Sunday, August 31, 2014

Galatians & Giving (part 1)

Now the one who receives instruction in the word must share all good things with the one who teaches it. – Galatians 6:6  (NET)

The sixth verse of the sixth chapter of Galatians.  It is a verse that has been held up as the basis for giving to one’s church, or specifically, one’s pastor.  More than that, it has been used as a veritable theological brickbat for many years and by many people, justifying the demand that Christians pay the people that instruct them in the Christian faith, presuming that this was the Apostle Paul’s demand as well. 

More than that, verse seven is brought into play, adding the insistence “Do not be deceived.  God will not be made a fool.  For a person will reap what he sows” (6:7).  Presumably then, if one gives to his or her pastor and thereby demonstrates a respect for the teaching of the word, then said person is one “who sows to the Spirit,” and therefore, “will reap eternal life from the Spirit” (6:8b).  Alternatively, if a person does not give to their teacher, presumably disrespecting the teaching of the word and the man (or woman) of the covenant God that delivers it, that person “sows to his own flesh” and will therefore “reap corruption from the flesh” (6:8a). 

Inevitably, verse nine is brought into play, insisting that even in times of struggle when it may seem difficult to tithe or to give in any way, “we must not grow weary in doing good, for in due time we will reap, if we do not give up” (6:9).  The fact that this is precisely the language of public benefaction is usually ignored, even though Paul follows up with “So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who belong to the family of faith” (6:10).  Some even use the language of verse ten to justify giving exclusively within one’s particular congregation, putting undue weight on the “especially” of the verse, while allowing “let us do good to all people” to fall unceremoniously to the wayside. 

While it is undeniable that Paul is here insisting that respect be given to those who offer instruction in the words of faith, what is also undeniable is that he writes to a congregation that does not at all reflect the type of church structure with which most in this age are familiar.  In this congregation that existed very early in the infancy of the church, it is highly unlikely that there would have been a particular pastor who was primarily responsible for the instruction of the congregation. 

Teaching would most definitely not have taken place in a setting with which most today are familiar---the setting in which a single person, usually the same person week in and week out (with the occasional guest speaker or associate pastor mixed in) stands at the head of a gathered crowd, with said crowd dutifully listening to the instruction week in and week out, nodding their heads in agreement and offering up the occasional “amen” in support of the teacher’s assertions.  Now, this is not to say that there is anything wrong with such a setting, and it must be said that the setting to which the vast majority of Christendom has grown accustomed has served the church of the Christ relatively well.  It is simply to say that this is not at all the setting into which Paul wrote, which he would have had in mind as he wrote, or in which his letter would have been shared.

Binding & Loosing (part 4 of 4)

Though many believers have been trained, perhaps unfortunately, to hear or to speak these words of binding and loosing in a spiritual sense, doing so in some sort of reference to the realm of the operation of supernatural powers that are somehow commanded by the name of Jesus, it is not at all clear that the disciples of Jesus would have been so restricted in their hearing.  There would most certainly have been a general awareness of cosmic powers at work and evidenced by various forms of sickness, disease, handicaps, and the like, but it was not these powers that were to be bound or loosed. 

Rather, it was the people that were subject to such powers that were said to be bound, and it was these same people that were loosed from these powers by the word and touch of Jesus.  Concurrently, these powers that kept people physically bound were the same powers that kept them socially bound and perhaps ostracized from the community, so their unbinding would also serve to loose them from their social chains as well. 

So does one go too far when insisting that talk of binding and loosing is to be interpreted within the framework of the church, as the church serves out its mission to represent the kingdom of heaven, mimicking the message and ministry of Jesus?  It is possible.  However, in turning to the eighteenth chapter of Matthew, Jesus can once again be heard speaking and saying “I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you release on earth will have been released in heaven” (18:18). 

What is it that precedes this statement?  Jesus is presented as dealing with the restoration of relationships (part and parcel of binding and loosing, as has been seen).  In the course of talking about faults and forgiveness and His followers and fellow kingdom-bringers dealing with kingdom brethren, Jesus says “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.  If he refuses to listen to the church, treat him like a Gentile or a tax collector” (18:17).  As yet another aside, based upon the Gospel witness of Jesus’ ministerial efforts, this means to redouble efforts towards the wayward believer and to treat him the way Jesus can be observed to treat Gentiles and tax collectors. 

Here, Jesus speaks about the church before speaking about binding and loosing, along with talk of heaven and earth, linking the power to bind and loose with the church.  One might attempt to argue that this talk of the church did not spring from the lips of Jesus Himself, but that it is an interpolation into the Jesus tradition by the composer of the Gospel of Matthew, as he (or she) attempts to deal with issues in the church community by placing words on Jesus’ mouth.  If this were the case, it merely serves to underscore the fact that Jesus’ disciples well understood that His talk of binding and loosing, and its being linked with talk of earth and heaven, as Temple language and therefore applied to them as the living Temple of the body of the Christ. 

In closing, Jesus punctuates His statement here in Matthew’s eighteenth chapter with “Again, I tell you the truth, if two of you on earth agree about whatever you ask, My Father in heaven will do it for you” (18:19).  We this can be understood as yet another overlapping of heaven and earth, which leads to an even greater example of the way that the church is to be the place of the coming together of heaven and earth, when Peter learns that he is to offer essentially unlimited forgiveness to his fellow kingdom denizens.  Herein one finds great power to bind or to loose.    

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.