Sunday Meditations: The Meaning of Life

My uncle passed away this past week:

The suddenness of it as well as being in the midst of grieving family members have made it the heaviest thing on my mind, right now, but I’m still working through it.  Thoughts of death, life, afterlife, the things people say at times like these, the things they don’t say, the things people tell themselves, the things people say about you after you die and what your life meant, and what God may have to say about all these things are all at the forefront of my mind, but in the same way a heavy fog is at the forefront of perception.  It’s all chaos and sharp edges right now.

It is not so much how the grief affects me.  I am grieved; my uncle was a big deal to me as a child, and he was a truly great guy. But it has been a long time since my uncle has been a regular part of my daily life.  I do not feel the pain of loss in ways nearly as deeply or sharply as his immediate family and their in-laws, and I wouldn’t dream of pretending otherwise.  I am trying to be there for them, though, and it is a thoughtful time that I think will be illuminating when I’m able to get some distance from it.

So, I do not have any substantial meditations to offer, today, except that it is really amazing to have this guy who basically held down a series of odd jobs so he could be a minister for churches who couldn’t afford a minister, and then spent his final years at a medical mission, carrying supplies and the Kingdom to indigenous peoples in the mountains who were warned repeatedly by their witch doctors to stay away from white men and their medicine and their gods.

When you think about a life like that – look at it on paper or think of it in comparison to all the peoples and troubles in the world – it seems like such a small, insignificant thing.  And if you knew him and his family and his story over the course of many years, you knew he struggled internally against the powerful weights and pulleys that drag down the souls of humankind.  He was just some guy who worked in small towns, trying to make a better world and offer hope for tiny clumps of people who, in the grand scheme of the global economy, were not even a small divot.

And yet, the sheer amount of things people have written and said.  People who met their spouses because of Bob.  People who followed Jesus because of Bob.  People who literally regained their sight because of Bob’s help at the medical compound.  Elderly men who considered Bob their best friend because they had no one else in the world who cared about them like he did.  Hundreds and hundreds of these things, in English and Spanish, pouring in over the Internet and phone calls and letters and translators.  These little snapshots of life that, for this person or that person, was significant or meaningful.  Not just, “I remember him, and he was a great guy,” which is really the kind of thing you at least hope someone will be able to say about you, but these concrete, identifiable moments that changed the trajectory of people’s lives.  Little nudges that moved them this way or that way – little to us and to the world in general but full of significance for them.

He was not a great theologian.  He was not a scholar.  He wrote no books.  He was not on television.  He wasn’t even a full time minister.  He wasn’t a full time anything.  As smart and as personable as he was, by any definition of the American Dream or even our expectations for what adult life is supposed to contain, he didn’t do a lot of that stuff.  All he did was prioritize his pursuits in terms of what allowed him to bring something into the life of someone else.

Far be it from me to make a blanket declaration of what a person’s life is supposed to “mean.”  I don’t know that there’s some single, transcendent criterion that we can hold up to each individual’s life and declare this life more meaningful or successful than that one.  But for me, at any rate, making a positive difference in someone else’s life is a big part of my own personal standard, and the past few days have been a stunning demonstration of how many people you can affect in powerful ways – not through huge efforts and events, but simply by being a certain sort of person.


Sunday Meditations: Stories vs. Doctrine

Yes, it’s a Sunday Meditation on a Monday.

I’d started to write the Sunday Meditation on Sunday.  It was about ancient historiography and how their practices and expectations were different from modern historiography.  I was comparing and contrasting Suetonius’ and Plutarch’s accounts of the early career of Julius Caesar to illustrate a point, and somewhere along the line, I got completely bored with my own thoughts.  Nothing like an extended comparison of the reasons Caesar was in Bithynia to make you go, “Why am I doing this, again?”

Rather than fish, I decided to cut bait.

Instead, I want to reflect on how truth is communicated in the Bible and what implications this has for its interpretation and usage.

Christians generally refer to the Bible as the Word of God, but if pressed, will say that Jesus is the Word of God.  But I wonder if we really appreciate the difference in that distinction.  Books communicate propositions; people live lives.

By maintaining that the Bible is the Word of God, we are saying it is a body of propositions that God produced, communicated, transmitted to readers.  Sort of like a song my kids picked up from church.  “A perfect book / Is what it took / for God to get a message to us.”

But is it what it took for God to get a message to us, and if so, what does it mean for Jesus to be the Word of God?  Because Jesus is not a book.  He certainly communicated propositions, but when John calls Jesus the logos of God, he does not seem to mean that Jesus was basically a Bible that talked.

It was the entire life and person of Jesus that was the Word.  Jesus was someone you could know – someone you could observe.  Yes, there were teachings, but his actions, values, how he spent his time, what and whom he cared about, how he responded in different situations – all these things are parts of what it means for a person to be the Word as opposed to a book.  A book cannot communicate in that way.

And when we look at the biblical writings, we find that the propositions in them are not abstract doctrinal treatises, but rather stories.  They communicate their truths through the trials and tribulations and victories and experiences of a people with their God.  God’s truth is incarnate in their experiences.

Even what we might think of as more doctrinally-oriented writings like Paul’s epistles….  Paul does not write a book for the church in Rome; he writes a letter to them.  In this letter, he addresses their issues and experiences and tries to give coherence to it.  This is very multifaceted, to be sure, in how Paul does this, but when we read the letter to the Romans, we are seeing something occur in a church’s story – a story we largely get to know from the letter, itself.  In Paul’s letter, we can see the things that were dividing that church and how those divisions were manifest.  We can see what they were and weren’t teaching.  We can see where their struggles were, what kinds of pressures they faced, and how that was going.  We can also see Paul’s hopes for them.  We see comforting as well as correction.

But the thing that makes all of these facets cohere is that they are in response to the Roman church’s lived-out experience.  Paul did not sit down to write a theology book on justification by faith and send it to the church in Rome as beta readers.  He wrote a letter to them, sharing, explaining, and in a sense participating in and becoming an event in their lived-out experience.

So, if Jesus the person is meant to be our primary referent for God’s communication, and biblical writings are in some sense a referent for God’s communication, it seems to me that the primary purpose of the statements in the Bible are not primarily to communicate abstract truths to which we all aspire, but rather to share an experience with us and illuminate that experience.  Ultimately, they are trying to shine a light on how we’ve understood our own experiences and stories and comfort us, challenge us, correct us, and heal us with that knowledge.

And the interesting thing is we see this happening in the Bible itself.  In one place, we read the laws about sacrifices (which change over time, incidentally, according to the differences in Israel’s situation) and holy days and festivals, and then we see the prophets decrying these exact things.

From Isaiah 1:

What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats.
When you come to appear before me,
who asked this from your hand?

Well, You did.  Um, right?

Well, as it turns out, even something as fundamental to Old Testament Israel as animal sacrifice does not, in the end, seem so fundamental.

If we take, say, the Levitical laws on sacrifices and Isaiah 1 as “truths about God” or “doctrines of God” or even (I’m going to get in trouble here – please don’t ever quote me on this) “propositional revelation of God,” this is a problem.  How do you reconcile the fact that God did ask for these sacrifices and seemed to have some pretty strong ideas about them with a passage where He explicitly says that He doesn’t like sacrifices and who asked you to bring them, anyway?

But when we look at the story and the lived out experience of the people who are recording these things,  we see in one place a nation in the Levant who takes it as a matter of course that you offer sacrifices to your god.  Everyone does this with abandon all around you.  Some even offer their children.  All of this is to buy the favor of your god, manipulate him, prove your dedication, etc.

We find that, against such a setting, the Levitical laws extremely restrict this practice, limiting the sacrifices to specific occasions and to the same animals the Israelites eat as food.  In fact, if you decide to just start killing whatever animals are at hand, severe penalties await you.

By the time we get to Isaiah 1, we have a nation oppressed by itself.  The leaders do not care about justice or mercy.  They fleece the poor.  They have created a kingdom that looks just like every other corrupt kingdom in existence.  Oh!  But they keep the sacrifices coming.

It is at this point that God basically throws up His hands and says, “Guys, what the hell?  You’re terrible to one another!  The very people who are supposed to make sure everyone is cared for and treated fairly are the ones exploiting the weak and the poor!  And now you bring me this?  You think I want your goats?  I don’t want your goats.  I never needed your %*!@ goats!  That was for you!  What I want from you is justice and mercy, not you killing a bunch of ^$*% goats all the time!  Who on earth would ever care about that?  Holy Me in Heaven would you just put down the goat and start showing some shalom?”

Ok, God probably would not say it quite like that, but that’s the sentiment.

And so by following the story, we are learning about God and ourselves through a sort of osmosis.  It’s not that the propositions aren’t important; it’s that their purposes are a lot less direct than, “Here’s what to believe about God.”  It’s why the early rabbis can be so insistent on the holiness and authority of the text and yet say things about the texts that can seem to be kind of disconnected from them.

Maybe, and I’m only saying maybe, the fact that Jesus is a person and not a book gives us important clues about the hermeneutics we bring to the book.

Taking Our Infirmities: Matthew 8:14-17

When Jesus entered Peter’s house, he saw his mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever; he touched her hand, and the fever left her, and she got up and began to serve him. That evening they brought to him many who were possessed with demons; and he cast out the spirits with a word, and cured all who were sick. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.”

Matthew 8:14-17 (NRSV)

In this passage, we see elements that have been part of Matthew’s portrait of Jesus from very early on.  Along with the spiritual restoration of Israel – the encouragement to repent, the forgiveness of sins, the commitment to holiness as defined by the Torah of love – this restoration also plays out in the physical realm.  The conflation of spiritual and physical sickness is present in this passage where demons are cast out and the sick are cured.

In this way, Matthew displays for us a physical representation of Jesus’ deliverance from oppression and restoration of Israel.  These deeds show us in  seed form what Jesus is doing for the nation.  The emphasis is not on the miraculous or the supernatural – Matthew mentions this in a one-liner that has all the narrative impact of, “And Jesus ordered waffles.”  Rather, the emphasis is that Jesus is about the task of Messiah-work.

As is Matthew’s wont, he wants to portray this using the Old Testament and goes, again, to Isaiah.

Isaiah 53 is part of a much larger segment arguably starting all the way back in the 40s.  In this section, the faithful remnant of Israel returns from the Babylonian exile, but they face many hardships.  Isaiah portrays them as “Jacob” and “my servant.”  They suffer and the whole world sees them, but the end result of their suffering will be the redemption of the entire nation and a renewal of God’s covenant with them – they who suffered under God’s wrath for a time but have now been restored because of His love.

This may be a good time to remind ourselves that when Matthew (or any New Testament author) uses the Old Testament in this way, they are not trying to draw a straight line from “prophecy” to “reference” as though Isaiah, when he wrote, was thinking of Jesus who would come centuries later but, for some reason, decided his present audience needed to hear about it in the middle of a long discourse about the experience of returning from Babylon.  But rather, Matthew is using Isaiah’s situation to explain what Jesus is doing.  He is, in effect, saying, “You remember Isaiah, right?  You remember how he said the returning exiles would suffer before all the nations, but the end result would be the restoration of Israel?  Well, buddy, this is happening RIGHT NOW with Jesus and it is bigger than Isaiah could have possibly imagined.  Being delivered from Babylon is peanuts compared to this.”

It may seem strange to us to think of using the Old Testament in this way, but this way of reading the Old Testament has been a very common practice in Judaism going back to before the first century.  For instance, I was recently going through some old midrashim on Isaiah 52 for reasons completely unrelated to this post, and I found a rabbi who had commented that Isaiah 52 was actually about six different people: Israel, Boaz, David, Solomon, the Messiah, and King Hezekiah.  He had a little write up on how the passage was about all six of those people.  It didn’t bother him at all that it is staggeringly unlikely that Isaiah intended to write something that captured all six of those people and their disparate situations or that Isaiah’s audience would have associated his words with all of those people.  Was he insane?  Was he being dishonest with the text?

Well, no, he was saying that what Isaiah was describing in chapter 52 could just as easily be used to understand those other references.  They shared in common the thread that Isaiah 52 illuminated.  This is just a very Jewish way of understanding and using the Old Testament, and whether you agree with it or not, if you can understand that’s what’s happening and acknowledge it, then a lot of difficulties with the New Testament use of the Old Testament become a lot less problematic.

So, when Matthew uses a passage from Jeremiah 31 about the weeping in Ramah over the exiles being taken to Babylon and says this passage is “about” Bethlehem and Herod’s edict to kill the male babies, this would be a crazy claim if we understand him to mean that Jeremiah’s prophecy about Ramah being comforted is literally about Bethlehem centuries later and not Ramah at all.  But if we understand that the meaning packed into Jeremiah’s prophecy of Ramah is also demonstrated, perhaps in a new way, by Jesus escaping the edict in Bethlehem, then it makes sense.

But more than this, if we do not appreciate this way of using the Old Testament, we will miss out on a lot of meaning.

For instance, if we read the early 50s in Isaiah and go straight to Jesus, the best we’ve got is a cool example of prediction.  Isaiah talks about a guy getting beat up for the sake of others, and then Jesus got beat up for the sake of others and fulfilled that prophecy, bada boom, bada bing, isn’t prophecy amazing?

Well, I suppose that would be amazing, but the whole reason to connect those two things is to be found in what Isaiah is actually talking about – a faithful remnant of Israel who is righteous, but they still suffer so that the whole nation will be restored to a loving covenant with their God whose wrath and curse come to an end.  If we know that’s what Isaiah is talking about, then when Matthew throws out his casual one-liner, a whole world of meaning gets imported to the reader.  We now see Jesus the way Matthew wants his readers to see Jesus – as the faithful remnant who will suffer so that the nation will be restored, their curse ended, their sins forgiven, brought back into a loving covenant with their God.  This is what Jesus is doing!  If you shine Isaiah’s light onto Jesus, all this bursts forth in full color!

But if you don’t bother to unpack the original meaning, then at best all we’ve got is a neat prediction of the future that tells us very little other than OT prophets had their game face on and most of what they said was completely irrelevant to the people they were talking to.  And rather than learning from our Jewish forefathers, we find ourselves at odds with them, telling them that they misunderstood their own scriptures for literally centuries – that it never meant any of the things they thought – it was really all detailed predictions about Jesus and had nothing to do with Israel’s history or her situation.

As Christians who believe that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Testament, we have been taught to read our New Testament, and then read backwards into the Old Testament.  But this is not the way the Bible actually came about.  Matthew’s readers have read the Old Testament.  Matthew wants them to read -forward- into his Gospel the richness of the Old Testament testimony to Israel’s history and experience with her God.  We import the meaning of the Old Testament into the New; we do not export the meaning of the New Testament into the Old.  That is not how God worked.

If we can see both the Old Testament and Jesus in this way, then the Old Testament is not an obsolete collection of literature we can carve out of our Bibles, nor is it an elaborate allegory of the things taught in the New Testament.  It is an indispensable repository of meaning that is intended to inform, shape, and fill our reading of the New Testament.  And when we see the powerful, continuous flow of meaning through Israel’s history through the Old and into the New and even beyond, we discover that Jesus did not show up and turn Judaism on its head.  Rather, he is the crescendo of a powerful wave that started with Abraham and is headed straight for new creation.

Consider This

  1. What was the last Old Testament book you read?  What did it tell you about Israel’s story and her relationship with God at that time?  How does that help you understand how we get to Jesus’ story?
  2. However you can swing it, find a random New Testament quotation of or allusion to the Old Testament.  Look up the Old Testament source.  Forgetting about the New Testament for a minute, what’s going on in that passage?  What’s the context?  What was said before and after that passage?  Now look at the New Testament quotation.  How is the meaning you just saw applicable to what the New Testament author is saying?

Sunday Meditations: The Bible’s Relevance

When we take an approach to biblical interpretation that is heavily historically oriented, there are natural questions that come up as to how texts that are so historically conditioned could be relevant to you or me.  This is really a struggle for anyone, I think, who wants to be honest about what the Bible actually is and how we got it but also wants coherence with what the Bible means to them.

The standard “solution” to this problem was given to us by our Greco-Roman theological forefathers.  The Bible’s history is more or less a shell around timeless truths and spiritual realities.  It just so happened that first century Judea was an ideal time for Jesus to come, but the same complex of events really could have happened anytime, anywhere, and the significance would be the same.  The Old Testament becomes a series of stories that allegorically point forward to the Christ event and communicate general moral or spiritual truths.  The New Testament becomes a story about the destiny of immortal souls and, as such, is no longer bound to history.  Everyone has a soul, everyone has a sin problem, everybody wants to go to heaven (but nobody wants to die), and the New Testament addresses these issues.

I’m not going to say all of that is completely wrong, but I am going to say that I personally don’t think that way of looking at the Bible does much justice to the actual writings in the Bible, nor to the events they describe, nor to the faith communities who originally produced and received these writings.  These writings show every indication of being shaped by the community that produced them at that time, and they deal with issues that are pressing at that time, and as we uncover more about life in the first century and Judaism of the period and the experience of various strata of people at that time, we come to realize that, “Where will I go when I die?” was just not a big issue.  What were big issues were the ones that faced them as a nation at that time.

But if we decide the Bible is primarily about whatever issues were facing the people of that time, then how could it have relevance for us?  Isn’t it basically at best ancient history, or more accurately ancient mytho-history?  What can Jesus really mean to us when we are so far removed from the main concerns of Israel two thousand years ago if that were his primary focal point?

I think about this issue a lot.  A lot.  Especially on Sundays when I have a rich spiritual experience in corporate worship and the preaching from the Bible plays a big part of that.  How do I reconcile being what I see as intellectually honest about the nature of the Bible with my present experience of it?  How do I present the Bible to others, believers or non-believers, and what value to I hope to pass on by doing so?

Well, there are a few different facets to this answer, in my view, and nobody is forcing you to read this (are they?), so here I go.

We Have to Be Comfortable with the Idea That We’ve Moved On

This is at the core of the struggle and is something that has to be dealt with.  For various reasons, we are intrinsically uncomfortable with the idea that the Bible is not a comprehensive, definitive portrayal of our present experience, nor is it particularly concerned with what questions or struggles we might have as individuals.

You can see the fruits of this in all kinds of ways beyond just talking about what the Bible means.  There is this impetus that our present spiritual experiences should look like what we read in the New Testament.  We talk about following Jesus and we use his disciples as models, but this is literally impossible.  You cannot leave your home and follow Jesus around as your rabbi.  We look at the early church in Acts, and we wonder why we don’t look like they do, and we try to close that gap (selectively – you don’t find a lot of churches where the members sell all their possessions and pool their money to care for one another).  We look at the instructions given to these early communities, and we try to dissolve the historical particulars to get at a timeless, moral core.

But why?

Why can’t we be in a different place than the first century church?  Why can’t we look different?  Why can’t we have different issues that might not be directly addressed by the Bible because they are our issues and our challenges and our questions?  Is our faithfulness at our time in history somehow illegitimate because a chronicle of it didn’t end up in the Bible?  Is it somehow less acceptable to God because the experience of believers in 21st century America doesn’t look like the experience of first century Palestine?

I think part of coming to a place of peace about the role of the Bible in the church today is being ok with the idea that we can be in a different place than what is described in the New Testament.  We certainly seem to be ok with the idea that we’re in a different place than Israel as described in Leviticus.  And that Israel was in a different place than the Israel described in Ezra.  History marches forward and the world changes and the circumstances around the faithful change as well.  There is no law that says the New Testament has to be about us or that our experience has to look like the New Testament.  We have to be ok with the idea that we are living out our own story trying to be faithful in our time in our culture in our circumstances, and different things are on our stage than were on the stage in the first century.  This is not a mistake.  One might argue, in fact, that it is the will of Heaven.

Everything that is in the Bible was written retrospectively.  At any given point, what may have ended up as a biblical text later was originally just some faithful people trying to do the best they could with what was on their plate at the time – what they were currently experiencing as part of their current story.  This is just the way God rolls.

Some Things Are Still the Case

I feel like the thing we need most is what I said up above – to accept the fact that we are at a different place in history than the Bible describes and it’s ok for there to be discontinuities between those two things.

But if we can come to a peace with that, we can also acknowledge that some of the things the Bible describes continue to the be case.

For example, God gave Jesus all authority in heaven and earth and raised him to His right hand.  This is something that is still the case.  Jesus is still the Lord and those who followed his path of faithful suffering are with him.  A lot of New Testament energy is expended on things that are long past, like life under the corrupt leadership in Israel, the survivability of the early communities of faith in Jesus, and the outcomes all of this would have for the Roman world.

At the same time, these events not only have repercussions for the future but actually establish certain things that continue to be true in our present circumstances, and one of those things is the Lordship of Jesus.

Another thing that is still the case is that the God who elevated Jesus to this position is the Creator of heaven and earth.  He’s still out there.  He’s still worthy of worship.  He’s still doing things.  And if there’s any common thread that ties together every biblical writing across thousands of years, it’s that this God desires a people who will model for the world what God wants the world to be like and will continue to testify that this God is there and this hope for the world isn’t a pipe dream.

Speaking of, another thing that is still the case is a promised general resurrection of the dead, expulsion of death and evil, and a new age for creation.  This requires a lot of trust, but such things always have.  How do you think Israel felt when Isaiah prophesied her deliverance from Assyria?  How do you think people felt when Jesus announced that the kingdom had come in the midst of Roman oppression?  It is such promises that continue to give us hope and inform our testimony and mission to the world.

Insofar as the Bible speaks to these things, it continues to describe our present circumstances and future hope.  In fact, one could say that it provides a grounding for our future hope by showing us many historical episodes of trust, delay, three steps forward two steps back kinds of events that the faithful experienced before us and what the outcomes were, nonetheless.

It’s a Vital Part of Our Story

If you are a Gentile believer, you are here because of the faithfulness of Jews.  You are here because of promises made to Abraham, who is the father in faith of both Jew and Gentile.  If you have any inclination to pursue the new creation in the name of Jesus, you do so because of Moses, David, Solomon, Ezekiel, and John the Baptist.  You do so because of Peter and Paul and James.  And you do so because of the countless numbers of nameless faithful throughout the ages who God had relationships with, delivered, brought forward, and carried their testimony with them.

Some of these people died in their faith, only having seen the promises from afar.  But in every age, they were there, looking in hope to God for whatever their historical circumstances were and passing that along.

It is because Jesus reclaims Israel that you have been grafted into the tree of Abraham’s promise.  It is because a group of Jews received the promised Holy Spirit that Gentiles would also receive that Spirit.  It is because those Gentiles held their faith even unto death that you have your faith.

Our neo-Platonic early church fathers and their apprehensions of the Gospel.  Constantine.  The fall of Alexandria.  The wars over monophysitism.  The schism between East and West.  The Hugenots.  The Moravians.  The Reformation.  The Counter-Reformation.  The missionary movement.  The emigration of the Puritans.  So many people and cultures and historical events have brought you where you are today, and not just you, but the church as it exists in the world.

The Bible is relevant for this reason as well.  Their story is our story.  There is a direct, organic relationship between an ancient man who decided he and his family would worship YHWH alone and you being in church this morning.  There is a direct relationship between whether or not Peter gets out of prison in Acts and your faith, today.  And there are lessons to be learned as we watch them live and die in their up and down relationship with this God through the ages.

Our Present Experiences

Finally, we seem to be having experiences that are consonant with the kinds of things we learn from the Bible, both collectively and individually.  We pray, like so many people have prayed before us.  We worship.  We find that we love one another and would sacrifice for one another.  We find that we desire justice and mercy.  This dream God has for the world stirs our hearts.  We find that odd things happen that are difficult to explain from time to time, like a vision or a healing.  We find that lives can be radically changed.

And speaking subjectively, how is it that I can get wrapped up in various intellectual issues surrounding the faith, how can I find myself in long, dark nights of the soul wondering if God is out there and if he really cares about me, and then find myself in worship praising and professing my allegiance to this God and clinging to Him as though I were a child again?  How can it be that someone like me has faith and can’t give it up?

How is it that I can preach a sermon and feel the kerygma speak through me and depart?  How can I be weighed down under the burdens of a difficult week only to feel them melt away in the worshipful presence of my brothers and sisters as if they had never been there to begin with?  Why do I care about how I spend my time and my money?  Why do I agonize over how to be faithful in my time and my culture?  How does faithfulness even happen?

Why do I love some ancient Palestinian deity who, to me, seems to describe something transcendent, ineffable, and there?

I suppose there are various explanations that could be supplied, and my atheist friends probably have a few.  But they don’t have to live my life, and for me, the thing that makes sense is that vibrant, transcendent Thing that so captivated ancient peoples literally millennia ago is there and can be experienced and is still at work in His creation.  Jesus shows me in human form what this Thing is like, and I like what he showed.  I am captivated by this vision for the world and my fellow man in much the same way countless others have before me.

The Bible speaks of these things.  When it is read in worship and preached, I feel it resonate in my bones and blow through me, touching and taking.  It challenges me and calls me to something greater than myself and the hope that these things will be realized.  It comforts me with a picture of the invisible layer behind the history I experience, and it makes me profess that even when my composite particles are scattered in dust, air, and dying stars, that each one will continue to praise the Creator, and perhaps in the unfolding of thousands of more years, He may in fact raise me from the dead into a new age.

Yeah, I actually believe all of that.  When I hear it from the Bible, I believe it.  Perhaps this is the most immediate relevance there is.

A Gentile’s Faith: Matthew 8:5-13

When he entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, appealing to him and saying, “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible distress.” And he said to him, “I will come and cure him.” The centurion answered, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” When Jesus heard him, he was amazed and said to those who followed him, “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” And to the centurion Jesus said, “Go; let it be done for you according to your faith.” And the servant was healed in that hour.

Matthew 8:5-13 (NRSV)

For the most part, Jesus’ mission in Matthew has been defined by restoring Israel.  Matthew tells us in 1:21 that Jesus will save “his people” from their sins, thus defining the very reason for Jesus’ special birth in terms of rescuing Israel.  Certainly, his acts and his teachings have targeted Israel and her particular situation at that point in history.

That’s what makes this story stand out.  It is singled out because it is remarkable.  It is an anomaly.

Not only is this man a Gentile, he is a Roman centurion.  As the story spells out in painstaking, repetitive detail, he is a man with authority.  He commands the very legions that occupy Israel.  He is, in the flesh, the covenant curse.  If anyone is destined to be destroyed in any typical way of interpreting Israel’s story, it’s this guy.  This is exactly the sort of man who is supposed to go toe to toe with the Messiah and end up on the business end of a spear, paraded victoriously through the streets.

And yet, this man calls Jesus “Lord” (which you don’t want to be doing out loud in the Roman Empire) and recognizes the authority Jesus has on earth, comparing it to his own authority over soldiers and slaves.  He recognizes what the scribes will not in Matthew 9:1-8 – that Jesus is the Son of Man and has been given authority on earth to forgive sins and destroy the works of the devil, including the new creation work of healing.

Matthew points out that Jesus was amazed.  We get so used to Jesus knowing what’s going on with people, diagnosing their motives and predicting their actions, that it’s good for Matthew to let us know that this situation is so terrifically out of the norm that even Jesus is surprised.

We might wonder why Matthew would include a story like this that is so irregular.  Is it because we have an example of a Roman soldier bowing the knee to Jesus – perhaps a foreshadowing of the Empire’s future?  Is it because this points us to Jesus’ work leading to faith from the Gentiles who hear about him?

Those may all be facets of what Matthew has in mind, but what he explicitly shows us is that the centurion story is in here as an indictment against that segment of Israel who will not recognize Jesus as their king and do not believe he is the Son of Man given authority to save them.

Jesus makes the staggering pronouncement that people will come in from the distant corners of the known world and participate in the fulfillment of the promises given to Israel’s Patriarchs while many who are the “heirs of the Kingdom” will find themselves shut out of it, sad and enraged.  This is a theme that occupies a lot of Matthew and, honestly, is a major component of Jesus’ teaching no matter what Gospel you’re in: the people who are sure they are on the “inside” will actually be shut outside, and the people you are sure would be on the “outside” will be welcomed in.  The Jew/Gentile distinction would be the strongest and most indisputable dividing line for the Jews.

The very notion!  These same Gentiles who trample the courts of the Temple – some of them will be welcomed into the presence of the Patriarchs?  Some of them will inherit Israel’s promises?  While actual Israelites may be cut off from those promises?  This story introduces this idea in a powerful and striking way.  And we know this will be true because the soldier’s servant is healed – vindicating both the centurion’s faith and Jesus’ message.

Matthew is showing us that, in light of the coming of Jesus, a new distinction is being drawn – the distinction of faith.  Do you believe Jesus is the king, anointed with God’s own authority here to make good on God’s promises to Israel?  Or do you believe he is some up-jumped pretender out to reform Judaism with his particular zealous interpretations and cause trouble with the Empire?  Or do you simply not care one way or the other and are just trying to make your comfortable way in the world with your head down?  Matthew confronts his audience with these choices, and to the Jewish readers, he underscores that a Roman Centurion had a faith in Jesus that was virtually unheard of even among the very people he was rescuing.

And what of our faith?  Yes, obviously, we are challenged to believe in what God has done in Jesus.  But this is a stepping stone on the Church’s journey with her God.  We have seen Jesus conquer the Roman Empire, and we have seen that Empire fall, and we have seen the Christendom that Empire established go with it, and it is receding at breakneck speed.  We may be slower to see this in America than, say, Europe, but the cultural impact and status Christianity enjoyed under the structures of the West is by and large gone and getting goner every day, and no amount of yelling or protesting or voting is going to get it back.

Instead, we now find ourselves with a story nobody wants to hear worshiping a God who has, in the minds of many, become irrelevant – so much so that there is little practical difference for most whether He even exists or not.  New gatekeepers have risen up to offer certainty to the people, and the old ones are viewed with distrust – somewhat deservedly, perhaps.

In this situation, who are we?  What is our story?  What is our purpose?  And pertinent to our reading today, what do we believe God is doing?  Do we believe God will leave the world like this?  Do we believe He is at work?  Do we believe He will act to preserve His people into the next age and the age after that and the age after that?  Do we believe there is yet a master stroke to overturn the systems of injustice and pain that plague creation?  Do we believe that He will keep His promises?

I know what you say you believe, but what do you believe?  The centurion stands before us as a question: do we have this faith?  Do we, who are insiders, have the faith that an outsider might have who has heard these things for the first time?  Will we discover that even though we said all the right things and went through the proper motions of worship that this will mean little in the age to come, while those who believed God’s promises – however “outside” they might be to traditional Christianity – are on the inside?

Maybe we are at a liminal moment in history where we can begin to answer some of those questions honestly.

Consider This

  1. A Roman centurion expressing faith in Jesus would face a number of obstacles and difficult questions.  What are the things that make faith difficult for you?  What are your difficult questions?
  2. Are you discouraged when you look at the state of the world around you and compare it to God’s promises?  Are you discouraged by the delay?  Are their periods in Israel’s history with God that you might find resonance with?

Sunday Meditations: Being the Kingdom

I’ve been reading through Scot McKnight’s Kingdom Conspiracy, and while I think he probably doesn’t press his insights far enough into their conclusions, it’s a very good book, and if you’ve ever wanted a good, popular-level introduction into the ideas raised by the historical-critical world of biblical studies opened up by folks like N.T. Wright and James Dunn, I highly recommend it.

One of the things Scot brings up very early on is the tendency for modern Christianity to make the gospel either about individual “salvation” (where do I go when I die?) or a program of social transformation.  He will argue for a definition of “kingdom work” that I think is headed in the right direction.

When we look at the formation and mission of Israel, we see that their primary job description is to be something.  They are to be a nation of justice, compassion, mercy, restoration, and peace – a shalom kingdom.  For His part, God would ensure this kingdom’s perpetuity and prosperity in the world.

But this kingdom was not supposed to wall itself off and isolate itself in a bubble.  No, by being this kingdom, they were supposed to be a witness to the other nations of the reality and supremacy of their God, the world that this God wanted, and be a model to them of what that looked like.  As they interacted with other nations, they would do so in ways consistent with their identity and witness.  The idea being that other nations would observe this and want to get in on it.  That they, too, would repent of their sins and embrace Israel’s God as their own.

So, Israel was not called to change the world directly – they were called to change themselves and, by doing good to one another and the world they came into contact with – call the nations into joining their project.

When we think about what this means for faithful, YHWH-following communities, today, I would argue the basic identity and mission is still very similar.  Our faith communities (McKnight identifies this with “the local church,” which I don’t think is wrong, exactly, but I don’t want to make a hard equivalency with the specific, Sunday-go-to-meetin’ traditional concept of the local church that we’re used to) are called, first and foremost, to be something.  The call/testimony/invitation to the rest of the world flows out of a healthy and vibrant identity that should be realized in the world.

Our faith communities must run on the Torah of love.  We are to be kingdoms of peace, love, justice, mercy, compassion, and restoration.  When one of us wrongs another, the wrongdoer should be swift to make amends and the wronged should be swift to forgive.  The poor should be clothed and fed.  The weak and struggling should be cared for and helped along.  Mercy and reconciliation should be the themes of our justice, and indeed, justice should rule in our faith communities.  In sum, we should look like the new creation; we should look the way we want the whole world to look.

If we can’t get this together, what are we calling people to?  Where is our authority if we, ourselves, are not this kingdom?  Shall we criticize the immorality of the culture around us if we have people in our congregation who won’t speak to each other?  Shall we call the world into relationship with YHWH while we bar our gates against homosexuals?  Shall we send money to feed the hungry “over there” while we have people in our own congregations who are in danger of eviction?

I realize that particulars are messy, and I don’t want to get into a debate about which needs are greater than other needs, etc. etc.  Every person and congregation has to reason about this together based on what opportunities God has presented to them.  But my point is this: any calling out we do to the outside world or any good we do in the outside world has to begin with a solid core that radiates outward.  Before we give a testimony, we have to be a testimony.

If we could see our way clear to model a counter-cultural community that eschewed the values that drive the nations around us and worked our butts off to realize a community that sacrificially loved and cared for its members and ran itself according to the values God cares about, we might find that others would be interested in this project as well – the broken, the lost, the hungry.  We might find that, rather than going out trying to get people to listen to us, that our doors would be full of people trying to get in.