Sometime last year, Arnold Robledo and I did a quarter-long class called “Immigrants and Refugees in the Bible.” Preparing for this class was life-changing for both of us. Now, I can’t make any claims for myself — I stuck to the script — but Arnold outdid himself in this class. Below are the links to all 13 sessions. We need to be talking about this as we struggle for what it means to be faithful to Jesus amidst the current debates about refugees. My prayer is we will always be shaped more by Scripture than our own fears or those with governmental power.
Recently, I’ve been asked about my philosophy of ministry, so my goal here is to lay out the broad strokes in as few words as possible. Here goes nothing (!) …
First, a few words about what I believe the church exists for. Any notion I have of ministry exists inside of that context.
I believe the church exists to foster and equip people for the kind of life that Jesus lived. Jesus describes this calling in terms of discipleship (Matthew 18:18-20), so I might say the church exists to be and make disciples. Paul describes this discipling process in terms of becoming Christlike (cf. Romans 8:28-29; Ephesians 4:11-16), so I might say the church exists to be like Jesus – as Dallas Willard was known to say, to follow Jesus into his “total way of life.” Both Paul, Jesus, and others will also describe this calling in terms of properly loving God and neighbor (Matthew 22:34-40; Romans 13:8-10; 1 John 4:19-21), so we might speak of the church’s purpose as loving truly and deeply. In other places, Paul speaks of Jesus’ mission as one of reconciliation and reminds us God calls the church to be the ministers of reconciliation in a divided world (Colossians 1:19-20; Ephesians 2:11ff; Galatians 2:11-3:28; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21). Peter reminds us that we are the community of God – “a royal priesthood” and “a holy nation” – that exists in Christ for the blessing of the world (1 Peter 2:9-10).
In practical terms, this means the church is to be a place where our broken world and God’s kingdom of reconciling love collide. It is a place where the vulnerable, the grieving, and those hungry for a better life find reason to rejoice because of what God is doing (more here). The church is to be a place where people find freedom from the destructive cycles that oppress and harm them (and others!) and are introduced to the healing of a new way of life (more here). The church is a community committed to God’s will being done “on earth as it is in heaven” in anticipation of “a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness is at home” (Matthew 6:10; 2 Peter 3:13).
As a minister, my particular role within God’s kingdom project is to work in partnership with congregational leaders to equip Christians to faithfully and passionately take up this kingdom vocation (Ephesians 4:11-16). As Paul would say in another place, my aim is to present every woman and man “mature in Christ” (Colossians 1:28).
Over the years, this work has primarily involved fostering four rhythms in my life and in the lives of those I work with.
The first rhythm is the rhythm of a shared life. Life in the kingdom involves our reorienting every area of our existence to Jesus’ person and calling. From that reorientation, we develop skills, virtues, and practices that reshape our day to day activities in deep ways. To affect this kind of mature Christlikeness, the community of faith must share life together outside the formally gathered times of worship, fellowship, and Bible class. The in and outs of our Monday through Saturday existence are where this reorientation takes root and Christlikeness is honed in practical ways as we learn to rejoice with one another, weep with one another, and work for the blessing of one another and our neighbors.
This rhythm has worked itself out in various ways.
Primarily, Michelle and I have always made it a point to work in the context of community. In Harlingen, I was tasked with developing a small group project that was formally called The Oikos Project. Within two years of the project’s launch, the group Michelle and I led simply referred to itself as village and encapsulated almost every part of our life. (For much more about how this project was organized and operated, see here.) On this point, and through the context of our village life, Michelle and I have also become dedicated to the discipline of radical hospitality. We practice an open door policy in our home and it is not unusual to walk in and discover “extra” people who have happened by. (We always tell first-time guests, don’t be surprised if people just wander in and out of the house, getting things out of the fridge – it’s normal.)
This commitment to shared life also extends to my more formal ministry tasks, I made intentional effort to do in community with my church family. I created a “sermon prep” team that existed to help me discern appropriate topics for our particular context, to join me in meditating on the text for upcoming sermons, and to help ensure I spoke in ways that actually communicated to our church family. Worship was planned in community. I loved to team-preach and team-teach as well, frequently reminding my sisters and brothers that “Christianity is not a solo sport.”
This rhythm becomes the springboard for the remaining rhythms.
If our shared life is where the practical art of following Jesus is developed and honed, our shared worship is where we learn to envision the world we embody the rest of the week. Humans are deeply formed by the stories they tell and worship is primarily an act of story telling (more here). We gather to declare the glories of what God has done, is doing, and has promised to do. Worship shapes our vision and our values, framing how we see and respond to our world, ourselves, and our neighbors.
I do not treat Sunday morning worship as if it is the only aspect of “church” or my role as a minister, but I do treat it as utterly important. It grounds and energizes us as a community of faith, both feeding from the rich depths of shared life and making new depths possible. I am always working to develop deeper rhythms of worship in the life of my church family, both in terms of Sunday worship and in terms of regular routines of disciplines such as prayer, reading, and reflection through the week.
When I speak of developing rhythms of shared faith I do not speak of merely evangelism as we’ve often conceived it in the modern world. Nor do I mean benevolence. What I mean is developing rhythms and practices in the shared life of our faith community that declares who God is to our neighbors. Here, what we say and what we do work in concert, much as Francis of Assisi is thought to have said, “Preach the gospel at all times. If you must, use words.”
I’ll give you one example of how this has played out in my life. Several years ago, I was privileged to work with a small team preparing food in a community that had been devastated by a tornado. Through that week, we were able to not only provide meals, but offer a moment of respite to those ravaged women and men – a place to rest, smile, laugh, cry, and share their stories. Near the end of the week, one lady asked, “Why did you come all this way to do this? You don’t know us. You don’t owe us anything.” My response was to say, “Because we want you to know that God will not let disasters like this have the last word.” Through declaring God in our actions, it opened opportunities for Christians in that community to share God with their words (cf. 1 Peter 3:15).
Wisdom includes knowledge, but is more than knowledge. Wisdom is knowing how to appropriately put all the things you know to proper and healthy use. If Christians are to be followers (which takes all of our bodies) rather than merely believers (which takes just our brains), wisdom has to play a role in the life of our community. This sort of wisdom is not confined to a classroom. (Nor is it best suited to a classroom.) It is what we discover most clearly as intergenerational relationships are fostered in the real-life circumstances of life.
Fostering the sorts of relationships and scenarios that lead to wisdom has become an increasingly important part of my approach to ministry. This was a fundamental plank of what we came to call village life as our village was a diverse, intergenerational community in which each member learned from the others.
Of course, much more could be said on every point raised above and I would be happy to answer questions! But, this is a basic overview of what I am about. I have also been asked to provide samples of my preaching. Below, you will find a few exhibits that I believe are relatively normative, but I’ve also included the link to all of them – so you can listen to the bad ones too!
- The Lapsed
- Me & You: Bear One Another’s Burdens (Galatians 6:2)
- Me & You: Holy Provocation, Batman! (All Saints Day 2016)
- #livesthatmatter: This Life Matters (Philemon)
- #livesthatmatter: Ministers of Reconciliation (2 Cor 5, Eph 2, Philemon)
- All the Sermons (some classes too)
This is another port from a previous blog space. It is the sequal to the blog post linked below that I transferred over earlier in the week.
In a previous post, I shared some things I’ve been thinking about concerning sin and death. Specifically, scripture seems to suggest we have a death problem rather than a sin problem — though sin is inextricably bound to the death problem — and that in a post-fall world, our fear of death drives much of our sinful behavior.
Today, I want to tease that out a little more by looking at how our anxiety over death plays into the curses of Genesis 3. Genesis 3:16–19 serve as a poetic framework for understanding how the world changed when sin and death entered at the fall. In a later post, I want to go back and look at the first part of Genesis 3 and explore how it plays into this theme.
To set the stage, take a look at a familiar passage from Paul:
Just as through one human being sin came into the world, and death came through sin, so death has come to everyone, since everyone has sinned. (Romans 5:12)
Through one human, sin came into the world, opening the door for death. As such, death has now spread to everyone because we have all sinned. What I’m arguing here is simply that once death was set loose in the world by that first sin, our anxieties about death subsequently become the de facto drive behind many subsequent sins. This emphasis on anxiety seems to be present in the earliest descriptions of our broken world in the “curses” of Genesis 3.
Take a look at Genesis 3:16:
To the woman he said, “I will make your pregnancy very painful; in pain you will bear children. You will desire your husband, but he will rule over you.”
Let’s focus on the first part of the text. This is Hebrew poetry, and the two lines of the curse represent a synonymous parallelism, which means we read the second line as restating the first in synonymous terms. We should note a few things.
First, in Hebrew, the phrase very painful refers to the certainty of pain rather than the severity of pain. The English Standard Version picks up on this rendering the phrase “surely multiply your pain.”
Second, the word we translate painful (issabon) is a rare word, only used three times in the Old Testament (cf. Genesis 3:16, 17; 5:29), and taken by itself could refer to either physical or emotional pain.
Third, while the first reference to pain is ambiguous as to whether physical or emotional pain is in view, it’s parallel in the second line (eseb) more commonly refers to emotional pain or anxiety. Further, both words share the same root which is commonly used to refer to emotional distress or anxiety.
Fourth, as we will see, issabon is used in verse 17 in a context that more clearly refers to anxiety rather than physical pain. This is also the case in its only other use in Genesis 5:29.
On the whole, it is more likely the curse refers to the introduction of anxiety or emotional distress into the experience of childbirth rather than physical pain. This provides a more coherent reading of the whole text. Eve and her daughters will now experience anxiety associated with the birth of their children. Why? Death has entered the world. Prior to this, one would not need to ask questions common to us:
“Is the baby all right?” “Is the mother all right?” “What kind of world have I brought my children into?”
There is a powerful counterpoint to this idea in Isaiah 65. If Genesis 3 describes the point at which everything falls apart, Isaiah 65 looks forward to the point when God will put everything back together. In the new heavens and the new earth, mothers will no longer “bear children to a world of horrors.”
Sin has let death loose on the world and a mother’s anxiety at this possibility (or awareness of its inevitability) is the heart of the new reality she helped create.
A similar thing is happening in verses 17–19:
To the man he said, “Because you listened to your wife’s voice and you ate from the tree that I commanded, ‘Don’t eat from it,’ cursed is the fertile land because of you; in pain you will eat from it every day of your life. Weeds and thistles will grow for you, even as you eat the field’s plants; by the sweat of your face you will eat bread — until you return to the fertile land, since from it you were taken; you are soil, to the soil you will return.”
Again, there are several things to notice.
First, this curse is set against the backdrop of the abundance we find in Genesis 1–2. In God’s good creation, things thrive, and multiply, and fill the earth, skies, and sea. Adam and Eve have an abundance of food at hand. Therefore, the news that the earth will now fight back against humankind is about the introduction of scarcity. Now, Adam and Eve will have to tend to their next meal.
Second, within this context of scarcity, the curse is not that Adam will now have to work. It is not even necessarily the case that he will have to work harder — although that could be a part of it. Work was an integral part of the original human calling to bear God’s image. In Genesis 1, humans were called to bear dominion over God’s creation. In Genesis 2, this is expressed in terms of farming and taking care of the garden. Whatever the curse is about, it is not the introduction of work into human experience.
Third, we find the second instance of issabon in Genesis 3:17. Here, it is paralleled with an Ancient Near Eastern idiom for anxiety: “the sweat of your face.” The idea is not that Adam will suddenly start sweating for the first time. Rather, this expression is similar to saying someone “broke out in a sweat” when they became nervous, anxious, or frightened.
Fourth, notice the curse here is explicitly tied to death. You will experience this anxiety until you “return to the fertile land.”
The idea here seems to be sin has now introduced an element of scarcity which hits humanity at it’s most vulnerable — the table. As such, Adam will now work with an enduring anxiety about where the next meal will come from.
At first glance, we may seem far removed from this sort of anxiety in America. I would argue that it is not so far off, that we have gone to great lengths to assure “food security” and that we would go (and have gone) to greater lengths still to keep it. Nonetheless, millions around the world do have this experience on a daily basis.
Anxiety ushered in by death is right at the heart of this early description of what our broken world looks like. My contention is that from Genesis 3:16 onward this deeply rooted fear becomes the driving force behind much of our sinful behavior.
Lately, I’ve put a bit of thought into what you might call my philosophy of ministry. The West is in a time of transition and churches are feeling the effects of those changes. These are times for intentionality, and it strikes me that thinking out loud about how we do business may be a healthy part of that doing things with intention. That’s what I am attempting here.
Recently someone articulated an old truism that gets to the heart of a lot of what I’ve been thinking about. “When your goal is to make disciples, you always get the church; but, when your goal is to grow the church, you won’t necessarily get disciples.”
Pretty near the heart of my ever-evolving approach to my calling is the fact that Jesus never asks us to grow churches. In fact, I tend to believe it is impossible for us to make the church grow. Growth is a by-product of life. At the very least, I tend to privilege faithfulness over growth as a metric of the church’s success. If growth is going to happen, God will bring it about.
We plant. We water. God grows.
Jesus does ask us to be and make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20). This is not the same thing as making the church grow. If discipleship is our calling, the means to our end is largely established. We are called to be a Christ-like community and invite others into that way of life. Only disciples can make other disciples. Only Christ-likeness can foster Christ-likeness in others. Our strategy is constantly leaning deeper into Jesus’ way of life, which will inevitably put us in the path of our neighbors, working for their blessing, reconciliation, and healing as Jesus did for those around him.
If church growth is our purpose, we can do that by being and making Christ-like disciples. However, there are any number of other strategies I might employ (and churches do employ) that neglect or ignore discipleship and Christ-likeness. For instance, a growing group of anxious people enamored with the control that legalism and fundamentalism offers is never healthy, no matter how fast their numbers go up.
What I’m suggesting is that if my goal is to get more people, there are lots of ways to do that. I can stir up their fears over our changing world and offer them security in a nostalgic return to the way things used to be. We might master the art of manipulating emotions so that each gathering provides a euphoric, mountain-top experience. We might tap into the consumerism of our age, analyze our market, and cater to their whims and desires as a spiritual box store.
While these strategies, and any number of others may draw a crowd, it will not produce disciples. And, producing disciples is what we’ve been put here for.
I don’t mean that, as some assume, a growing church is a bad church. I am not suggesting emotions are bad, because I don’t think they are — although I don’t want to manipulate them in others. Nor am I suggesting that we don’t need to know our neighbors well enough to know what they are facing. What I’m suggesting is it is a matter of carts and horses. Discipleship is what we’ve been called to, trusting God can take care of growth when we live and share Jesus and his way of life. Growth is a product of discipleship. Developing a robust, growing Christ-likeness in the life of our congregation, our neighborhoods, and our homes is our way forward.
When I’m on my game, that central idea sits near the heart of how I think ministry needs to be approached.
This is another in a series of older posts I am porting over from an older blog space. This one is from the Fall of 2015. These thoughts continue to be foundational to the way I’ve come to look at things. Enjoy!
Over the summer, I read Richard Beck’s The Slavery of Death and John Romanides’ The Ancestral Sin. These two works have really helped nuance and deepen my understanding of how the broken world goes round — and how the work of Jesus counters that brokenness. Today, I thought I would share some of what I’ve learned.
Growing up in an evangelical context, I have always viewed humanity’s primary dilemma as sin. Working from passages like Romans 6:23 — “ … the wages of sin is death …” — I’ve carried a pretty straightforward view of how things worked. We sin and that leads to death, and so Jesus comes to somehow deal with our sin problem.
In recent years, and especially since I’ve started thinking more deeply about themes of atonement and resurrection, a second set of texts have come to my attention that complicates the simpler narrative about sin and death and Jesus on the cross. For instance, here’s a key passage in Hebrews 2:14–15:
Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, he also shared the same things in the same way. He did this to destroy the one who holds the power over death — the devil — by dying. He set free those who were held in slavery their entire lives by their fear of death.
Here, the Hebrews writer characterizes what Jesus did on the cross as the defeat of the devil who holds power over death. In accomplishing this victory, Jesus redeems us from our slavery to the fear of death.
While not denying sin or it’s ill effects, the writer seems to believe atonement is not so much about our sin problem as it is about our death problem. Then, there is an interesting suite of passages in 1 Corinthians 15:
Death is the last enemy to be brought to an end … (vs. 26)
Death has been swallowed up by a victory. Where is your victory, Death? Where is your sting, Death? Death’s sting is sin … (vs. 54–56)
1 Corinthians 15 is Paul’s treatment of resurrection. This is the victory he refers to in the concluding remarks of vs. 54ff. Of particular interest is that Paul describes the resurrection of Jesus in terms of the defeat of death rather than the defeat of sin. In fact, in quite the reversal from my typical way of thinking about the subject, he calls sin “death’s sting.” Here, sin is what results from death.
Again, these texts suggest a way of looking at the human predicament that is different from the way I’ve grown up looking at it. They suggest the primary dilemma is not sin, but death. Further, while it is clear sin opened the door to death, we are also left with this intriguing notion that our slavery to the fear of death also leads to sin.
This last point, in particular, has captivated me. Working from the perspective of thinkers like the Preacher of Ecclesiastes and Ernest Becker, it seems that our anxieties about death motivate an awful lot of the sinful things we do.
The Preacher points out that our search for meaning in life “under the sun” will always be futile because of death. Whatever we make of the other texts, this is clearly the issue for him. No matter what you accomplish, no matter who you become, it is all vanity because you die. That’s a heavy thought.
Becker comes in and argues (convincingly) that an awful lot of what we do in life amounts to trying to forget, deny, or push past the Preacher’s conclusion. We push back against our anxieties in thousands of subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Sometimes we even push back violently and at the expense of others.
So, sin not only leads to death, but our fear of death also leads to more sin. Round and round that goes, on and on. For me, the old way of looking at the causality of sin and death has changed. It used to be a straight line — sin leads to death. Now it has been replaced by a downward spiral that leads us deeper and deeper into slavery, with death being the primary dilemma we face. Here’s how I sketched it out earlier this week:
Another port from the old blog. I wrote this in 2015, just after the tragic events of Charleston, Paris, and San Bernardino. Of course, we could add many more events of a similar nature since that time. You might also be interested in this class I taught on the same subject.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and talking about the way Christians make decisions lately. I’ve written some about it. I preached a series of messages at 8&H concerning the topic a month or so ago. It is a constant topic of conversation. With tensions high around the world, many churches floundering in America, and a contentious political season ahead, it seemed like the thing to do — and I never would have imagined how heated (and bloody) things have gotten since first making that decision.
In light of recent events around the world, and in light of certain pronouncements made by individuals running for president, I want to offer a summary of those thoughts here. As this is a summary, please keep in mind much more could be said at any given point.
Fear, Power, Accusation
Let’s begin at the beginning, shall we? Over the last few years, many thinkers have helped me shape a succinct theological statement concerning “how the world works” — The world is driven by systems of power, responding to fear that is rooted in accusation.
The basic elements of this statement are fear, power, and accusation.
Fear. In the fall narrative of Genesis 3, sin opens the door to death, and while sin and death are inseparable, both contributing to a destructive downward spiral, death seems to be the problem we face in Scripture. God created us for life, and we rejected him, and when you reject the source of life, that leaves you with death.
As death came into the world, it brought with it a world fundamentally characterized by fear and anxiety. In the language of Genesis 3, Eve would now experience anxiety about childbirth. (Is the baby okay? Is momma okay? What sort of world have I brought my children into? Ad nauseam.) Anxious for where the next meal would come from, Adam would work the land now characterized by scarcity rather than the plenty of Eden. This paradigmatic description about life with sin points to a way of doing life in which the reality of death is never far away. We now live in a world that is fundamentally threatening and scary. Even with all our modern advances and distractions, events like Charleston, Paris, and San Bernardino remind us of this truth.
Power. Death, and our anxiety concerning it, now drive much of what is bad and broken about our world. Centuries after Moses wrote Genesis 3, the author of Hebrews would say we are all slaves to the fear of death (Hebrews 2:14–15). Because sin is a relational break with God, it opened the door to death. Death, in turn, ushered in a world of anxiety and fear. Prompted by these fears, our “natural” responses tend to be ultimately violent and sinful. This sin drives us further away from God and neighbor, starting the cycle all over again.
To be a little more specific, when faced with the anxieties of our scary world, our most common inclination is to respond with power and domination. A litany of examples, biblical and otherwise:
Pharaoh saw the Hebrews and was afraid they would side with his enemies in the event of an attack. He addressed his anxiety by instituting policies of slavery and genocide — by exerting power over the source of his fear. The Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day saw him as a threat to their way of life and posited it was better for one man to die than their way of life be threatened. Pilate exercised his right to crucify Jesus precisely because he feared the implications of the riot he saw forming. In any political season, we are all anxious “the other side” will take control and things will not go well for our municipality, club, state, nation or whatever. As such, we seek to gain more votes — more power — than the other side to ensure things will go well for us. Homeowners associations are mechanisms meant to exert power over those we anxiously worry might damage our property values.
In a scary world, the default ethic is one of out-power, out-shout, out-vote, out-spend, and out-bomb. Even a cursory glance at your Facebook feed or the evening news will reveal this story being played out everywhere.
Accusation. The engine that drives this entire system of power responding to fear is accusation. In both testaments, the term satan means “accuser.” His game is accusation. In Revelation 12, a great battle plays out between the forces of God and the satan. In the end, the dragon is thrown down and an angel heralds the “accuser” who “accuses our brethren day and night” has been defeated. The Greek word for accusation is katagoreo, which is where we get our word categorize.
Whenever fear and anxiety appear in our world, the spirit of the satan is there, pointing to who we might blame for the problems we face. If you will only deal with them things will be better. This is what we find in Genesis 3, with the serpent suggesting to Eve that God was holding her back. This spirit is present in Genesis 4 when Cain takes out his anger on his brother. Israel, anxious about their survival in the wilderness, blame Moses, seek to overthrow him and (shockingly) return to Egypt.
At the heart of our narrative of fear and power is the demonic desire to carve the world up into “us” and “them,” to point the finger and create a scapegoat onto which we might cast blame for the scariness of our world.
The Way of the Cross
A careful analysis of current events will flesh out the reality of the narrative stated above. All around us the story of fear and power and accusation swirls. As Christians, we must learn to recognize it, name it what it is (satanic), and reject it. Of course, the primary reason for our rejecting this narrative is Jesus’ own renunciation of it. This rejection is present at almost every turn in the gospel narrative.
For instance, it is interwoven into the prophetic vision of the coming kingdom of God. In texts like Isaiah 7–9 or 36–40, the prophet looks forward to a time when God will come to establish his kingdom, which is contrasted with the failed and flawed reigns of men like Ahaz, Hezekiah, and the Assyrian and Babylonian rulers. These are the stories Matthew and Luke point towards to give context to what Jesus was doing. This is that, they say. Against the brokenness of the world we’ve made for ourselves, driven by fear, power, and accusation, Jesus has come to establish God’s way of doing business.
We find an even more explicit rejection of this way in Jesus’ temptations. The temptation accounts in Matthew and Luke are not about personal temptations. The tempter approaches Jesus as Son of God — as the King. What kind of king will Jesus be? How will he do business? He offered Jesus the way of bread, circuses, and swords. This was the way of Rome. This is the way of all the nations.
And Jesus rejects it.
The clearest expression of this rejection is the cross. To make this explicit, there are a few things we need to put on the table:
First, by tying Jesus’ ministry into the Old Testament prophetic narrative, the gospel writers make clear Jesus came to mend our broken world. His mission was to answer the scariness of our world — to address the sources of our anxieties. This is vitally important. When Jesus faced the hardship, suffering, and injustice of his world, he did not say, “Well, yes. Things will be bad down here, but hold on and then you can go somewhere better.” Jesus did not come to help us escape beyond the bright blue, but to restore God’s good creation to what it was intended to be. Rather than deny the scariness of the world, in Jesus, God seeks to engage those scary places. In this respect, this is no different than what we seek to do when confronted with the brokenness around us.
Second, Jesus’ world was just as unjust, broken, and violent as ours. Some Christians have written off the way of Jesus for today because he “could never understand what the world has become” or “that’s just not the way our world works.” That sort of claim simply will not hold up to any sort of scrutiny. Any scenario of injustice or evil we can imagine today was principally present in his world as well.
Third, in terms of power, no one has ever had more than Jesus. He was aware of this. In Gethsemane, he demands Peter put away his sword reminding the apostle that at his simple request he could rain down the armies of heaven on the forces of evil in this world. If the use of power were ever to work as a paradigm for meaningfully addressing the deepest hurts and anxieties of our world, this was the time.
Fourth, as regards accusation, no one has ever stood in a better position to assign blame than Jesus. One of the things about the way we do accusation is we (as sinners) lay blame on other sinners, a focus which allows us to ignore our own involvement in the pain and darkness of the world. Jesus, on the other hand, was not complicit in the world’s brokenness. He was sinless. He knew who was to blame, who to dominate in order to “fix” the problem. If the mechanisms of accusation were ever to work in addressing the deepest injustices of the world, Jesus was the man to make those accusations.
Yet, it is clear Jesus took a different path. He could have marched in and wiped out all the evil in the world with the snap of a finger, immediately alleviating all of our ailments, blights, and woes — and he could’ve done it with perfect judgment. This is the game we continually try to play ourselves in light of the anxieties of our age, and it was within the realm of possibility for Jesus as well. He could’ve played this game better than anyone else.
Rather, Jesus made the extraordinary move of laying his considerable power down and chose the path of sacrificial love. He did this, not in spite of all the evil and injustice and wrong that happens in our world, the things we seek so desperately to stop by force of one sort or another, but precisely because of it. When God came to address all the evil in the world, to mend what we’ve broken, he did it by laying his power down and dying on the cross.
And, let’s not forget his request on the cross — “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Jesus doesn’t ignore the guilt of those involved in his death, but he challenges our ethos of accusation with forgiveness.
The cross is a rejection of our normal ways of doing business down to its very core. No wonder it is scandal to the Jews and weakness to the Gentiles. Yet, the foolishness and weakness of the cross that lays down power instead of takes it up, that forgives instead of accuses, is precisely the wisdom of God working itself out for the healing of the world.
In other words, the cross is the explicit rejection of fear, power, and accusation as a means of changing the world. More, the cross is presented as a direct confrontation between the systems of fear, power, and accusation and God’s love. While on Calvary it seemed for all the world the way of bread, circuses, and swords won out over love, God vindicated Jesus’ way of doing business in the resurrection. If I may reclaim a contested phrase for my own purposes, love wins. Jesus now reigns from the right hand of God. The one who holds creation in slavery to the fear of death has been defeated (Hebrews 2:14–15). The accuser has been thrown down, principally defeated by the subversive, sacrificial power of the slaughtered lamb (Revelation 12). Tellingly, John reminds us the devil now rages because he knows his time is short.
At this point, some might object that while Jesus had to die on the cross, we are not Jesus. Had it not been for the necessity of the cross, he might’ve taken a different approach. Yet, Peter draws together Jesus’ response and our ethical obligation in the world (cf. 1 Peter 2). Speaking to abused slaves, those confronted daily with the injustice and anxiety of our world, he calls them to follow the example of Jesus, who refused to threaten or lash out against those who did him wrong, but rather died for them, “entrusting himself to the one who judges righteously.” For Peter (and all the other writers of the New Testament) the cross wasn’t only something Jesus did for us, but it was the lens through which we understand Christ-likeness. It is the heart of our ethical response in the face of a scary world.
Going to the cross, rather than putting people on the cross, is the way forward.
So, here is a summary formulation: The claim to follow Jesus necessitates we reject the narrative of fear and power and accusation as a means of being in or changing the world. Rather, we have been called to take up our crosses and follow Jesus as he responds to the fearfulness and brokenness of our world by laying his power down and acting with love and sacrifice, trusting that God will do what is right, and through his action, the world will be changed.
As I see it, this represents the heart of our ethical response to the world. This is where we begin when thinking through how we ought to respond to any scenario — whether political, economic, social or otherwise.
I’m porting some stuff over from an old blog site – really, from a period of time when I was unfaithful to WordPress(!) – and this is one of those older posts. I didn’t want to lose it and I didn’t want to live in two blog spaces forever. So, there you have it.
I’ve been doing some basic theology review lately. It’s good to occasionally remember how you’re supposed to come at things, especially when things get busy. So here I am.
Tonight, I’m thinking about what theologians call “God’s preferential option for the poor.” God tends to go for the underdogs. He roots for the broken. He visits those who have nothing else going for them. He takes those who have run out of possibilities and accomplishes impossibilities through them.
Frankly, “God’s preferential option for the poor” is a bit of a mouthful for me. In recent years, I’ve simply started saying, “Blessed are the losers.”
When it comes down to it, this is what Jesus’ beatitudes are about (see Matthew 5:3–12 or Luke 6:20–26). The beatitudes are not, as many people suppose, some formula for earning God’s blessing — “Go mourn or get persecuted and then God will bless you!” Jesus isn’t giving us a prescription. It’s description all the way.
The poor, the grieving, the persecuted … these people aren’t blessed because it has somehow become virtuous to be poor, or hurt, or beat up. They are blessed because in the kingdom (which Jesus was announcing!) God is working to bring healing and humanity and dignity to these people.
As for the pure in heart, the meek, and those who hunger for righteousness, Jesus is describing God’s vindication of their way of life. Why do they need vindicating? Because they have chosen a course that may be right, but certainly isn’t easy or popular. Have you ever tried peacemaking? That’s a chump’s game. Better to stay out of it altogether.
So, what Jesus is basically announcing is that God is revealing himself to be for the losers. This is what we called them in high school. Losers. The poor and socially vulnerable. Those who’s life has fallen apart and they are left with nothing but their grief. Those who are picked on. The hopeless cases who are just too goody-goody to be cool. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness because they’ve only known brokenness and disappointment. These are the people God is standing up for and Jesus calls them blessed.
This message plays out in dozens of large and small ways all across the pages of scripture. Abraham and Sarah. The Hebrews. Gideon. Hannah. The prophetic care for the anawim. Zechariah and Elizabeth. Mary. The early church.
I mean, take a minute and go spend some time with texts like Isaiah 61, or Mary’s song in Luke 1, or 1 Corinthians 1:18–2:5. Look at the life of Jesus through the lens of Philippians 2:5–8. This is who God is.
Here’s why theology is important. There’s an ethical and missiological implication here. There are times when I am going to need to take a side. Sometimes we take too many sides on things that really don’t matter, but sometimes you do need to take one. When I need to take a side, I am following in the footsteps of Jesus when I stand beside those without power, that are hurting, that are vulnerable, that are marginalized, that are irreparable and hopeless sinners, that are just plain weird.
When I have to decide, I’m going to side with the losers, because that’s what God delights in doing.
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