Render Unto Caesar: Seek the Welfare of the City

This sermon is the final sermon of a 4-week series I am doing on faith and politics. My goal is not to tell people what to think or who to vote for, but rather to address some of the underlying spiritual issues at play in our national and global politics. I want to help Christians learn how to think about politics. You can listen to audio of the sermon HERE.

Today I finish my 4-week sermon series on faith and politics. I have tried to speak truth, but not give my own opinion. I wanted to give background to change how you approach politics as a Christian. It has been funny, as the series has gone on, that a few people have come up to me and said something like, “Jordan, I wish you would just tell me who you think I should vote for?” Now, I don’t think that everybody wants me just to tell me who to vote for, and I am guessing if I told you then you would just ignore it anyway unless it confirmed what you already wanted to do.

I am still not going to tell you who to vote for, but I think that some of these questions and others I have gotten are coming from a desire to some more practical advice on how to take this background and turn it into positions and voting decisions. So today I want to lay out the process that Christians should go through to think about their politics. In fact, this is not only applicable to politics, but also to our whole lives. This is my way of thinking about it, but I think it is a helpful start for your own thinking.

The problem begins with the very questions that we ask. We ask—who should Christians vote for? What should Christians think about partial birth abortion? We ask these kinds of questions about other things, too. How do we know if someone is a Christian or not? What do I have to do to be able to partake in communion? What does it mean to be a church member?

We want the boundary. We want to know where the line is. Where is in and where is out. Where is the point where we disagree with others? Other religions, like Islam, are defined by these edges. But the Christians faith doesn’t work that way. It is not defined by its boundaries. In fact, the edges are kind of fuzzy in our faith. (DRAW OUTSIDE CIRCLE IN DOTTED LINES)

model-on-flip-chartOur faith is a center-set faith. It is a faith based on a core, a middle, a center… Think about somebody who has children and lives in a house in the country. How do you keep your children from getting lost in the woods? You either have to build a fence and have clearly drawn boundaries, or, if they are older, you have to tell them to stay close to the house. Christianity uses this second strategy. It says, “This is the house. Stay close to the house.”

The center of our faith is Jesus Christ.  (DRAW CROSS AT THE CENTER OF THE CIRLCE) at the heart of our faith is the reality that God loved us so much that he sent Jesus to earth. Jesus died on the cross to free us from sin and death and give us eternal life and right relationship with God the Father. We need to live with an awareness of how much God loves us and how much Christ has sacrificed for the world.

Supporting that center is the Bible. The Bible is the main way and the authoritative way that we can know Jesus. All other ways that we meet Jesus must submit to the Bible. (DRAW A BOOK UNDERNEATH THE CROSS) Anything we think about Jesus or apply from Jesus needs to be measured against the book.

But Jesus gave us a quick way to think about the book. Jesus was once asked the greatest commandment in the Bible. He answered:

[37] And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. [38] This is the great and first commandment. [39] And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. [40] On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40 ESV)

For Jesus, all of the laws in the Bible are centered on the idea of loving God and loving your neighbor. Or, as the Westminster Confession of Faith says, the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. So the core of this book, and the core of our response to Christ, is that we should love God and love our neighbor. (WRITE LOVE GOD ON ONE SIDE OF THE CROSS AND LOVE NEIGHBOR ON THE OTHER)

This is the core of the Christian faith—the saving action of Jesus Christ and our relationship with him, testified about in Scripture, and leading us to love God and love neighbor. This is the house. Rather than give us the exact boundaries around the faith, you and I are meant to stay around the house. That may mean that we can come to different conclusions on particular issues, and that is ok because it is the center that keeps us together.

Too many Christians have lost this center and they make the faith about their boundaries. Then, when someone disagrees with their view on an issue, they can’t stay in relationship with them because they have made the boundary the defining thing. The issue of homosexuality has been particularly problematic for Christians in this regard, as people on both sides of the issue have made that boundary the defining issue of the church. So when people disagree on the issue, they have no choice but to break relationship.

You need a strong core. You need a defining center. That allows you to critique your own views and to disagree with other people and still be in relationship with them. The church needs to make Jesus the center.

Now, outside of the center, but near the center, there are other core biblical values that should define how we think about our lives and our politics. These are fundamentally extensions of this core. They are reflections of how we lift Jesus high, follow scripture, and love God and neighbor. We could talk about these in different ways, but I want to talk about six core biblical values.

 Christians need to care about CREATION. The Bible is clear that [1] The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein, (Psalm 24:1). When God creates Adam and Eve, he tells them:

[28] And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:28 ESV)

Human beings were put on this earth for the purpose of being God’s workforce in creation. We have to do our part to pick up trash, recycle, develop and support sustainable farming, and be careful in our use of natural resources. We can disagree about pipelines and trade with Middle Eastern countries, or if we should be forced to drive energy efficient cars. Those are boundary kind of issues. What is not up for debate is that we should care about creation.

 In the Bible, CHARACTER is important. The Bible puts a high value on truth, on honesty, and on integrity. James 5 tells us to let your yes be yes and your no be no. Paul sees the importance of this development in Romans 5:3-4:

 [3] Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, [4] and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,

God is at work in our hearts through the Holy Spirit. God is changing us. God loves us as we are but God also loves us enough to not leave us like that. We need to be honest and moral people and to strive to develop character in the world around us. So, can you vote for candidates that are dishonest or brash? Those are boundary issues that we have to think about and pray about.

SERVICE is a critical element of the Bible. Jesus doesn’t rule over his disciples with power. He washed their feet. Paul develops this example from Jesus in Philippians 2:

[5] Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, [6] who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, [7] but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. [8] And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5-8)

Jesus leads with Humility and Compassion. These are things we should value as Christians. We should people that go out of our way to help serve others, including the poor, the disabled, orphans, widows, and the elderly. How is it best to serve others? How do you prioritize serving Americans and also caring for those who are here illegally? Boundary issues.

 This is not a topic that people like to talk about in church, but the Bible has a lot to say about WEALTH and how people relate to money. The Bible does not say that money is the root of all evil, as it is often quoted. I Timothy 6:10 tells us that the love of money is the root of all evil. In the chapter before Paul tells us: “The laborer deserves his wages.” (from 1 Timothy 5:18 ESV) I like how the King James used to say it, “A workman is worthy of his hire.” People have the right to glorify God by creating value in the world, and they have the right to be rewarded for the value they create.

The Bible does not have positive things to say about greed, and especially greed at the expense of others. The Bible also does not care for the idea of debt. Proverbs 22:7 warns that [7] The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender. (Proverbs 22:7 ESV) In Israel, debt was supposed to be forgiven every seven years in what was called The Year of Jubilee. People and nations getting strapped by their debt is contrary to the values of the Bible.

But what about tax breaks for the wealthy versus a flat tax, and what about economic regulation of trade with other nations? These are boundary issues.

 Issues of wealth are related to another core value. One of the critical words of the Bible that people frequently use but rarely understand is the idea of JUSTICE. Justice in the Bible is not equality or fairness. Justice really means that things are right and as they should be. The phrase that sometimes gets used in America that captures this well is the idea of “equal opportunity.” It means that people have the chance to make the life they want or God is calling them to. They are not abused and not held back because of the color of their skin, the belief on an issue, or where they are born. It means that you can work hard and learn things and make a life for yourself and be rewarded for your efforts, or you can be lazy and do nothing, but you can make your choice.

 I think that America has had a problem in that we have begun to think about equality instead of equal opportunity. We want everybody to have the same and equally distribute wealth instead of fighting for everyone to have equal opportunities. 

 One of the core and unmovable values of the scriptures is the inherent value of LIFE. In the Bible, people are made in the image of God and valuable not because they can offer something to society. The least valuable to the town can be the most valuable to God. We are accountable for what we do to others.

 For me, the issue of abortion is a core issue and not a boundary issue. You may not agree, but I think that the unborn are to be protected. Psalm 139 proclaims:

          [13] For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
[14] I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
          Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. (Psalm 139:13-14)

Abortion is not the only issue that I base votes on, but I think it is critical. If we do not respect unborn life, then what about the disabled? What about people who are elderly and in nursing homes? Please know, you can disagree with me, but this is one of my biblical convictions.

How can we disagree? Because we are not boundary set. We are center set. We try to stay close to the house. And all these other issues—immigration, taxes, education, marriage, welfare—these are all things we have to prayerfully and thoughtfully consider out of this core.

But how do you do that? How do you take these core values and turn them into votes and political positions? Let me quickly lay out how to think about these other issues.

 First, your overall goal in voting and in your political positions is to seek the welfare of the city where you live. I pick up this language from the book of Jeremiah:

[7] But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jeremiah 29:7 ESV)

These are instructions to the people as they are in exile in other countries. Jeremiah instructs them with a message from God saying they should seek the welfare of the city where they live. What is the best thing for our nation on these issues?

I think that you should be informed and should vote. But also understand that voting is not the end-all-be-all of our involvement in the world. You need to be involved in the issues. For example, I have told you that I deeply care about abortion, but I think that there are practical ways to help with that issue. When women are asked about why they have abortions, they often feel like they don’t have the personal support, the medical services, or the financial ability to care for the child. I think those are issues that we as Christians can actually be helpful in. If we can help the poor and give support to mothers, then we can lower the abortion rate.

 Here is another example. If you look at the orphans in this country that are waiting for families, it is a pretty big list. But I recently saw a statistic that said that if every church in America could support one family to adopt a waiting child, the issue would be solved. No more orphans on the waiting children list.

We should submit to governing authorities. Paul makes this very clear in Romans 13:

[1] Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. [2] Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. (vs. 1-2)

A couple of verses later Paul also makes it clear that we should pay our taxes:

[6] For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. [7] Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. (Romans 13:1-7)

One of the other areas that we are responsible as Christians is to pray for our leaders:

[1] First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, [2] for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. (1 Timothy 2:1-2 ESV)

Anytime I hear people complain about our president or a candidate, or post something very political on Facebook, or forward one of those emails, I want to ask them, “Tell me about how your prayers for that person are going.” Don’t complain about them is you are not going to pray for them.

So, let me address the topic that is the crux of the discussion right now. Did you know that there is an election coming up? Some people are really excited about one candidate or the other. Many people seem at least hesitant about both. Some are terrified of both.

Some Christians are not voting or are writing in a candidate. I am not sure that is the answer. I think there are two main people in this race and one of the two is going to win. I feel like we have to decide between the two whether we like it or not.

 I think what we all have to do, with all this background in mind (POINT AT THE DIAGRAM), is to look at each candidate as a whole—their character, their platform, who they have said they will appoint to their government—and prayerfully seek the welfare of the nation where God has planted you. I think one of the most important things in this election is who they will appoint as judges. The question is: which candidate do you think will do the best, or maybe the least amount of harm to our nation and our world. Pray about it. Think about. And vote.

 And I think I am going to vote for…Nope. I am not going to tell you. But listen to me as I tell you this: Don’t panic. Don’t freak out. Remember who your king is and to what kingdom you truly belong. You are part of God’s eternal kingdom. In the Bible, God uses storms to have his will be done. He uses pagan kings to accomplish his purposes. He uses a cross to give him victory. And he even speaks out of the mouth of an ass. Whoever is elected, find your hope in Christ.

 

 

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Render Unto Caesar: The Politics of Jesus

This sermon is the third of a 4-week series I am doing on faith and politics. My goal is not to tell people what to think or who to vote for, but rather to address some of the underlying spiritual issues at play in our national and global politics. I want to help Christians learn how to think about politics. You can listen to audio of the sermon HERE.

I have been shocked in my own work to prepare for this sermon series at how political the Bible is and, particularly, how political the life of Jesus is. Maybe I have just never looked at the text from this perspective before, but as I have been thinking and reading this month, I can see political realities and political implications on every page of the scriptures. Today, for this sermon, I want to explore how faith and politics mingle and move in the Bible and especially in the life of Jesus.

At the very beginning of the Bible, when God creates the heavens and the earth, we see two big political claims. First, people are made in the image of God. All of us. People are inherently important and valuable. They are not that way because of what they can offer to society. They are like that by their very existence. Second, people are meant to care for God’s creation—to name it, subdue it, and fill it.

This is why it is such a problem when Cain kills Abel. Cain asks, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Yes. You are your brother’s keeper and you are accountable for whatever you do to those that are made in the image of God.

There is an obvious problem. Something goes wrong in the world. What was good is now decidedly “not good.” Society gets more and more evil. God floods the earth and later confuses people’s language at the Tower of Babel so that there will be a limit to the evil that people can accomplish in society.bible-1623181_960_720

But God also begins a plan to do something about the problem of sin and evil. He calls a man named Abram to begin a people that will be a blessing to the nations. The vision has a sense of global and political significance. God says in Genesis 12: [2] And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. [3] I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:2-3 ESV)

Generations later, the growing nation of Israel finds themselves as slaves in Egypt. This is the pivotal moment in the Old Testament. It is the story that defines the people of Israel. God is not a God of slavery. God is a God of freedom. All people are made in the image of God are not to be treated as commodities. The Exodus defines how Israel should treat people—especially the poor, the disenfranchised, and the sojourner in their land. Deuteronomy 24:12-22 says:

 [19] “When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. [20] When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over them again. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. [21] When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not strip it afterward. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. [22] You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this.

So you are supposed to leave the sheaf of your field that you miss for those in need. You were supposed to leave the crops left in the ground for the poor. You were not supposed to harvest the edges of your fields for those living in your borders that could not support themselves.

Don’t go back over the trees again and get what you missed the first time. Leave the extra for those in need. It is the responsibility of all of God’s people to help those in need.

Israel did not have a political structure that looked anything like ours today. Israel was a theocracy. God ruled. He would raise up people like Moses or Joshua to the lead the people, or judges like Gideon or Deborah to guide the people, or prophets like Elijah and Elisha to speak God’s word to the people. These agents of God would lead his kingdom.

But as the people of Israel settled into the land and look at all their neighbors, they began to think that they should have a king. But the prophet Samuel, bringing a message from the Lord, warns them that having a king will mean a lot of sacrifices for them:

[11] He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. [12] And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. [13] He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. [14] He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. [15] He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants (1 Sam 8:10-15)

One of the problems with rulers and leaders is that they take what they want and what they need. They can be captivated by greed and power and a desire for more. People end up becoming a commodity for them to use for what they want to do in their reign. In fact, this happens to the kings of Israel. The kings are corrupted by other religions. The nation follows their lead away from the things of God and towards cruelty and abuse of others. In response, the God raises up prophets to speak out against the king and the in justices of the people.

When we turn to the New Testament, the focus moves from the story of a nation to the story of a person. Jesus steps on the scene and lives a very public and political life.

Before Jesus is even born, his mother sings a song magnifying the Lord for what is happening in her womb. Listen to how political her song is:
[46] And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord,
[47]   and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
[52] he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate;
[53] he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.
[54] He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
[55] as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”  (Luke 1:46-55 ESV)

Mary rejoices because her son will bring the mighty from their thrones and exalt those in humble estate. He will upset rich and poor. Mary sees something politically significant happening inside of her body.

Jesus is born in the midst of a genocide, as King Herod kills all the male children in the region of Bethlehem under two years old. Jesus, in his very existence, is interpreted as a threat to the ruler of Israel. Jesus is not killed, though. Joseph is told in a dream to take his family to Egypt. Think about that—Jesus was a Middle Eastern refugee who immigrated in his childhood to another country.

The entire life of Jesus on earth is a critique against the political structures of his day. Think about the people Jesus spent time with and cared for. He is constantly helping the poor and the disabled. He touches untouchable lepers. He pulls children onto his knee. He crosses racial and ethnic lines in his dealings with Samaritans. Jesus has a relationship with women in his ministry that would be shocking in his day. And he did not care what the established laws were about work on the Sabbath. He just wanted to help and heal others.

Jesus had one disciple named Simon the Zealot (Lk 6:16) who was probably an extremely nationalistic Jew who wanted to rebel against the Roman oppression of Israel. Jesus also had Matthew the tax collector who had sold out to the occupying Roman Empire by collecting the Roman taxes from his own countrymen.

Think about the teachings of Jesus. In his teachings, people are valuable. Sheep are worth finding. Coins are worth tearing the house apart for. Samaritans can be examples of love. The last will be first. Blessed are the poor, the meek, the mourning, the peacemakers, and the persecuted. Jesus said, “Whatever you have done to the least of these, you have done to me.” No wonder the elites and those with power had to get rid of him. His way of living in and seeing the world upset their power structures.

Jesus uses kingdom language as he talks about the Kingdom of Heaven and the Kingdom of God. That may not strike us as political language, since we don’t live under a king or in what we would typically call a kingdom. But Jesus did live in a kingdom. Perhaps, if Jesus was born today, he would talk about the republic of heaven, the democracy of God, the nation of heaven, or the presidency or administration of God. When Jesus says kingdom, he is using the political term of his day.

When Jesus comes into Jerusalem on what we call Palm Sunday, he does so with nationalistic symbols of palm branches waiving. But he doesn’t come riding a horse like the king would have earlier that day. Jesus comes humbly on a donkey. His kingdom is different.

The language of kingdom becomes important at his trial in John 18:

So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” (John 18:33-38a ESV)

Understand the political power of this moment. Jesus has already been tried by the Jewish authorities, but they want him killed, and they have no power to give the death penalty. So Pilate has to do a trial, and his question, because it is the crux of the case against him, is “Are you the King of the Jews?” But Jesus answers that his kingdom is not of this world, obviously, since his disciples are not fighting. Pilate is not convinced of guilt, but, under the pressure of the crowd, he gives Jesus the death penalty. He is crucified, a sentence reserved for political traitors. This was a brutal and public killing that was meant to deter any political rebellion. It would happen at a prominent place outside the city, so that everyone would be reminded what happened when you rebelled against the Romans.duccio_di_buoninsegna_027a

Jesus dies with a sign above his head proclaiming him to be a king. This moment on the cross is the Exodus moment of the New Testament. It is a sign of freedom and a call to treat others differently because you too were once a slave to sin and death. The resurrection is the ultimate sign of this freedom and new life.

The rallying cry of the followers of Jesus became, “Jesus is Lord.” This is a strong political statement in and of itself, because at the end of public assemblies in the Roman Empire the people would all say, “Caesar is lord.” In fact, a gathering to hear the reports or commands of the Caesar was called an ecclesia. This is the same word that the Christians used for their gatherings. The church is named after gatherings to proclaim that Caesar was lord. The church is named after a political gathering.

Jesus said that his kingdom was not of this world, but the understanding of the end of the Bible is that it would not always be that way. Revelation 11:15 proclaims, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.” People from every nation and tongue will someday bow and confess Jesus as Lord. Some of the disciples thought it would happen right away. They asked him before his ascension, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6) They were wrong that it would happen immediately, but it will happen someday.

Until then, we sit here as the followers of Jesus and the people of this Book. It is our job to look at the politics of our day and critique them. We need to do so in a way that is #1 informed by the Bible and #2 inspired by the example of Jesus. What do I mean by that?

To be informed by the Bible means that these stories and ideas shape our imagination about the world and what the world should be. It means having our priorities be set by its priorities. To be informed by the Bible means realizing that the Bible, from start to finish, pushes us into public life with our faith in hand. Our faith is not a private thing. It is such a central part of who we are that it must touch everything we think about it. For every position we take, we should be able to make a case for it out of the Bible.

To be inspired by the example of Jesus means that we approach our public life and political involvement in the mold of Jesus. John Howard Yoder calls Jesus “a social critic and an agitator, a drop-out from the social climb, and the spokesman of a counterculture.” (Politics of Jesus pg. 1) Jesus did not hold political office or become a priest. He was not a centurion. He did not do any picketing or political lobbying. The authority of Jesus did not come from this earth.

What Jesus did do is create an alternative community that looked very different from the world. The citizens of the kingdom cared about people and were based on service. These people lived lives of joy and gratitude because they understood what Jesus had done to save them. They were once slaves but they are now free. They understood where their identifying citizenship truly came from. And it was a community based on humility. Humility—that is not a word that we can use about much that is going on in politics today.

I think that many of us are like those disciples at the ascension, wondering if Jesus is now going to break in and have an earthly kingdom. We want Jesus to break in and make things right in the world. How bad is he going to let things get? But, the thing about the kingdom of Jesus is that it doesn’t come by power. The reign of Jesus moves in this world as he reigns in our hearts, and as we with our lives proclaim that “Jesus is Lord.” We have to learn to accept his kingship in our own lives, because that is how the reign of Christ will change the world—moving from heart to heart to heart. The revolution that began on the cross is perpetuated in the love and service of those that let Christ be Lord in their lives.

The early church followed Christ’s example and was guided by the Bible. They built the first hospitals, the first orphanages, and developed systems of adoption. They served others and worked for the betterment of the kingdoms that they lived in. They built strong churches to care for needs and to develop better citizens for the world. Later, a number of Christians would be influential in forming this nation around the biblical themes of freedom and liberty.

The best thing that we can do for our nation and our world is to be faithful Christians and be faithful churches. What we desperately need right now is for Christians to put Jesus first and to be guided by his Word. Then, heart to heart to heart, the reign of God can change the world.

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Render Unto Caesar: Some Trust in Chariots

This sermon is the second of a 4 week series I am doing on faith and politics. My goal is not to tell people what to think or who to vote for, but rather to address some of the underlying spiritual issues at play in our national and global politics. I want to help Christians learn how to think about politics.You can listen to audio of the sermon HERE.

Today is September 11. Fifteen years ago today, a terrorist plot was executed to use planes to attack important American symbols and take American lives. Planes were flown into the Twin Towers—a symbol of American business, the Pentagon—a symbol of American defense, and perhaps the White House was the target of the fourth plane that never reached its destination—the symbol of America’s leadership. Many lives were lost and devastated by this attack—2,996 people were killed and more than 6,000 injured, but the damage of that day continues.

Most of us remember where we were when we heard the news. I was in college. I got up early to get breakfast across campus. As I passed through the lobby, I saw several students gathered around the TV. This was an unusual sight, so I stopped to see what was happening. Apparently a plan had crashed into one of the World Trade Center Towers. This sounded like bad news, but I was hungry so I went into the cafeteria. When I came out, I found that there were a bunch of people crowded around that TV. Everyone was silent, and people were crying. The other plane had just crashed into the other Tower. This terrible accident was now seen to be what it was—an act of terror against America and on American soil.

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These kind of things have happened around, but not here. Not on our soil. A war was declared in the days that followed. It was a War on Terror, the focus being on taking the fight to terrorist that sought to come after us. Yet, in the 15 years since, we have continued to lose the war on terror within our own hearts. We are nervous about terrorism, mass shootings, and the global economy. Things only seem to be getting worse.

Let us look, for example, at the staggering numbers related to gun violence in our country. According to an article from NBC News, every year, an average of more than 100,000 people are shot.[1] That means that every day about 289 people are shot. On average, about 86 of them die—30 are murdered and 53 kill themselves. Every day two people die accidentally and one person is shot in a police intervention. The city of Chicago has led the way in shootings. Last year, 424 people were killed with guns. As of August Chicago was already above that, with 90 people killed by guns in August alone.

Between 2000 and 2010, 335,509 people died from guns. For a point of reference, Pittsburgh has 307,484 people. More than the population of Pittsburgh died from guns during that 10-year period. A person is killed by a firearm every 17 minutes, 86 are killed every day, and 609 a week. Three times as many kids (15,576) were injured by firearms in 2010 than the number of US Soldiers wounded in action in the war in Afghanistan (5,247).

And just think about that number—5,247 soldiers wounded in action in 2010. We don’t think of the sacrifices that our armed forces are making around the world right now. After all, there is no war or world war going on. But still, there are conflicts that are costing soldiers their lives and limbs as we sit here today.

We are concerned today, and we should be. We have a loss in our sense of security. Perhaps this is accelerated by access to news and social media, since now that we can constantly be in touch with the bad things going on in our world

This poses some real challenges for Christians. How should we feel about defense? Should Christians be pacifists? If we do believe in war, what limits should be placed on the fighting? What should followers of Christ think about the police? Should Christians be in favor of guns, own guns, or believe in more gun control?

The Old Testament is certainly not a book of pacifism. Israel is told to wipe people out and not even let women, children, or animals live. In fact, Israel gets in trouble throughout the Old Testament for showing mercy to people that they were supposed to kill or remove from the land.

The New Testament is also very violent. Babies are killed. People are beheaded, stoned, beaten with rods, and crucified. But this violence is not commanded by God, and it is not carried out by the people of God. Instead, it is carried out against Jesus and his followers. Jesus had some very strong things to say about turning the other cheek, forgiving people 70 times 7 times. His followers were to love their neighbor as themselves, to love their enemies, and pray for those who persecute them.

Bible seems paradoxical on the matter of peace. Psalms declares, “The LORD gives strength to his people; the LORD blesses his people with peace.” (Ps 29:11) But another Psalm says, “Blessed by the Lord my Rock, who teaches my hands to fight, and who trains my fingers for battle.” (Ps 144:1) Jesus says so much about peace, but also said that he did not come to bring peace, but a sword. (Mt 10:34)

Shouldn’t we love the terrorists? Forgive shooters in these mass killings? Turn the other cheek to muggers and thieves?

To help us think through these issues, let me tell you the story of one of my heroes—Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a pastor and theologian whose writings are widely read among Christians. He was a pacifist who opposed war and always looked for peaceful solutions to conflicts. He was a big fan of Gandhi and even had plans to meet with him to talk about his peaceful work in India.

But Bonhoeffer had a problem. He was a German pastor, born in 1906, who was a church leader as Adolf Hitler was coming to power. He had a brother-in-law who was Jewish, and a number of friends who worked very hard to resist Hitler. Bonhoeffer came to America before the war began, and had opportunities to stay here and avoid the conflict. But Bonhoeffer did not think that he could sit aside while his people went through so much. So he returned to Germany.

Bonhoeffer was still travelling to do some preaching and teaching, and so the Gestapo ordered him to be a spy for Germany. At the same time, Bonhoeffer began to feed information to the allies and report false or unimportant language to the Germans. Bonhoeffer became a double agent.

Bonhoeffer saw the cruelty of how people were treated. Jews, Gypsies, gays, the disabled, and anyone who resisted the work of the Nazis were taken off to camps to be tortured and killed. Bonhoeffer watched as the church did little to nothing about it. There were a few heroes, people like Corrie Ten Boom who helped hide and protect the targets of this abuse. But, for the most part, the church did nothing, and even participated in rounding people up and in taking the belongings and businesses of those who were put into camps.

As the war went on, Bonhoeffer moved from pacifist to accomplice. He was actively engaged in a plot to kill Hitler. But the plot did not work, and Bonhoeffer was implicated for his part in the attempted assassination. He was arrested and set to Auschwitz. After two years, just before the end of the war, Hitler sent word to the camps to have his enemies and conspirators against him killed. Bonhoeffer was hung, naked, on April 9, 1945. He was 39 years old. His final words were reported to be “This is the end, for me the beginning of life.”

Bonhoeffer was a pacifist, but, when faced with the atrocities and evil of Hitler’s Germany, he felt forced to act. Yes, as Christians, we should be about grace, love, and forgiveness. But our scriptures also take seriously the existence and persistence of evil. We may read the Bible and see it as archaic and violent, yet think about what happened in Germany during the lifetimes of people in this room, or the attempted genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, or Darfur. We have to acknowledge that the Bible is perhaps one of the most realistic books ever written. Evil does exist.

People are capable of truly terrible things, and yes there is always the possibility of grace and forgiveness. But part of the reconciliation process in the Bible is repentance. Repentance is more than saying you’re sorry. It means relenting or turning the other way. It is a term of changing your ways.

Someday there will be peace. The lion will lie down with the lamb. We won’t need guns anymore. But, until that day, there is evil in this world, and sometimes force is necessary to keep it in check. On this side of heaven, there will always be a need for police, for guns, and for armies. There will always be weaker people in society that need protection and advocacy.

Jesus was once asked to sum up the law. He said to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. Who is your neighbor? Everybody around you. Everything we do needs to be about loving God and loving neighbor.

It is a very high standard to justify war and violence, then, because war is not very loving to the neighbor you are fighting. But, at the same time, there are sometimes when loving your neighbor will mean defending your neighbor from another neighbor. And sometimes loving your neighbor will mean not allowing them to do damage to the neighborhood.

So, how should Christians feel about war and about guns? It is messy. It takes a lot of prayerful consideration. We have a right to bear arms, but can we find out how people are getting these guns and maybe help curb some of these killings? More guns will not stop the issue, and many of these guns are stolen, so I am not sure how legal gun control will help illegal gun sales. I am also not sure that gun control fixes the real problem. If we had less guns, then people would be less sinful, right? We see in the Bible that Cain kills Abel and Judas hangs himself, and they did not have access to guns.img_1861

And what of wars? On September 11, we are reminded of the devastation that hatred can cause. We cannot deny on this day that evil exists. We need a defense system and a military in a broken world, but can we also be careful about our foreign policies, work for the betterment of the world, and try to be ethical in how force is used. If we bomb children or attack homes, then we are terrorists. That is not loving our neighbors.

Maybe the best way to love our neighbors and to stop violence is to address the underlying spiritual issues at play. What kind of nation and world do we live in where so many people want to take their own lives and the lives of others? When our neighbors here and abroad are filled with that kind of despair and hatred? What happened to our families that were supposed to give love and care? What happened to our church that were supposed to teach love and forgiveness?

Those are not government issues. The government cannot strengthen families or help people who are lonely. That is the church’s job. And the answers to these problems are ultimately messy and complicated. They involve taking care of people’s real world problems.

But people don’t want the messiness. When we start talking about politics, and especially these issues of defense, we like things that are black and white or right or wrong. Either you are with me or against me. It becomes very adversarial.  When we are afraid, we want simple answers. We don’t want nuance. We don’t want deep thinking. We don’t want complexity. We want to survive.

But this insecurity exposes the heart of the issue: where does your trust and your hope truly lie? Listen to these words from Psalm 20:

[6] Now I know that the LORD saves his anointed; he will answer him from his holy
heaven with the saving might of his right hand.
[7] Some trust in chariots and some in horses,
but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.
[8] They collapse and fall, but we rise and stand upright.
[9] O LORD, save the king! May he answer us when we call. (Psalm 20:6-9 ESV)

I love that line: “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.” This is a royal Psalm that the people would sing before King David. It is saying that some other kings and other nations trust in the number of chariot and horses. Those were the tanks, stealth bombers, or nuclear bombs of David’s day. The key question of any battle would have been how many chariots and horses do you have. Chariots and horses could mow down an army on foot. The Psalm says that while some people trust in these things, Israel trust in the name of the Lord their God. Some trust in chariots and some in horses…

Some trust in guns and some in gun control, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.
Some trust in politician and political platforms, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.
Some trust in big government and some trust in smaller government, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.
Some trust in police and some do not trust in police, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.
Some trust in one candidate and some trust in the other candidate. Some trust in neither candidate, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.
Some trust in nuclear weapons and some trust in peaceful negotiations, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.
Some trust in national defense and some don’t go on planes anymore, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.

Or, as the song says, “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” Too many Christians have staked their hope is something way less than their true hope. Maybe, if we can set our anchor back in our true hope, we can stop acting out of terror and start acting in faith. Maybe then we can have the clear-mindedness to make a real difference in our world.

Let us pray,

Lord, on this day, 15 Septembers later, we remember the loss and devastation we felt as we saw America attacked. We remember those that lost lives. We pray for the families—wives, husbands, children, grandparents, extended families, and friends—for whom this day marks a day when someone they loved was stolen from them. Continue to grant peace and healing in their lives.

We remember those that were heroic that day. Those that ran into the buildings, and those that helped others. We thank you for police, for fireman, for political leaders, the coast guard and national guard, for the military, and even for those who just simply acted bravely. We pray your blessing and protection on those, at home and abroad, as they protect and serve.

We remember today those brave souls on Flight 93, who, rather than letting their plane be another tool in the hands of the terrorists, sacrificed themselves to take over that plane and forced it to a crash landing.

Lord, help us to be brave in our world. Help us to wade into the messiness of loving our neighbor. We long for the day when you return and war and violence will be no more. May we honor you while we wait. Be our true hope. Amen.

 

[1] http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/01/16/16547690-just-the-facts-gun-violence-in-america?lite

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Render Unto Caesar: Two Kingdoms

This sermon begins a 4 week sermon series I am doing on faith and politics. My goal is not to tell people what to think or who to vote for, but rather to address some of the underlying spiritual issues at play in our national and global politics. I want to help Christians learn how to think about politics.

You can listen to audio of the sermon at http://jordanrimmer.podbean.com/e/render-unto-caesar-two-kingdoms/

One of my life verses comes from 1 Chronicles 12:32, which is in the middle of a list of the people that were in David’s mighty men. It says, “Of Issachar, men who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do, 200 chiefs, and all their kinsmen under their command.” I see myself, as a pastor and also in my own personality and wiring, to be called by God to be of Issachar—to understand the times and know what the people of God should do.

I am not a political person by nature. I do not follow politics very closely. I normally avoid talking about it. But I feel that I need, as a pastor, to take a look at what is going on in the world and to talk about how Christians should respond. I am not going to tell you what to think or who you should vote for. Instead, I want to provide some biblical and theological perspective on how Christians should approach their opinions and actions in the political arena. I would guess that in all your years going to church, you have heard pastors and church members tell you what to think and who to vote for, but you have never been taught how to think about issues and how to approach politics.RenderUntoCaesarFlyer

Several people have told me that I am brave to talk about this, which, frankly, freaks me out a little. I did not know I was being brave. I guess I just feel like we are living in a time of such angst and upheaval, and that the heart of much of this worry and fear is actually spiritual in nature.

Can you remember a time of more fear, more polarization, and more fighting? Where the discussions were filled with such hate and dishonesty? Where government seemed so much like the opposite of servants of the people? Where people disliked the main presidential candidates so strongly, and many dislike both of them? Racial tensions are high. This is one of the first times where freedom of speech and freedom of religion seem like they may not be an American staple forever.  And we are very unsure if the America that we inherited from our grandparents will be the same America that our kids and grandkids will know.

Now, the danger in wading into these topics is that people do get emotional and defensive over their politics, their political parties, and their beliefs. We live in a time when people are quick to be angry, to attack, or to jump to conclusions. Fear has a powerful influence on our behaviors. But we live a faith that talks about grace and forgiveness. The fruit of our lives are supposed to be love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control. I do not see these things much in the world today, especially in politics, but I think we need to nurture and develop them in the church. Let’s do that first through this sermon series as we wade into these difficult issues.

To begin, let’s look at a conversation that Jesus had with some Pharisees.

[15] Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. [16] And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. [17] Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” [18] But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? [19] Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. [20] And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” [21] They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” [22] When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away. (Matthew 22:15-22)

The Pharisees are trying to trap Jesus, so they ask about whether it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar—the ruler of the Roman Empire. It is a trap, because if Jesus says yes then the Jews will get mad at him for supporting the Roman Empire. On the other hand, if he says no, then the Pharisees can get him in trouble with the Romans.

Jesus sees right through the test, and reacts brilliantly. He says to get out a coin. They pull out a denarius, which has Caesar’s picture and name on it. Jesus says, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” They marveled at the answer, because it escaped the problem.

Jesus’ response not only shows his brilliance, but it is also very informative for how we approach faith and politics. There are two kingdoms. There is the Kingdom of this World and the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven. Caesar does have some authority in the kingdom of the world, and so people should pay taxes. But we are part of another kingdom.

Listen to how Jesus puts it in his prayer for the disciples on the night he was betrayed in Jn. 17:

[14] I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. [15] I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. [16] They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.

We are in the world, but we are not of the world. We are supposed to stay in the world, but we do not belong there. Listen to how Paul says it in Philippians 3:20-21: “[20] But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, [21] who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.” Paul uses political language—we are citizens of heaven. We are here waiting for our savior to transform the world.

This is the interesting second part of Jesus’ answer. Yes, we are supposed to render unto Caesar, but we are also supposed to render unto God what is Gods. And everything is Gods. As Psalm 24:1 says, “[1] The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein,…” Or, as theologian Abraham Kuyper put it, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”

We live in this world, but we are citizens of another Kingdom. We live here as an outpost or colony of this other kingdom. Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon call Christians “Resident Aliens.” We live here, but our citizenship is actually somewhere else. And we believe that someday the Kingdom of God will take over the Kingdom of this world. We wait for that day and try to care for the world and the people that will eventually bow to their true sovereign.

There is a difficult set of questions that follows these biblical convictions—what is the relationship between these two kingdoms, and how do we live in both? How do we live as citizens of heaven and still render unto Caesar? How can we stay in the world, but not of it, but also not out of it?

These questions have been at the heart of the American experiment since America declared its independence. Many of the people who came to this New World were fleeing the persecution of state religions. The Puritans, the Presbyterians, and even the Catholics had found themselves persecuted in Europe in places that had established religions that were tied to the governmental structures. Part of the vision of this new nation was to be sure that there would never have a state religion.

Thomas Jefferson said it this way in a letter in 1802: “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.” This is the place where the language of separation of church and state comes from, though it was not original to Jefferson.

In light of this, why is it that America has been described as a Christian nation? Well, to be clear, there was never a moment when everyone in America was a Christian. Christianity was never the accepted religion of the American government. While the founding documents of our country do refer generally to God and a Creator, there is no specifically Christian language in those documents.

The Forefathers were not all Christians, but many were. For example, John Witherspoon was a Presbyterian minister who was a very influential Founding Father and signer of the Declaration of Independence. Many of the Founding Fathers were deists who believed in a general God but not specifically in the Christian faith, like Benjamin Franklin.

Thomas Jefferson would probably be described most accurately as a Unitarian. He actually published a book called The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth in which he literally took a razor and glue to the gospels and took out anything miraculous, including the resurrections, so that you could have the moral teachings of Jesus without all that unbelievable stuff or without believing him to be the Son of God.

Despite the fact that America was never all Christians and was not made to be a Christian nation, America was founded on a strong and agreed upon Judeo-Christian ethic. The Fathers saw religion and morality as critical for a society to work well. George Washington said it this way during his Farewell Address, September 19, 1795:

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them.

For society to work, it needs moral people. Moral people must be developed by religion, because government cannot develop moral people. The church must do that.

Here is what has happened in America. Christianity, particularly Protestant Christianity, has always had a place of prominence and dominance in this country. I think the number of true believers who were genuinely trying to follow Christ has always been relatively small, but for generations people were nominally Christian.

The world is different. We are not living in anything resembling a Christian nation anymore, and I think Christians are in denial about just how morally corrupt we are. Can you remember the blue laws—when things had to be closed on Sunday? When I was a kid, restaurants were open for lunch on Sundays, and people would dress up so that people would think they went to church even if they didn’t. Pastors wouldn’t do marriage if people were living together. If we had that rule today, pastors would never do marriages. How the times have changed!

You see, the church began as a fringe movement—a minority position that gained strength as it was shared between cultures and peoples. Since that time, whenever Christianity has been linked with political power, it has eventually been disastrous for both the church and the government. The church relies on its political power instead of trusting in Christ, and the church gets weaker. The weak church leads to moral indifference, which is devastating to the nation. The nation then tries to control morals, but their only means is by trying to control all behavior.

Compare that to the church around the world. The church is booming in Africa and Asia right now, and even growing in secret in many Muslim countries. But here and in Europe, where religion is free and has been privileged, the church is very stagnant and homogenous.

This problem is exacerbated by the way the church has outsourced much of its work to the government. It is our job to care for the poor. It is our job to care for orphans. It is our job to care for widows. And we get mad when the government does not do a good job at those things or does not do them with the kind of love and compassion that the Bible calls for. But of course the government isn’t going to work like the church. That is the church’s job. And our churches are struggling financially, but we have to pay taxes to the government for doing the things that the church should be doing.

I wish I had more answers for you today, but for today we primarily need to have some context and understand how we got here. For now, let me just end with a few core or baseline convictions for Christians about politics.

  1. Christians should care about what goes on in the world around us. It is God’s world, after all, created by Him and bought back from sin by Jesus on the cross. He is going to come back someday and take it back. We should care about it.
  2. Christians should be engaged in politics. You cannot just say you care or complain about things. You have to act. Christians should know what is going on, vote our convictions, have dialogue about the issues, consider running for office, and pray for our government officials.
  3. The best thing that Christians can do for our nation and our world is to be a strong church. We have the responsibility to develop moral people, build community to talk about and deal with issues, and take care of the poor, the orphaned, and the disenfranchised.
  4. This is probably the most important thing for Christians to hear in our world today: remember where your ultimate citizenship lies. That is where your hope really lies. And no matter who the president is or what the policies are, your hope is Christ.
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Baptism’s New Testament Beginnings

It is not clear when the practice of baptism began. We know that other cultures had washing rites as initiation rituals at the time of Jesus. The Christian practice begins with John the Baptist. John’s baptism is described as a baptism of repentance. Apparently, John would go out into the wilderness and preach and teach about repentance.

Many Christians do not understand the word repentance. To repent is not to say, “I am sorry.” It is also not a matter of asking for forgiveness. To repent is to relent or to turn the other. It means to go a different direction. Have you ever had someone say they are sorry and then do the same thing to you later? They said they were sorry, but they did not repent. John is calling Israel to turn from their ways and live differently. The implication is that they would turn back to God and be washed clean.baptism of Christ

It is interesting that Jesus is baptized in such a way, since we emphasize so strongly that Jesus was tempted in every way that we are, but without sin. (Hebrews 4:15) What does Jesus need to repent from?

One of the theological terms that is helpful here is the vicarious humanity of Christ. In essence, it means that Jesus lives human life in our place or for us. Jesus becomes flesh, walks around, is without sin, repents, and dies the death that we deserve. But then he is risen from the dead, and the sin that should own us is defeated. And we are given, in what Luther called a magnificent exchange, the holiness and sonship of Jesus. Christ dies for us, but we rise with him.

This is a big part of the imagery of baptism. We die with Christ and are risen again with him. This image is best seen when people are immersed under the water rather than being sprinkled with water. Often people would even change their names at their baptism. This is why to this day during a baptism a pastor will ask for the Christian name of the child. Some traditions, like the Catholic church, still allow people to take on new middle names or Christian names when being baptized into the church.

Jesus is baptized and commands people to baptize, but we have no record that he himself baptized anybody. We do know from John 4 that his disciples did. There seemed to be some conflict over those who were baptized by John or Jesus. Jesus commands Baptism as part of the great commission.

I will look at baptism in Acts and the meaning of Baptism for Jesus in the next couple of blogs.

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10 Tips for Surviving a Biblical Language

It is the fall, and students are starting into a new school year. I find myself in an unusual position of being a teaching assistant for an online class. Unfortunately for me, it is a Hebrew class. I can handle it, but it was never my best subject. I was better in Greek, but neither language came easily for me. This got me thinking about how I survived and did well in a year of each language. Here are my 10 tips for surviving a biblical language. I hope they are helpful.

  1. Give it the time it needs. Greek came more naturally for me but I had a more demanding teacher. Hebrew was a less demanding pace, but it came to me a little slower. I wish I could have set how much time the language was going to take, but in the end each language and each part of the language has its own demands. You have to give the work the time that it demands. This can be hard if you are a part-time student or have a lot going on in your life, but there is no way around it.Hebrew_Alphabet
  2. Do a little every day. This is the follow up to #1. You can try to jam the languages into your life where they are convenient, but you will do better to do a little every day.
  3. Nail down your letters and vowels. This is basic stuff so you think it is no big deal. WRONG. You have to nail down your letters, how some letters change shape or sound, and for heaven’s sake get your vowels right. I did not pay enough attention to Hebrew vowel pointing at first and had to go back and really nail it down.
  4. Nail your vocab words. This is simply a must. Live with your flashcards and have them so you can recognize them immediately. Even if you can’t get the right tense or part of the sentence, if you can get the word then you can normally get at least partial credit. Sometimes you can even guess the other parts if you have the right word. You can download flashcard apps on your phone or make cards, but the important thing is to review them like crazy. Perhaps no other cards in your pile are as important as the prepositions. Drill these like crazy. Make a chart of them on your desk for constant use when you translate.
  5. Drill your parsing. Parsing involves describing the noun or verb based on how they are written in the sentence. You will do this a lot, so drill your basic tenses like crazy. I made them into flash cards so that I would see the tense and rattle off the word in its different forms.
  6. Learn to pronounce the words. I did not understand why this was important at first, but I later found that some of the vocal patterns helped me identify the words. Some of the flash card apps even have audio files with them to help with the pronunciation. Plus, if you become a pastor, you can impress people with how smart you are.
  7. Don’t let your early stuff slip. One of the problems with the languages is that, as you go, you learn more tenses, more vocabulary, and more exceptions to the rules. You have to continue to drill the foundational work you do at the beginning of the year. There is nothing worse than missing a word on a test that was from an early lesson. Keep drilling the early words a few times a week even after you think you have mastered them.Greek_Alphabet
  8. Do the homework without the answers first. This only applies if you have the answers, but often books have answers in the back or have answer books. If so, do not do your homework with the answers out or do your translations with the English Bible out. It is too easy to think of the answer and check it before you commit to it and write it down. Do your homework, then correct it. This also adds the extra step of going over the work again in order to correct it.
  9. Keep your English straight. I was amazed when I learned Greek and Hebrew how much I learned about English. I did not know what an infinitive was, what case was, or how important it was for words to agree in a sentence. Paying attention to the English will really help your translation.
  10. Ask for help. I saw several classmates over the years I took biblical languages that would fall behind but wouldn’t say anything or get help. Teacher are normally willing to help you, and there are often teaching assistants who can help tutor you. Now, I also saw students who asked for help when they simply weren’t putting in the time that the language required. That is not good. A teacher can’t help you if you are not doing the work. I guarantee you that you are going to have something in your studies that does not make sense or click with you. Ask for help when those things come up.

One last suggestion: Keep up your languages after you are done with seminary. I wish I had read a little every day or every week to really keep my skill sharpened. I would look up key words every once in a while, or read about a troubling parsing dilemma in the text, but I did not do enough. I am picking it back up now, but it would have been easier to just keep it in the first place.

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Baptism: Old Testament Roots

This is a series of sermons I am doing on Baptism. For the first blog, go HERE. For my series on Communion, go HERE.

There is no baptism in the Old Testament, but there are two Old Testament symbols that get wrapped up in the New Testament symbol of baptism. These are baptism and ceremonial washing. These were very important to the Jewish people. If you wanted to become Jewish when you were not born Jewish, you could. You had to be circumcised and you had to be washed clean. Understanding those symbol brings light to the meaning of baptism.

River_baptism_in_New_Bern

A few days after birth, a male child would be brought to the temple to be circumcised. To understand this moment, you have to understand the biblical language of covenant. You did not make or write a covenant. You cut a covenant. Normally you would cut an animal in half and each take part as a sign of the covenant.

In circumcision, the covenant between the child and God was more literally cut into the skin. This marked physically who that child was and to whom they belong. Namely, they were part of the chosen people and belonged to God. They were part of the covenant and part of the promises God gave to Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and David.

Ceremonial washing was a means for spiritually cleansing after a person was made dirty. Examples of needing to wash in the Old Testament included when a person touched a dead body, when a sick person got better, and when a woman went through their menstruation cycle. In these cases, and numerous others, people had to wash before they could enter the temple again

But where would this washing take place? There is not a lot of water in Jerusalem. It would have to be in a river, or more likely it would be done in one of many washing pools around Jerusalem. These pools had steps that would go down and then back up, so that you could walk the steps and be fully submerged in the middle.

These two symbols do not carry on into the New Testament for Christians. Instead, their meaning is swallowed up into the imagery of baptism. Baptism is a spiritual mark that is cut into a person much like circumcision. It is a sign of acceptance into the community and the place as a child of God. Baptism cleanses of evil and sin and washed the person.

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Communion Thoughts: Blogs about the Lord’s Supper

Here are the links to my blog series on communion, all in one place.

Communion Thoughts #1- What is Communion?

 

Communion Thoughts #2- What Happens During Communion?

 

Communion Thoughts #3- Traditional Practices of Communion

 

WHY I AM NOT DOING INTINCTION ANYMORE

 

Communion Thoughts #5- Seven Great Images for Communion

 

Communion Thoughts #6- Tips for Making Communion More Meaningful

 

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Baptism: What does the Word Mean?

This blog is the first in a series I am doing about baptism and is a follow up to a number of blogs I did on communion. You can check them out at http://jordanrimmer.com.

The word baptize is actually a Greek word. The word is not translated, but rather transliterated right over from the Greek to English. The word is used after the New Testament almost exclusively of the Christian practice. The only other real English usage of the word is to baptize as in to name something. This comes from the tradition that many people would change their name when they were baptized.

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But before the word was used for the Christian sacrament, the word was used for other meanings. It could be understood as putting something in water. It could be translated or understood in context as plunge, drench, inundate, flood, submerge, or dip. It is used of ships being consumed by the sea. It is used of drunkenness—as if you are so inundated by alcohol that you are baptized. It is used to describe the time Herod drowned another man. He baptized him until he suffocated.

The word also had a metaphoric meaning. As we might say today, you are “trying to keep your head above water” or you are “in over your head.” You could be baptized and not be able to get out.

The use of this word for the Christian rite is an interesting choice. Yes, it aptly describes the act of being put into the water, but it also describes a consuming moment of finality. There was no turning back from baptism. It changed everything.

 

Please comment and ask questions on the website or on social media. I want to know your thoughts and questions.

For more info on Baptism and its uses in Greek, see Robert Gagnon’s contribution to the Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization, available at: http://www.robgagnon.net/articles/EncyclopediaOfChristianCivilizationBaptism.pdf

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Ask your Questions about Communion and Baptism

I am finishing a blog series about communion and getting one started about baptism. In light of this, I wondered if I could ask help of my readers. What questions do you have about the sacraments?

  • What questions do you have about communion or baptism?
  • What are your beliefs about communion or baptism?
  • What do you think actually happens at communion or baptism?
  • What was the most special experience of communion or baptism that you have ever had or witnessed?

You can comment on my blog, on Facebook, or on Twitter. I want to start some good dialogue and be able to focus my material on what people actually think about and have questions about the sacraments.

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Update on my Doctor of Ministry

I wanted to give everybody an update on my Doctor of Ministry.  A doctor of ministry is not a Ph.D. It is an applied doctorate. Think of the difference between a Ph.D. in biology and a Medical Doctor. A Ph.D. might know all the bones of the body or how the circulator system works, but if you break your leg you want the medical doctor. They are the ones trained in fixing the leg. A doctor of ministry is not a study in abstract theology or philosophy of ministry. It is an advanced degree in how ministry works.27214779480_cf35fa8ad6_kMy particular program is through George Fox Evangelical Seminary in Portland, OR. (http://www.georgefox.edu/seminary/) The focus is on Semiotics and Future Studies. (http://www.georgefox.edu/seminary/programs/dmin/sfs/index.html)  The term semiotics comes from the Greek word semion meaning sign or symbol. It is the same word the Gospel of John uses for signs that Jesus does. The study of semiotics is a cross between the fields of philosophy and linguistics that looks at how people and cultures express their values and ideas in language, metaphor, and symbolism. It is the study of meaning making—how we communicate and understand symbols. This can range from studying actual signs of advertising or the ways words change over time and are used for different things.

The Christians study of semiotics involves looking at the Bible and Christian tradition through its symbols. It also reads the signs of culture—the ways that the values of the culture come out in media and in language. This leads us to think about the world of the future and what the church needs to do to prepare to do ministry in that world.

My program has a number of components. My cohort of 14 people gathers once a year for an intense learning experience. The orientation happened in Washington, D.C. Last summer we spent a week in Cambridge, England. I just went at the end of May for my last gathering on Orcas Island, WA.

I have had two classes at all times throughout the program so far. One class is an ongoing mentorship with Leonard Sweet. (http://leonardsweet.com/) Len is the author of over 60 books and a frequent speaker around the world. He has taught at Drew Seminary in NJ and United Theological Seminary in Ohio. For Len we have weekly online chats on Monday mornings were we have video, audio, and typing going on simultaneously.  We also read about ½ a book a week and do ongoing conversations via online posts. The goal of these class elements is for Len to mentor us and develop our thinking.

The other class that is ongoing is a series of independent studies that we do researching whatever we want to write our dissertation about. We each have a professor at the seminary that guides us and challenges us through this process. In my own research I have been studying pastors—how they form and follow their identity and how unhealthy identities can lead to stress and burnout. I am proposing that the idea of story could be a helpful paradigm and identity for pastors today. I don’t just mean telling stories. I mean thinking in stories. I have done some preaching and teaching out of this study. (In fact, I confess that much of what I have learned in this program has been tested on you.)

The end of June marks the end of the classwork phase of the program. I am now shifting to working very hard on my dissertation. To graduate in the spring, my dissertation needs to be done in the beginning of January. This sounds very fast, and it is. Only about ½ of student make that first graduation. Still, the research is largely done and large pieces of the dissertation has already been written in the independent studies.

The program also gives me the opportunity to do a non-traditional dissertation. In my case, half of my writing (20,000-25,000 words) will be academic writing explaining my research. In particular, it will describe the problem of pastoral identity and the proposed solution of story. The other half (another 20,000-25,000 words) will be a book proposal and several chapters of a writing sample. I am calling “The Story Pastor.” If all goes well, by January I should be turning in the dissertation and have a book proposal and book started that I can send to publishers.

I want to thank you for your support on this journey. So many people have asked about my program, wondered how it was going, and supported me through it all. You may see me at Starbucks and Panera a lot more as the year moves on. I am planning to take one of my days off each week to camp out and write all day. Please continue to pray for me as I finish this marathon.

And thanks for letting me experiment with this stuff on you. I believe I have grown a lot from this program and I hope you can feel the benefit from that as well.

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Mountains and Valleys

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There is a very interesting theme of mountains and valleys in the Bible. All kids of high points happen on mountains. Moses gets the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. Mount Zion is the site of the Jewish Temple. We have the Sermon on the Mount and the Transfiguration on a mountain. The Psalms refer often to mountains. For instance, Psalm 98:8 says, ”let the hills sing for joy together.”

All kids of low points happen in valleys. The Valley of Jezreel is where Jehu killed Jehorum and where Hosea 1:5 says that judgment will come upon Israel. The Valley of Siddim is where Sodom and Gomorroah were located. Achan was stoned in the Valley of Achor. The place that Jesus used to speak of hell was called Gehenna and it is a valley outside of Jerusalem that was used as the city dump. The Psalmist tells us that we sometimes “walk through the valley of the shadow of death.”

This is one of the areas of scripture that is truest to life. We have mountains and valleys. We have high points and low points.

This week I am coming off of a major mountain top. I spent last week on Orcas Island in upper Washington state. It was the last gathering for my doctor of ministry program. It was a beautiful place spent laughing and learning with great friends. It was also the first time since our honeymoon that my wife and I had more than one night away from our kids. My wife even got to fulfill a lifelong dream of seeing Orcas in the wild.

And now it is over. I am back to life. And it feels like a valley. I am tired. I am a bit down. I don’t have enough energy and motivation to get ahead on things. I have been doing the things I need to do, but I am also taking time to recover.

Here is the thing I am clinging to- the feelings of mountains and valleys are not representative of how close God is. God is the Lord of the valleys and the mountains. Psalm 95:4 tells us-

         In his hand are the depths of the earth;
the heights of the mountains are his also.

God is with us in both. In fact, they are often related. Anytime you come off the mountaintop it feels like a valley. Anytime you climb out of a valley it feels like a mountaintop.

So cling to mountain experiences—sometimes they don’t come back around for a while and they are your chance to get a larger perspective. And be patient in the valley because those are the times that can shape your character most. And realize that wherever you are Jesus is Lord there too.

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Communion Thoughts #6- Tips for Making Communion More Meaningful

I have been writing a series of blogs about Communion. I talked about WHAT IS COMMUNION and WHAT HAPPENS DURING COMMUNION. I also blogged about HOW IT IS SERVED. I did a blog about WHY I AM NOT DOING COMMUNION BY INTINCTION ANYMORE. In my last blog I gave SEVEN GREAT IMAGES FOR COMMUNION. In my next blog I will give seven specific ways I have tried to enliven communion. Here I just want to list some general tips for making communion more meaningful.

Use different names- If you call it communion, then explain the other terms and use them. Serve Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper next time. This will help take people off of automatic pilot and get them thinking.

Use different images- Communion is not just one image or metaphor. It is loaded with different aspects, images, and thoughts. Don’t get in the habit of saying the same think every time you do it.St_Michael_the_Archangel,_Findlay,_OH_-_bread_and_wine

Decorate the table- The table itself provides lots of opportunities for imagery and creativity. The experience automatically changes if the table is covered in flowers. One time I preached about Daniel in the lion’s den. When people came forward, the table was covered in plastic lions. I read about a sermon that talked about Christ being our safety and security. The image they used was of a kid’s blanket. The table was decorated in children’s blankets. I even think the table can change. What happens if the table is actually a door set up like a table?

Flow from the sermon right into communion- In most of our services the sermon is set up to be the highlight and communion is a response. But what if we reorient the service so that the sacrament is the highlight and the sermon is part of the sacrament. I have even preached from the communion table.

Build an action into coming to the table- Have people pick something up or lay something down on the way to communion. Have them write sins on rice paper and dissolve the paper in water on the way to the table.

World Communion Sunday This is becoming one of my favorite Sundays of the year. I have ANOTHER BLOG with ideas on making this day special. We normally serve lots of different colors, textures, and shapes of breads to represent world Christianity.

Do bread together and juice separately- I really like this imagery. I ask people to hold the bread so that we take it together as one body and remember that God saves us corporately. I then ask people to take the juice individually when they get it. Here they are asked to reflect on Christ’s saving work for them personally.

Serve on mirrors- I love the imagery of the sacrament being a reflection of Christ and that we are in some way “lifted up” into His presence. Mirrors help show that.

Have people stand around the table- We have done this a few times in my church and people always find it very special. We have everybody come up and crowd around the table. We then take the elements and pass them around as a family would. I realize not every church can do this, but this is one that small churches need to try. I also recommend have some chairs or the first pew available for those with mobility issues.

What other things do you do to liven up communion?

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Communion Thoughts #5- Seven Great Images for Communion

I have been writing a series of blogs about Communion. I talked about WHAT IS COMMUNION and WHAT HAPPENS DURING COMMUNION. I also blogged about HOW IT IS SERVED. In my last blog I talked about WHY I AM NOT DOING COMMUNION BY INTINCTION ANYMORE.

Here is my big point with this blog series: I love communion. I don’t want to get rid of it. I don’t think we should just change to fit the culture. But I do think that we need to take a hard look at the symbols and words that we are using. Sometimes they don’t mean now what they used to. Sometimes they actually mean something else that represents the opposite of what they were intended. Sometimes our practices do not accurately represent our theology or our intention for an act.Jesus communion

With this in mind, I want to shift this blog series from a theological and theoretical focus to a very practical focus. So here are seven images and symbols that I like to use or emphasize during communion. I might use these as I am serving the elements or as part of my introduction. Sometimes I use them in sermons leading up to communion.

  1. The Gathered Loaf– One of the oldest communion liturgies that we have comes from the Didache. It uses this line: “As this broken bread was scattered over the hills and then, when gathered, became one mass, so may Thy Church be gathered from the ends of the earth into Thy Kingdom.” This is such a beautiful image. The bread was once many different grains on many different fields but they were mixed together to make the one loaf. This is what the church is. It is a collection of people God brings together.
  2. Ordinary Grape Juice or Wine– I love the idea that we do not use special or super-holy juice or wine or the sacrament. Somebody went to the grocery store and bought grape juice. The person who bought the grape juice in front of ours just wanted to drink grape juice, but our ordinary grape juice was pulled out for a sacred use. It was used to represent the covenant of Jesus. That is our story. We are ordinary and called out to represent God’s covenant in this world.
  3. Broken and Pressed– Sometimes people pre-cut the loaf of bread so that it is easier for the pastor to break. I sometimes like for that to not be done. I emphasize that it was not easy for Jesus to pay the price for our sin. He did so with His own broken body. It is not easy for us to follow Jesus either. So I emphasize the difficulty as I work to break the bread. A similar image is found in thinking about where the juice comes from. The grapes have to be pressed. This also opens up the imagery from 2 Corinthians 4 that we are “pressed but not crushed.” Communion reminds us that Jesus was pressed and broken for all the places where we are pressed and broken.
  4. The Table– My teacher Leonard Sweet has written a great book about the idea of table called TABLET TO TABLE. We fail to understand the importance of tabling with others because we don’t eat at dinner tables very often anymore. Jesus was crucified in great part because of who He at with. To eat with someone in Jesus’ day was to accept them. The table is the place where we are accepted by God.
  5. Lifted Up– One of the common images in the communion liturgy is to lift up your hearts to the Lord. This is such a great image. We are, at the table, lifted up by the power of the Holy Spirit into the presence of God. Think about that—God is not brought down but we are lifted up. What are the things in your life that you need to be lifted up from? Sometimes communion is served on mirrors to represent this idea that when we look at the table or look at the elements we are peering up into heaven.
  6. Communion Tokens– I bought a couple of communion tokens on Ebay and get them out every once in a while. The idea was that before communion you would meet with the elders of the church who would question you to see if you were living faithfully to Christ. If you were, they would deem you able to take communion and give you a communion token. You would then give that token on your way to the table. The practice did not hang around because it was cumbersome and judgement. We have enough problems nominating elders in many churches. It was a little antithetical to the grace of the table. But it also showed the importance of judging your heart and your faith before you go to the table.
  7. Show forth the Lord’s Death– These words are Paul’s commentary of his retelling of the first communion in 1 Corinthians 11. They orient the focus on the Lord’s death and the meaning of that sacrifice. These words also mean that we show forth. We carry on the image. We bring it forward. But the time is coming when we will no longer do communion. We do it until the Lord comes again. It is a place holder. When Jesus comes it will no longer be necessary to have a symbol because we will have the Lamb.
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WHY I AM NOT DOING INTINCTION ANYMORE

Intinction is the style of communion where a person takes a piece of bread (often ripping it off of the loaf) and dips it into a communal cup of wine (or often grape juice). This practice is seen as early as the writing so Julius I in around 340 A.D. It way predates our use of individual cups in the pews, which don’t date until the 1890’s.

Recently I have become aware that the practice of intinction bothers some people. People are touching the loaf and sharing germs. People often end up putting their fingers (and fingernails) into the cup, especially if they only rip off a small piece of bread. If we used wine it would kill more germs, but not all. The other problem is that some people rip off a very large piece of bread and have to awkwardly dip it and take a long time to consume it. Some people don’t care for the texture of soggy bread, and I always end up having to wipe juice off of the floor after we have intinction. I am just glad that we do not have carpeting.

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When I first heard about these complaints from people in my church, I brushed it off. These people just need to get over it, right? But the more I thought about it, the more that I found that needing to “get over it” to come to the communion table is contrary to the message of the table. Communion should be a symbol of welcome, of love, and of gratitude. You don’t have to “get over” the junk in your life—sin, bad habits, guilt, shame. The whole story is that Jesus paid for those on the cross. He “got over” those things for you.

For many people, intinction becomes a time of stress, worry, and disgust. The symbol is backfiring. For many people in the pews today, communion by intinction represents the opposite of what it is meant to represent.

We could change the practice. The bread could be pre-cut. The server could dip the bread. But, in the end, I think I am not doing it anymore. I am doing communion, but that particular expression or style of communion is leaving my practice. I know that some people will love this decision, others won’t understand it, and still others will dislike it. I am personally sad to see intinction go. But the symbol is such a problem for so many people that I am willing to let it go for their sakes.

This is important not just for the practice of communion. This is exactly the kind of discussion that the church needs to be in right now. The church is full of symbols. We have hymns, liturgy, architecture, personal disciplines… We have stories and metaphors. But the problem with all language and especially with symbolic language or practice is that it changes.

Different words, actions, and symbols mean different things in different place and at different times. For example, if I wear a shirt with a rainbow on it, it means something today that it did not mean just a few years ago. The word artificial used to mean “artfully and skillfully constructed,” but now it basically means the opposite.

We have lost touch with our symbols. Do people in our churches know why we light candles at the beginning of worship, why we pass the peace, or why we do communion after the sermon? Do people know that our worship spaces are modelled after the Jewish temple, that our ceilings are meant to look like the inside of a ship, or that stained glass was at one time the only Bible people had?Last supper icon

The problem is that if we don’t understand our own symbols, how can we possibly understand what will work and what will not in our culture today?

This is scary for people, because it might mean we have to change. Here is the reality: many of the things we hold as sacred are not actually sacred. They may represent something sacred—like communion representing the saving life and work of Jesus. But their particular expressions are not. We know that Jesus served communion with a meal in between the elements, so it was clearly NOT inctinction. They were developed to signify the sacred for a particular time and place. Maybe they don’t work as well or mean something else for our time and place.

If others want to do intinction then that is fine. I might revisit it again later, perhaps with some adaptation to help people accept it. But for now, I am going to set it aside.

What are your thoughts on intinction?

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Communion Thoughts #3- Traditional Practices of Communion

I previously blogged about WHAT COMMUNION IS and WHAT HAPPENS DURING COMMUNION. I now turn to how we actually do communion. Communion has as many practices as it does names and theological perspectives. There are lots of different ways to do communion.

In the early church, communion was a less structured and more organic part of the church gathering. There were no church buildings so people would meet in homes for a meal, some teaching, and the sacrament. If you were not a baptized member of the community, you would be excused from the meal before the bread and wine. In fact, the early Christ-followers were accused of being cannibals because it was said they meet secretly to eat flesh and drink blood.

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We don’t know much about how they took the sacrament, but we can be sure that they did not have little individual cups that could be passed around or little wafers with crosses on them. They used whatever bread or wine they had at the meal. The little cups that many protestants are mainly aware of do not show up until the late 1800’s. Until then, you either did the bread and wine separately or you might have dipped the bread in the wine (called intinction). Some traditions even mix the two together before you partake of it.

Sometimes the elements are served by the pastor or priest up front. This can be done standing or on kneelers. The bread or wafer can be placed into your hand or directly into your mouth. They can also be individual cups or everyone can drink from the same cup.

Many protestants have the elements delivered to them in their pews. Plates of bread come around, followed by a tray with individual cups of juice. Less frequently, everybody comes forward to rip off a piece of bread and dip it into the juice.

I have found that a self-service style of communion works very well. I set a table with the elements on it, and people come up and help themselves to them. For a more intimate communion experience, have everyone come up and stand together around the table so that it feels more like a shared family meal.stained glass 3

The elements themselves can vary also. I personally like the imagery better if the bread is tasty, but some traditions use a wafer or unleavened bread. I just find it to be a better experience if the bread is enjoyed and not survived. Most of Christian history and much of the world today uses wine for communion. In America, there is a tradition stemming from Prohibition where juice is used. In fact, Welch’s grape juice was invented by a Methodist name Thomas Welch as an alternative to wine for the sacrament.

Why is all this important? I have been arguing that communion is a rich and diverse metaphor and tradition. The depth is somewhat lost if you have only ever had communion one way or with one style of elements. There is no reason for it to become routine when there are so many traditional ways of doing it. I will be proposing in the coming blogs some new and creative ways to do communion, but a great place to start is to try it in a way that is different from what you have experienced but is still traditional.

How do you typically do communion? What do you like and not like about doing it that way?

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Communion Thoughts #2- What Happens During Communion?

In my first blog in this series I looked at what communion is. In this blog, I take on the question of what happens during communion.

The problem with this is that the church does not generally believe the same thing about what happens during the sacrament or even that it is a sacrament. There are generally four views.cups

Memorialism is held by many independent and Baptist churches. It is a view that there is nothing particularly sacred and nothing especially spiritual happening during communion. It is simply a symbolic act.

Catholics believe in transubstantiation. In this view, the elements change into the actual body and blood of Jesus. These are sacrificed by the priest and then received by the congregants. This does not mean that it tastes different. The bread and wine remain in appearance and to the senses as it was before. But its substance is in a miraculous and unexplainable way into the body and blood of Christ. This helps explain why Catholics are only supposed to receive communion from a priest.

The Lutheran tradition generally follows the idea of consubstantiation. Though Luther never used that term, he did talk about the communion elements as being special. He thought that we do not need another sacrifice since Christ’s sacrifice was complete. This means that the elements do not become the actual body and blood to be sacrificed again. But Christ is present “in, with, and under” the elements.

John Calvin moved the spiritual activity of communion away from the elements of bread and wine and toward the table. His view is called real presence because God is present in a special way at the table. Calvin loved the liturgy that says, “Life up your hearts” and is answered, “We lift up our hearts to the Lord.” For Calvin, that is what happened. We are met in a special way at the communion table as we are lifted into the presence of the Lord.

Not everyone fits neatly into one of these perspectives. The Orthodox church see the sacrament as a mystery of special presence and does not try to explain that. The Salvation Army and the Quakers do not even have a practice of communion.stained glass communion

We can say a few things for sure. We know from 1 Corinthians 11 that communion is centered around remembering. Jesus says to “do this in remembrance of me.” (vs 24-25) Paul adds the words that, “as often as you eat of this bread and drink of this cup, you show forth the Lord’s death until we come again.” (vs 26) Clearly we are remembering and showing the Lord’s death in the sacrament. Yet the seriousness with which Paul treat the practice of communion makes it clear that more is going on than just remembrance. (vs 27ff) You bring judgment on yourself if you are not careful going to the table.

I personally am in the Real Presence camp. I think the sacredness makes more sense biblically associated with the presence of the Holy Spirit at the table.

What is your view? Why do you hold that view?

How do your practices of communion jive with your view?

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Communion Thoughts #1- What is Communion?

I have decided to take a few weeks to blog about the sacrament of communion. This is a special part of the church, but there is lots of disagreement in the church about what to call it, how to do it, and what actually happens when we do it. I think it is also time for some creativity and experimentation with the images and practices of communion that I would like to share.

So what is communion? Communion is a practice that was begun by Jesus and carried on throughout church history. It is at its core a ritual reenactment and a participator symbol in Christ’s death. I will leave the nuances of what exactly happens during this practice to a later blog discussion, since there is disagreement as to what happens and exactly how much this is more than a symbolic act.communion 4

I want to focus for this first blog post on what we call communion. When we take a look at the names of communion, we get a sense of the rich and complex set of ideas of what communion is. This has a great sense of past, present and future.

Some traditions tend to use the term Eucharist. This term comes from the Greek word for grace. It has a sense of celebrating and remembering Christ’s gracious act for us on the Cross in the past.

Some traditions tend to use the term Communion. As you can see from the title of this blog, my tribe tends to use this one. Communion gives the event a sense of community and relationship. This works on two levels. One the one hand, we are communing with God is a special way in this moment and we obey Christ and remember His sacrifice. On the other hand, we commune with one another as the body of Christ. This has a very strong sense of present as we communion vertically and horizontally in the present and we believe Jesus is present with us.

Some traditions tend to call this ritual The Lord’s Supper. This has a strong sense of future as we look to the end of time when Jesus will lead a great banquet here on earth. We are meant, then, to look forward to this event and long for it.

The other term that is sometimes used is the idea of a Love Feast or an Agape Feast. This is actually an early way to talk about communion, especially when it is done in the context of a shared meal. It represents the meaning of the sacrament as a symbol of love.

In most traditions we call communion a Sacrament. This word represents the sacredness of the event. It testifies to the inward spiritual activity that is going on in the outward symbolic act.communion stained glass 2

What we can see right away as we think about the names of communion is that it is not a single note symbol. It is a rich chord of different ideas, concepts, and symbols that can mean different things in different times. I will explore this further, but I want to right away challenge you to think about and appreciate the richness.

Here is the question I want to build to: Does your practice of communion at your church represent this richness, or is it always done the same way with the same words and the same ideas highlighted? Maybe your tradition says that it has to be done a certain way, but in most traditions there is a lot of opportunity for some freshness to communion. We need to explore some of these contemporary and original ideas.

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Finding Your Identity in Christ

I have been thinking a lot about identity of late. I have come to believe that how you and I view ourselves has a huge impact on how we act and react in different situations. If I see myself as passive and a victim in certain situations, then I am likely to get pushed around. If you see yourself as powerful and in control, then you would react totally in the same situations.

There is a lot of research that has been done into the idea of identity. We have different kinds of identities. Personal identities are ones that you and I hold for ourselves. Role identities related to jobs or responsibilities. Social identities are ones based on our relationships such as who we know or who we are related to.

identity

This means that we all have multiple identities that we move in and out of in different contexts at different times. Have you ever mixed your social groups? Have you ever mixed your college friends and your church friends? It may have been awkward because you have different identities with each of these groups and you don’t know who to be when they mix.

These identities change over time as we change, our contexts change, and as we test out our identities in real life. For example, if I see myself as the boss but nobody listens to me, then I have a problem. Either the people supposedly working for me are losers or I have to adjust my identity to acknowledge that I am not the boss I think I am.

While Paul does not talk about identity in our modern psychological terms in his letters, I think it is an underlying theme in his works. He writes in 2 Corinthians 5:17 that “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”

Paul’s theology of identity relates to the resurrection of Jesus. He lays it out in Colossians 3 that we have died with Christ and have been raised with Christ. We are considered to be new in Christ. Yet we still have some of our old self in us. We need to put to death all thee selfish actions and destructive behaviors of our old selves. We cannot walk in them anymore. Paul does not think that you are earning your new status. Actually, as Christians we are supposed to become what we already are in Christ.

The idea of Christians finding their identity in Christ is especially difficult in the world we live in. We live in a world where everything is an identity. I know people who find their identity in their job, their kids, who they hang out with, the car they drive, the neighborhood they live in, their sexual preferences, the color of their skin…

We make anything and everything an identity today. But the problem with all of these things is that they cannot hold up to the pressure of life. Identities quickly become idolatries, and idols always let you down because they cannot hold the weight of your life.

The only hope is to find your identity in Christ. That is the only thing that will hold up to the pressures of life. That does not mean that you lose all of those other aspects of your life. They are reordered to less importance. They are less defining when your identity is truly found in Christ. They are arranged to fit around Christ’s purpose for your life.

But all of these parts of your life also become more beautiful in Christ. I am not my kids and should not find my identity in them, yet when I look at being a father in Christ the value of that work and the purpose of that responsibility takes on a whole new meaning. Your job is not a good identity, but it can be a holy calling if you see it in Christ.

Your life because so much more in Christ. If you are finding your identity in anything other than Christ, then you are selling yourself short.

 

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Easter is on a Jewish Holiday (and it is amazing)

It was a special Sunday- that first day of the week after Passover. Imagine how devastated the disciples and the followers of Jesus must have been. A week before they had marched into Jerusalem with palm branches waving saying Hosanna- Save us please. Now their savior was dead. And not just dead- Crucified. Killed publically and brutally. Could they be next? Are the Romans going to silence them also?

We also need to understand that Jesus died during a very important season for the Jews. Jesus died on Passover.  Friday was the holy day of Passover, which was celebrated in homes the day before. The death of Jesus was bathed in this imagery. Jesus was the blameless lamb that was slain without putting up a defense. Jesus purchases his people from slaver. Jesus is the broken bread. Jesus is the promised Messiah come to save the people again.Firstfruits

What most people don’t know about that Sunday is that Jesus actually rose from the dead on another Jewish holiday. I did not know until I heard it in this blog post by Ron Cantor–a Messianic Jewish pastor from Israel that I follow on Facebook.

The actual day was debated between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, but at the time the Sunday following the Sabbath after Passover would have been The Festival of First Fruits. This is a festival that many cultures had to some degree or another. In that part of the world, many things would be harvested in the spring. God calls the people of Israel to a special festival at this time of year.

In Leviticus 23 God tells Israel to celebrate:

And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you come into the land that I give you and reap its harvest, you shall bring the sheaf of the firstfruits of your harvest to the priest, and he shall wave the sheaf before the LORD, so that you may be accepted. On the day after the Sabbath the priest shall wave it. And on the day when you wave the sheaf, you shall offer a male lamb a year old without blemish as a burnt offering to the LORD.   (Leviticus 23:9-12 ESV)

This was a day was set apart to celebrate 2 things. First, it was the beginning of the harvest season. The people gathered together to give God the first 10% of their harvest and pray for a bountiful remainder of the harvest season. This was also a celebration of the giving of the law at Sinai. The Law was seen as the beginning of a great harvest in Israel. It would be fruitful for the people and for the nations around them.

The celebration was the beginning of the Festival of Weeks or sometimes called the Festival of Reaping. Over the next 7 weeks, farmers could come into Jerusalem to present their offering. They would bring a sheaf of grains, sometimes on the end of a stick, and people would cheer and sing on their way to the Temple. People would bring offering from the 7 harvested plants Israel was known for—wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates. (Deut 8:8)

The sheaf would be brought before the priest, who would wave the sheaf around the altar. There would be dancing, praying, and singing. It was a great moment of pride and gratitude for the farmers, and it was especially esteemed to be there on the very first day of firstfruits.Sheafs

The book of Ruth was read from and sung on those days for a number of reasons. The events of the book of Ruth occur during the harvest time of year. Ruth is the great grandmother of David, and it was taught that David was born and died on the day of the bringing of the firstfruits. Ruth is a book about loving-kindness which is what the law was supposed to be about. So Ruth became associated with this festival.

This festival would go on for 7 weeks and end 50 days. In fact, the reference to 50 days in Latin is why we call this festival Pentecost.

Perhaps it is this festival that Paul has in mind in 1 Corinthians 15:

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “all things are put in subjection,” it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all. (1 Corinthians 15:20-28 ESV)

Paul does not speak specifically about the Festival of Firstfruits to his Corinthian audience, but he very well may have had it in mind as a Pharisee. Either way, think about the stunning connection between the day of this festival and the resurrection of Jesus:

  • Jesus rose from the dead, just like a harvest. He even used the image of a grain of wheat falling to the ground so that it can grow again.
  • Jesus is the First Fruit. Just has He is resurrected, so too those who are dead in the Lord will be resurrected.
  • Jesus is the new law. He does not replace, but fulfills the law. His new way brings new fruit—the fruit of the Spirit.
  • Jesus from the line of David who is remembered on that day. In fact, Peter makes the connection in his sermon in Acts 2 when he compares the death of David and the hope of immortality with the Resurrection of Jesus.
  • Jesus the Kinsman Redeemer that saves just as Boaz saves in the book of Ruth.
  • The Resurrection of Jesus is connected to Pentecost. Though He ascends to God the Father He is with people after Pentecost in a new way.

When you think about it, this imagery is striking. Easter is the Day of Firstfruits. We may not grow our own crops anymore, but the fruit of that Easter morning can be viewed in our lives. We are an Easter people. We are a people of first fruits. May that fruit be shown in your lives this day. Amen.

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