch out” or “look out”. These phrases imply the presence of danger. Paul calls upon Archippus to “fulfill” his ministry in light of such danger. What could he have in mind and is there something here that helps our own unique circumstances and situation today? From this text and the letter itself we may draw a few examples of what it means to “fulfill” the ministry.

Fulfill it prayerfully. It is interesting that Paul speaks about the need for prayer in this letter and then goes on to talk about how much he needs it because he is dealing with so many different people and situations (4:1-6). And he points out how we need the same wisdom (4:5-6). Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one. Prayer gives us the help we need to carry out an equitable ministry that also differentiates and treats people personally. Paul tells Timothy in 1Tim.5.1……Do not rebuke an older man, but exhort him as a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, with all purity. Prayer provides perspective on personality. Watch out and pray over all the possible ways to treat people and God will help you to be fair but personal. I am so thankful for the ongoing ministry of prayer in our church for those elders who take it upon themselves to make sure the church prays. 

Fulfill this ministry hopefully. Presbyterian congregations highly value order, structures, hierarchy, and John Calvin. But such orders or structures or titles or hierarchies, or personalities are not the ministry, but only forms for it and expressions of it. The PCUSA does not own the ministry, nor does any other denomination.  Our text make clear that the ministry belongs to Christ.  It comes from Him, not us. Notice our text does not say the ministry you received in Laodicea but says the ministry you received in the Lord. I find this very freeing and hopeful for us. It should awaken expectancy in us all. Paul says in 3.1-3 If you died with Christ, seek those things above…Set your mind on things above…If your mind is on Christ, you will be able to care for His people. If your mind is not on Christ, you will probably become very discouraged and give up. But if your mind is set on the things of Christ, you will have His love for them when your own is gone. You will have His patience for all the flock under your care when your own is gone. Have this mind in you that was in Christ Jesus (Phil.2.5). The only way we can really mind the flock is if our mind is on Christ. And when our mind is on Christ we will feel ourselves more equal with those for whom we care. It is true that you are to govern and rule the church, but hierarchy can be dangerous, too. Elders are, in real sense, over others, and any position of leadership puts you over others, but the more our minds are set on Christ, the more equal we will feel to those over whom we have been given charge. This will help us to properly consider what to do to help each person around us, and to have the requisite sympathy and strength to fulfill our ministry.

Fulfill it theologicallyPaul’s prayers and the content of this letter are concerned with a right understanding of Christ and His work (1.9-18). Ministers and elders are called to watch out for the church’s understanding and teaching and application of the gospel to all of life. There must be among leaders a genuine interest in biblical theology. There is so much more to say about this! With regard to limits of time and space, suffice it here to issue a warning: Be careful and be aware of the dangers of an untheological devotion. Just as the priests in the Old Testament were concerned with every detail of the ceremonial law, so leaders are to be concerned for a correct understanding of the gospel, as with all of the Scriptures. The sacrifice of Christ- understanding it, declaring it, applying it, and defending it – this is their work. One of the great obstacles to the spiritual life of the church is the reduction of its ministry to the structure of a volunteer organization under human authority with human religious expertise. Instead it is a spiritual community under the headship of Jesus Christ who leads and guides us through His word. We must constantly check ourselves and critique ourselves in this regard. Are we basing our ideas upon the current religious expertise of our time or upon the eternal and abiding Word of God?

Leaders of the church, all of us, must make sure that our orientation is sound and that we do not become the cause of running others aground in their faith. People are following us, depending on us. As we guide the church and call upon others to follow us, we have to ask ourselves of this decision, of this action, of this program – are we carrying it out prayerfully and hopefully? Is it based upon the theology of the Scriptures? Are we treating people fairly and with sensitivity to their differences and needs? How does our leadership reflect our understanding of the glorious gospel of grace that we proclaim? When we ask the kinds of questions then we are on our way to fulfilling the ministry Christ has given to us.