Friday, August 29, 2014

Binding & Loosing (part 3)

This sets the stage for what is to come, especially when one considers that it seems to have been well understood by the followers of Jesus that it was the Spirit of God at work to animate Him following His Resurrection, with that Spirit then animating His church (as evidenced by the church working to be kingdom-bringers---bringing heaven to earth---bringing to earth that which looks like the rule of the Creator God through His Messiah). 

If this is the case, then when Jesus goes on to say “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 16:19a), the kingdom of heaven being the hoped-for and expected reality of the covenant God’s rule on earth through His Messiah, which was foundational to Jesus’ message as well as that which His ministry embodied as the hoped-for reality to which it pointed, then Jesus, when speaking of the “keys,” speaks of the church.  Talk of keys is then not necessarily an abstraction.   

At the same time, believers must always be careful to not confuse the church with the kingdom of heaven.  Those who compose the church are the representatives of the kingdom of heaven, but the church is never to be thought of as the kingdom of heaven itself.  The church is to be the herald of the Creator God’s kingdom come to earth, and is to be the place of the overlap of heaven and earth.  It is to be the locus of binding and loosing.  That binding is the binding of the operative powers of death and the many forms that it takes in this world, whereas that loosing is the loosing of people and the creation from those same destructive powers.  Can such an assertion be made? 

What can be seen in Jesus from the very beginning of His ministry?  The Gospels report that He “went throughout all of Galilee… preaching the Gospel of the kingdom, and healing all kinds of diseases and sickness among the people” (4:23).  Here Jesus is acknowledged to be performing operations of binding and loosing.  It is possible to take a look at all of Jesus’ pronouncements concerning the kingdom of heaven to be found in Matthew and drawing out the analogies of binding and loosing, but rather than do that, it would be more worthwhile to point out that such binding and loosing, though some tend to see it only as acts of healing from physical sickness, were actually social healings as well.  This social healing allowed for the recipients of the merciful compassion of the covenant God, through Jesus, to be re-admitted as full participants in the community. 

Everywhere that Jesus enacts the kingdom of heaven, thus creating the overlap of the two realms of existence, binding and loosing is occurring.  As Jesus is heard saying “Whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven” (16:19b), He needs to be understood to be saying, “Whenever you act on earth in a way that defeat the powers that attempt to continue to mar the Creator God’s good creation, you have introduced the power of the Creator God’s realm of existence (heaven), into the world.” 

Bearing in mind that talk of heaven and earth in this context is not locative but demonstrative and practical on the part of believers, then likewise, when Jesus is heard to say things like “and whatever you release on earth will have been released in heaven” (16:19c), rather than hear this with some sense of a vast gulf between heaven and earth, He needs to be heard saying, “Whenever you act on earth in a way in a way that liberates your fellow man, affirming their humanity and bringing them closer to rightly bearing the divine image in which they were created, you enact the power of heaven in the world.” 

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Binding & Loosing (part 2)

Not to get too far afield, and though Matthew is not to be interpreted by John, it is little wonder then, that the Gospel of John, in its portrayal of Jesus that reflected the development of Christian understanding about Jesus and a better grasp (in the late first century in the time period after the fall of the Temple) of Jesus’ sayings about Himself, has Jesus telling Nathanael and the other men that had been called to be His disciples, that they “will see heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (John 1:51b).  

Yes, the early church clearly understood that Jesus was the true Temple.  He Himself was understood to be the house of Israel’s God.  He was the place where heaven and earth came together.  By the gifting of His Spirit (or as the evidence of the presence of the Spirit of the Creator God), His church would carry out His mission as the Temple, thus becoming the extension of His own faithfulness.  

Naturally, if talk about the church as the Temple of the Holy Spirit is taken seriously (as can be seen in the pre-Matthean letters of the Apostle Paul, though Paul would have drawn from the Jesus traditions that would eventually come to be concretized by Matthew and the other Gospel writers, while also having a hand in the theological shaping of those Jesus-centered narratives) in both a communal sense and in accord with the responsibility of the individuals members that compose the body of the Christ, this realization about the role of the church as the Temple (the place where heaven and earth are to come together) informs the Christian as to his or her responsibilities in association with a life lived in response to the Gospel claim that Jesus is Lord.  

Yes, the Christian is to be the place where and heaven earth come together---bringing heaven to earth as a singular purpose (and this will look a lot like caring for orphans and widows, which is the constant cry of the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures).  The church, as the collection of individual elected ones (Christians), carries out this purpose in community.    

This brings this study back to Matthew sixteen and Jesus’ statement to Peter.  Having established that the Temple was the concrete and understood point of reference with talk of earth and heaven (throughout the New Testament and demonstrably so in Matthew and all of the Gospels), while also establishing that Jesus sees Himself as the new Temple, a great hermeneutical service has been provided.  By extension then, continuing with said hermeneutic, and doing so in line with the earliest interpreters of the Jesus’ tradition, the church (and its members), as it (and they) carries out the mission of Jesus and as it (and they) is infused with the same Spirit by which Jesus was raised up from the dead, is to be conceived of as the Temple in so far as it represents Jesus in, to, and for the world. 

Therefore, talk of earth and heaven, within an appropriate context, becomes talk of the church.  This knowledge can be employed and deployed when hearing Jesus speak to Peter.  Peter has just insisted that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (16:16b).  Part of Jesus’ response to this declaration is to tell Peter that “flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father in heaven!” (16:17b)  The use of flesh and blood presents an unspoken contrast of revelation by a means other than flesh and blood.  When Jesus says “My Father in heaven” revealed this to Peter, having set “flesh and blood” in juxtaposition, He is making an obvious reference to the activity of the Creator God, by means of His Spirit.  

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Binding & Loosing (part 1)

I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.  Whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you release on earth will have been released in heaven. – Matthew 16:19  (NET)

When reading about earth and heaven, especially within the pages of the Gospels, one must stubbornly resist the urge to retreat into an unhelpful, Platonic-form-derived, enlightenment-driven, separation of earth from heaven.  Instead, the reader must become ensconced within the notion that the disciples of Jesus and the community of believers that sprung from their sharing of the testimony of Jesus in the days, weeks, months, and years following His Resurrection, actually operated from the point of view that the purpose of the Creator God---the God of Israel---was to bring heaven to earth. 

The disciples and the earliest followers of Jesus did not live so that they could be saved and go to heaven when they died.  Rather, they functioned with the idea that it was their responsibility to work with the Creator God to cause the overlap of His realm of existence with the realm of existence occupied by the creatures that He had created and empowered to bear His image. 

Accordingly then, the place that was said to be occupied by that God, which would be the Temple (the house of God), would be the primary locus of that overlapping activity.  With that said, it then greatly behooves the reader to realize that reference to “heaven and earth,” when made by members of the house of Israel such as Jesus, are generally references to the Temple, both specifically and in general.  As an aside, the fact that the words of this study’s Scriptural thrust text, with their talk of earth and heaven, are directed to Peter, helps to make sense of the fact that the letters of the New Testament that are attributed to Peter also make mention of heaven and earth (especially chapter three of first Peter). 

Yes, the Temple was the place of the coming together of heaven and earth.  Any reference to “heaven and earth,” especially if it is in the context of talk of the Temple, is a reference to the Temple itself.  In Matthew, this talk of heaven, earth, and Temple prompts a brief look at Matthew twenty-four.  There, as He answers the question about when the Temple will be cast down with not one stone left upon another (with an allusion to the oft-referenced-by-Jesus-in-Matthew prophecy of Isaiah), Jesus can be heard saying “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken” (24:29).  

Though Jesus’ allusion to Isaiah ends there, Isaiah would continue on to eventually write “So I will shake the heavens, and the earth will shake loose from its foundation” (13:13a).  Isaiah was referring to Jerusalem and the Temple being overcome by Babylon, using apocalyptic language (behind the veil---the way that Israel’s God sees things) of heaven and earth that reaches beyond mere symbolism and drama, conveying Jewish opinion concerning the Temple---the place where heaven and earth came together. 

The tradition of such thinking concerning the house of God reached all the way back to Jacob, as it is when he is in Bethel (translation: the house of God), that he has the dream in which a ladder reached from earth to heaven, with the angels of his God ascending and descending upon said ladder.  Yes, what must be recognized in that scene is that the house of God (Bethel) is where and heaven and earth came together, by the instrumentation of this ladder.  

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Good Conduct, Good Deeds, Good Works (part 17 of 17)

The one that speaks does so with sympathy, compassion, and humility, always mindful of the fact that in the kingdom of the Christ, the first shall be last and the last shall be first.  So it is with the one who serves.  As was said, service can be tiring, and yes, one is able to serve the kingdom of the Creator God through the strength that said God supplies; but in context, the strength that the covenant God supplies for service is the strength that allows the one that would generally be considered more honorable, to humbly, willfully, and lovingly serve the one that would generally be considered to be less honorable. 

It is that type of service, in which the first become last and the last become first because of an active embracing of the message of the cross inside the message of the Gospel, and not because of some type of forceful reversal in which the previously oppressed take it upon themselves to lord it over those that may or may not have had a hand in the oppression, that demonstrates true strength.  It is in this that the Creator God is glorified, as this self-abnegating service is done in deference to the kingly claim of the one to whom belongs glory and power forever and ever. 

At verse twelve, Peter begins the insertion of an interlude related to suffering on behalf of the Christ.  Much of this suffering, of course, will come about because of what it is that is learned at their meal table.  The messianic, kingly declaration of the Christian meal table will practically work itself out in a lifestyle that demonstrates one’s adherence to the Lordship of Jesus and to his claims to power, rather than any over-reaching and illegitimate claims on offer from the Caesar. 

However, because Christ’s kingdom model is one of self-sacrifice and service, the Christian, recognizing the legitimate extent of human authority, actually seeks to solidify the role of human authorities.  By taking up the cause of Christ’s kingdom and properly applying its principles of service and compassion through good works and public benefaction, the care of orphans and widows, the feeding of the hungry and thirsty, and the clothing of the naked, the Christian is able to inform the governing powers that they have a limit imposed upon them by the Creator God that they can reach, and upon reaching that limit are to be told that they are to go here and no further, for then they would be intruding on the responsibilities of those that claim to represent the world’s true imperial power. 

For Peter, as for Paul, the Christian becomes the model citizen.  He does not foment unrest but informs the world and its rulers about a king and a kingdom, doing so through service and sacrifice, thus putting the Gospel on display and allowing the Spirit to do the work of the transformation of hearts and minds.  Peter pleads with these denizens of a greater kingdom---one that demonstrates what it truly means to be human, saying “But let none of you suffer as a murderer or thief or criminal or as a troublemaker.  But if you suffer as a Christian,” that is, if you suffer because your practice makes it clear that you are not a participant in the worship of Caesar and his power, “do not be ashamed, but glorify God that you bear such a name” (4:15-16).       

Monday, August 25, 2014

Good Conduct, Good Deeds, Good Works (part 16)

While Christ was glorified in His Resurrection, one must never forget that the near-constant rejoinder to any mention of said Resurrection is that “God raised Him.”  Jesus humbled Himself, broke religious and political custom and tradition in His shared breaking of bread, touched the outcasts, taught openly to men, women, and children, washed feet, endured rejection and persecution, and willingly went to the cross in His demonstration of the appearance that would be taken on by the kingdom of His God.  These types of things would not have been defined as “glory-seeking”.  There was no honor to be gained here. 

So though glory and authority eventually came to Him, it was not sought.  It came to Him after He had gone to the lowest place of cursing and shame.  Truly, He showed hospitality (acted out the messianic banquet) without complaining, and even more truly, served all as a good steward of the grace of the Creator God.  Indeed, the very language here employed calls attention to that which is expected of those that bear the divine covenant.  Peter writes of serving and stewardship.  These terms are only separated from the meal table with great difficulty, while the grace of the covenant God, as He calls a people to Himself without regard to race or class, is rightly put on display at the Christian meal table as it celebrates their Lord Jesus.          

To talk of service and stewardship, and in considering the setting, Peter joins together “Whoever speaks, let it be with God’s words.  Whoever serves, do so with the strength that God supplies, so that in everything God will be glorified through Jesus Christ” (4:11a).  This is then punctuated with a declaration of the Lordship of Jesus, as Peter writes “To Him belong the glory and the power forever and ever” (4:11b). 

While one would certainly agree that there is a burden on the one that speaks, and that service can be tiring, one must not drift too far from the setting into which these words were delivered and for which they provide a controlling authority and dare not become too far removed from the meal table, as it is the meal table that keeps an observer in the proper interpretive context, instead of drifting off into anachronistic ideas about what is implied by speaking and serving. 

Modern conceptions should not be thrust on the text in a way that creates an artificial division of labor between preachers that preach and those that go about serving.  This is not an attempt to draw a dichotomy between the person that occupies the pulpit on Sunday morning and those that are then charged with visiting hospitals or distributing food to shut-ins.  Rather, we these words are to be understood in relation to that which defines the community of Christ-followers, which is their table fellowship.  When one speaks, he or she must do so with a heart of love, as well as grace, conscious of the demand for harmony at a table that could rightly, because of the variety and disparity of those that are coming together to share equally, have a bit of awkwardness associated with it. 

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Good Conduct, Good Deeds, Good Works (part 15)

If one is completely honest, it should be possible to confess that the impact of table fellowship has not been blunted or muted over the passing years as the sands of culture have shifted and swirled.  In this modern world, though customs have changed, the table has maintained its importance.  This should be found to be the case if the kingdom of heaven, marked by the messianic feast, was inaugurated at the Resurrection and has been relentlessly advancing since that day. 

Unfortunately, it is the church that, in many ways, has failed to maintain its grasp upon the practical significance of the table of fellowship.  In many ways, the church has lost the dramatic and world-altering essence and context of the communion table.  In many ways, the church has reduced the Lord’s Supper to an intensely private, personal, spiritual experience which has as its focus the destination of the eternal soul rather than the declaration of the rule of the Creator God and the accompanying demand upon those that call Jesus Lord to show forth the cross-shaped love of that God to the world. 

When Peter tells this church to “Show hospitality to one another without complaining,” one cannot imagine that this directive was limited to “members in good standing.”  Surely, it is not difficult to imagine that those who had not yet made a confession of Jesus’ Lordship, such as are to be found in the stories of Jesus Himself, might find themselves at the church’s meal table.  If the call for hospitality is limited only to other Christians, then what is to be done with Peter (and Paul’s) insistence that good deeds of public benefaction be performed for the wider community, along with the household of faith (Galatians 6:10). 

What does Peter attach to the table-fellowship-linked “hospitality directive”?  He adds “Just as each one has received a gift, use it to serve one another as good stewards of the varied grace of God” (4:10).  This sounds suspiciously like Paul’s words that are directed to the churches at Rome and Corinth, in which he encourages unity across the church, not allowing any social stratification or honor-appropriation in accordance with spiritual gifts, but insists that the purpose of any gift is for the strengthening of the community of believers. 

Those directives from Paul, not surprisingly, were provided within the context of his own thoughts concerning the meal table (not to mention that the letter was probably first shared at a community meal), as the churches sought to model and to live out the messianic banquet.  Paul wrote, and no doubt Peter would have agreed, that the only legitimate use of spiritual gifts was for the service of others in a self-sacrificial love that did not seek honor or position.  One can surmise that the use of spiritual gifts as a way to accord honor to oneself, or in order to attain to a position of spiritual authority, would be illegitimate and entirely contrary to the spirit of the Gospel that is defined by the cross of the Christ. 

Friday, August 22, 2014

Good Conduct, Good Deeds, Good Works (part 14)

Though it may be somewhat disconnected, and though it may be a tenuous stretch, in reaching the eighteenth chapter of Genesis, it should be noted with interest that Abraham, the one that was blessed of the Creator God for the expressed purpose of exemplifying divine blessing, “looked up and saw three men standing across from him.  When he saw them he ran from the entrance of the tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.  He said, ‘My lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by and leave your servant.  Let a little water be brought so that you may all wash your feet and rest under the tree.  And let me get a bit of food so that you may refresh yourselves since you have passed by your servant’s home.  After that you may be on your way.’” (18:2-5). 

It is further reported that “They ate while he was standing near them under a tree” (18:8b).  Though one should not presume that Abraham washed the feet of his visitors, as this was most likely performed by a servant, a kingdom-of-God-minded observer should be unable to pass by such words without a contemplation of the washing of the disciples’ feet that Jesus undertook before returning to the table where He would speak of “the one who eats My bread” (John 13:18) before passing a piece of bread to Judas. 

While this action has naturally become associated with Judas’ betrayal, the record of the Gospel of John only makes this clear in retrospect.  When Jesus gave Judas the bread and accompanying instruction, “none of those present at the table understood why Jesus said this to Judas.  Some thought that, because Judas had the money box, Jesus was telling him to buy whatever they needed for the feast, or to give something to the poor” (13:28-29).    

In keeping with the theme of covenant bearers being identified with the meal table and with meal practice, especially as it relates to the identifying practice of the messianic feast (as highlighted in Luke 13:29 in a well-placed elaboration on the pronouncements of prophets like Isaiah), and in-between the use of “non-Christian” (4:3) and “Christian” (4:16), one should not be at all surprised to find Peter instructing this church to “Show hospitality to one another without complaining” (4:9).  This is the language of conduct, deeds, and works.  It is not possible to escape the implications of the meal table here, as this is yet another demand to contravene the existing customs of the table and of the existing social constructs that would be on display. 

This showing of hospitality, without concern for social rank or honor, could be quite difficult to achieve, as the corrupted nature reacts against such notions.  This is where the mysteriously transformative power of the Gospel is sorely needed, and where it and its Spirit-empowered love is most visible and achieves its greatest impact.  It is as such considerations are made, letting the implications sink deep into hearts and minds, that one is left with little wonder as to why Jesus spent so much time at banqueting tables.  Clearly, this is something to which the culture, in His time, was attuned.  Accordingly, the impact of the table fellowship that Jesus displayed as He modeled out the messianic banquet was significant.  His followers seemed to have understood this well, making it a major focal point of the life lived in accordance with confession of Jesus as Messiah.