Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Communion & The Kingdom Of God (part 3 of 3)

Let it be said that it is precisely at the communion table (as a microcosm of the messianic banquet, an announcement of the advent of the kingdom of heaven, and a reminder of Jesus’ ministry as it is so well summed up by His own meal practice) that the past, the present, and the future become a single reality that is full of mystery and wonder. 

Not leaving behind the Abrahamic covenant component of the communion, and its promise, reflecting the Creator God’s intentions for the redemption of His creation and of His image-bearers that would manifest itself in an acknowledging worship of Him, that all nations would be blessed by Abraham and his progeny, one sees that all of God’s past promises (with their present kingdom and future kingdom implications) are being fulfilled whenever and wherever peoples of all sorts come together to celebrate the table of the Lord. 

It is at that very moment, in which all stand before the covenant God, to lift the elements in recognition of the universal Lordship of Christ, and to do so in a full equality that is devoid of divisions and barriers to participation, that it is possible to catch a glimpse of the glorious future that the Creator intends to bring to pass for His world that He so loves, and for the creatures to whom He lent His image.  More than that, as one looks to the example that has been provided by Jesus, at the meals at which He participated, the ceremony (sacrament if you like) that He instituted, and the understanding of both that were held by the early church, remembering that for both Jesus and the church that He left in His wake, their vision of the kingdom was informed by Isaiah’s beautiful vision of the messianic banquet. 

With that in mind, one is also able to rightly perceive that the all-inclusive table of Jesus---the table that announces the kingdom of heaven while also confirming a desire to participate in the outworking of that kingdom, while undoubtedly possessing a Gospel communicating power that is able to move those who participate at the table without having made a confession of Jesus as Lord, to come under the conviction of such a confession (thereby informing all that the communion table should be an open one)---becomes among other things, a unifying force that breaks the back of racism, class division, and any and all types of social ostracism, marginalization, or oppression.  It does these things, at least partially, through a reminder that goes out to all, be it individuals, groups, or governments, that Jesus is king. 

Knowing this, is it not a shame that the breaking of the strength of that which often unnecessarily divides does not occur each and every time believers  gather together, as a signpost to the world that, in the kingdom of God as represented by the church, the principalities and the powers that hold an undue and illegitimate sway in the world have been stripped of their authority at the cross and are now under a demand to submit to the Lordship of the crucified One? 

If one knows this, and is cognizant of the charge that Jesus, with the messianic banquet in mind, while preaching and embodying the power and presence of the kingdom of heaven, was frequently charged with dining with all of the wrong people (tax collectors and sinners), then how could the church ever allow divisions at the table that was gifted to His disciples within what was obviously the same mindset?  On what basis can anyone close a table and exclude anyone from participation?  Do believers dare limit participation at the table of the Lord (which is not an individual body’s table but the table of the Lord) to a certain group of people that have met a certain set of subjective requirements that have been established in what might very well be an air of unearned superiority and unheeding forgetfulness of the example of the Lord of that table? 

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Communion & The Kingdom Of God (part 2)

In this way, just as was the case in the days of the Caesars, the community will be suitably prepared to receive their ruler when the time for an appearance has been determined.  Yes, the communion, like so many other things associated with the message of Jesus, is subversive of the present order, and among other things, is designed to inform the world that it has a true ruler, whose name is Jesus. 

In these miniature kingdom banquets in which Jesus either participated or presided, or of which He spoke in His parables, it can be observed that those who had been ostracized from society and marginalized in some way are sought out and compelled to attend.  It is clear that the keepers of the covenant boundaries in His day (Pharisees, scribes, etc…) were aware that the inclusiveness that was put on display by Jesus was a critique that was directed towards them, as the long and contentious history of Israel’s dealings with the nations of the world had left them weary and wary of open relationships with Gentiles that might jeopardize either individual or corporate standing within the covenant.  The attitude of “better safe than sorry,” when it came to what it meant to be a light to the nations, which, according to what is on display with Jesus and can be extrapolated from His words and deeds, was not altogether pleasing to the Creator God. 

So when one considers Jesus’ table fellowship in connection with the church’s modern communion tables, one sees that all are invited to attend, with this invitation including the marginalized alongside those who might be marginalizing them; but Jesus’ repeated emphasis on the first being last and the last being first, draws attention to the fact that there is not going to be (or at least there should not be) any discernible hierarchies or societal constructs on display at the meal that is designed to tell and to educate the world about the kingdom of heaven. 

It is, most definitely, not going to be a time or a place for reprisals or counter-oppression, nor a celebration of exclusivity.  The communion, like the feasts of Israel, is a celebration of the Creator God’s rule, this God’s deliverance, and the human responsibility to rightly bear the divine image so as to be a light that draws praise and worship to the Creator. 

It is very important to grasp that the table fellowship that Jesus put on display was not assembled without due consideration of the plan that His God intended for His creation.  Quite apart from being thrown together on a whim, the tables at which Jesus participated, at which He endured criticism because of their openness, and which are summed up in the table of communion that He left with His disciples, were duly informed by Scripture.  At practical levels, Jesus worked out that which was portended by Scripture. 

It is possible to go even further.  Though Jesus, through His life and ministry and in and around His meal practice was certainly making the implication that in one sense the Kingdom had arrived, from the outset there was the sense that there was to be a final fulfillment of what was being put on display in those meals and at the communion, and that one’s present response to the banquet (meals and communions) invitations at hand was going to have a role in determining, in advance, if one was going to have a place at the final banquet looked forward to by the prophets, by Jesus, and by His disciples.  

Monday, January 5, 2015

Communion & The Kingdom Of God (part 1)

The communion table can be and has been looked upon in a variety of ways, many of which have value, and are practical and helpful as those who participate at the table seek to live out their faith.  The communion should not be primarily looked upon as a personal experience with the Creator God or as a place where individual needs are met, but rather, as a proclamation of His kingdom, recognizing its inauguration through Jesus.  This can be achieved by keeping it within the context of the practice of Jesus, the messianic feast, and the Passover, along with what is signaled by said practice, the messianic feast and the Passover---upon which the communion as given to believers by Jesus has been founded. 

The communion table that Jesus instituted looked back to the grand vision of Isaiah’s all inclusive end-time feast.  This looking back also involved a looking forward, but the fact that it looked back, and the fact that it had a context within Israel’s history and its feasts, means that any and all interpretations of the communion that do not involve historical and eschatological considerations in relation to conceptions regarding the kingdom of Israel’s God and the expectations of that God’s people (past, present, and future) are going to be dangerously flawed.  Thoughts concerning the communion must take into consideration the fact that the God of Israel had made a promise to Abraham, and the final fulfillment of that promise was intended to be celebrated by all nations within this God’s new world. 

The new world is that which was brought into existence at the Resurrection of Jesus---the world in which Jesus is king.  At the same time, that new world is something for which believers still wait and for which the whole of the creation groans.  Jesus was and is the primary agent of that kingdom.  Jesus inaugurated and is inaugurating Isaiah’s vision in the past and in the present through miniature kingdom banquets.  This is what can be seen at His meals and in His parables, this is what can be seen taking place at the “last supper,” and this is what is taking place whenever those that claim Him as Lord take up the elements of bread and wine. 

The tables observed in the life of Jesus are enactments of the kingdom of heaven, in which all are invited to participate, and so too is the communion.  In addition, those who participate in the communion are promising to embody the kingdom principles as demonstrated by Jesus and as seen at His meals, while acknowledging that there is to be a future, earthly consummation of the kingdom of heaven to be expected. 

The communion table is an ambassadorial function, designed to prepare the world for the arrival of the King.  Just as the Caesar would place statues and busts of himself while also encouraging honorific ceremonies within far-flung communities that were under his dominion, as a reminder of his lordship, so too has Jesus.  By the power of the Resurrection and through the mysterious operation of the Spirit, He has placed new creations within this old creation, along with ceremonies such as communion and baptism, to serve as vessels for the remembrance of His Lordship. 

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Woe (part 2 of 2)

It is with such thoughts reverberating one’s mind that now allows an observer to go on to hear Jesus saying, “For this reason also the wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ so that this generation may be held accountable for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary.  Yes, I tell you, it will be charged against this generation” (Luke 11:49-51). 

This is not to be taken lightly.  Without delving into the “wisdom” traditions of Israel, not only should this be seen as a stinging rebuke, but one must imagine the shock that would be felt as Jesus uttered these words.  Whereas the experts in religious law and Temple leaders believed that they were doing what was necessary to cause their God to embody the messiah and resoundingly act within history to defeat their enemies, rescue them from foreign subjugation, and install blessed Israel as the exalted nation of the world, Jesus informs them of His opinion that their isolating and excluding actions are productive of a mindset (revolution and rebellion?) that is going to bring yet another reckoning of judgment upon the nation. 

He concludes by saying “Woe to you experts in religious law!  You have taken away the key to knowledge!  You did not go in yourselves, and you hindered those who were going in” (11:52).  Talk of “going in” would have to be related to the coming kingdom of heaven that was going to be manifest on earth through their God acting through His messiah.  So with all of this, Jesus has effectively challenged the basis of their power structure amongst the people, which was the idea that they held the keys for the manifestation of the kingdom of heaven. 

If the masses were to continue listening to Jesus, and if they were to take up His way of neighborly and selfless acts done to and for all without limitation as the means of representing, ushering in, and making manifest the kingdom of God, then it would seem to be impossible to foster any type of movement to drive out the Romans so as to reclaim the covenantal land and enjoy the related promises.  So one do not wonder at the fact that “When He went out from there, the experts in the law and the Pharisees began to oppose Him bitterly, and to ask Him hostile questions about many things, plotting against Him, to catch Him in something He might say” (11:53-54).  Their desire to discredit Jesus would have been palpable and understandable.  

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Woe (part 1)

Woe to you Pharisees!  You love the best seats in the synagogues and elaborate greetings in the marketplaces!  Woe to you!  You are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without realizing it! - Luke 11:43-44  (NET)

Though one of the “experts in religious law” (11:45a) spoke up to let Jesus know that He was being remarkably offensive with His words, Jesus continued on in a way that let these men know, in no uncertain terms, that He found their kingdom-and-light-withholding ways offensive.  He goes on to say, “Woe to you experts in religious law as well!  You load people down with burdens difficult to bear, yet you yourselves refuse to touch the burdens with even one of your fingers!  Woe to you!   You build the tombs of the prophets whom your ancestors killed.  So you testify that you approve of the deeds of your ancestors, because they killed the prophets and you build their tombs!” (Luke 11:46-48) 

As these words are read, one must resist the temptation to fall back into the long-placed trap of imagining that Jesus is railing against their “works-based” religion, while He was heroically attempting to bring forth a faith based upon a recognition of grace.  This is not, nor was it ever the issue at hand.  By mentioning the prophets, Jesus calls their attention to the underlying message of the prophets, primarily directed at the leaders of the people, which called attention to the failure to properly bear the covenant with which they had been charged, usually by entering into idolatry, and thereby failing to serve as a light to the nations that would draw people to the recognition and worship of Israel’s God---the Creator God. 

An inescapable and prominent component of this charge against His people was the neglect of orphans and widows, and it would not be a stretch to say that the elevation of idols went hand in hand with such neglect, as one almost necessarily and axiomatically included the other.  Now that idolatry in the traditional sense had been effectively put away and was no longer a problem within Israel, intensification of the demands of the law so as to bring about the establishment of the kingdom of heaven was a new form of idolatry that served to create more and more barriers to a widespread awareness of Israel’s covenant God, leading to the same type of neglect. 

The issue was not one of works of the law versus grace and faith, but rather exclusivism and isolation in an attempt to keep the Creator God’s covenantal promises for themselves versus truly functioning as lights for the world and extenders of the Abrahamic covenant.  Truly, if one is so caught up in and astonished by a lack of ceremonial hand-washing and conformity to certain irrelevant sectarian prescriptions, how concerned is one going to be to share the grand blessings of the Abrahamic covenant with a Gentile “sinner”?  

Friday, January 2, 2015

Luke & Jesus' Kingdom Banquets (part 5 of 5)

Understood in this way, this story of a woman anointing Jesus’ feet with costly perfumed oil lines up quite well with the other record of the same (in Matthew and Mark), in that both women, as far as Jesus is concerned, are performing sacrificial acts towards the true and lasting Temple.  With all of this, Jesus provides further demonstration of His Messianic self-understanding; and it does not escape notice that this straightforward and dramatic presentation of Himself as Messiah has yet again taken place at a meal.       

It is not until the eleventh chapter of Luke, in passing over the feeding of the five thousand, that Jesus can once again be seen at a meal.  In the thirty-seventh verse Luke writes “As He spoke, a Pharisee invited Jesus to have a meal with him” (Luke 11:37a).  As Jesus is rarely in the habit of turning down these meal invitations, regardless of who is making the request, “He went in and took His place at the table” (11:37b).  One is left only to wonder which position at the table has been taken by Jesus.  Does He take the position of most honored guest, sitting immediately to the right or left of His host, who would be seated in the protoklisian (chief seat), or would Jesus position Himself at the lowest place, that being the seat known as the “eschaton”?  It is not important to settle this question here, as the fourteenth chapter of Luke will give provide a greater insight into a potential answer. 

As is common, Jesus is immediately questioned.  It is not presented as an outright question, though one can imagine something being said by the Pharisee that would engender the response that is forthcoming from Jesus.  Luke reports that “The Pharisee was astonished when he saw that Jesus did not first wash His hands before the meal” (11:38).  This is akin to the hushed murmuring that so often accompanied Jesus, which was “He eats with tax collectors and sinners.”  This act of “negligence” on Jesus’ part becomes yet another charge against the possibility of Jesus being the messiah---an ever growing litany of factors, in the minds of some, weighing against this possibility.  In response, Jesus is somewhat less cordial than He has been in the past. 

When He was subtly accused of impropriety when it came to the woman that washed His feet with her tears and hair, Jesus offered up a question of His own to His concerned host.  However, Jesus does not here propose a question, nor does He offer up a parable.  Rather, He lets loose upon this Pharisee, and presumably upon other Pharisees in attendance at this meal, saying “Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness” (11:39).  A stinging rebuke indeed! 

He does not let that stand on its own, adding “You fools!  Didn’t the one who made the outside make the inside as well?” (11:40)  With this, Jesus reminds them of their Creator---the God of Israel.  Jesus, operating inside Jewish custom, indicates that the purpose of the washing of hands was the remembrance of the Creator God and His covenant, but this washing had been reduced to a mere formality and custom.  One can imagine that it was used as yet one more barrier, separating the chosen ones of the covenant God from the “tax collectors and sinners” that stood outside of the covenant. 

How can this be imagined?  Well, it is not difficult to surmise that Jesus, Who is routinely concerned with the kingdom of heaven and its practical outworking, has that inclusive kingdom in mind when He says, “Woe to you Pharisees!  You give a tenth of your mint, rue, and every herb, yet you neglect justice and love for God!  But you should have done these things without neglecting the others” (11:42).  This follows His insistence to “give from your heart to those in need, and then everything will be clean for you” (11:41). 

Beyond that, one must not fail to assess the placement of the record of this meal within the overall narrative structure of Luke.  In this telling of the life of Jesus that could very well be designed to be read or recited as a performance piece in a single sitting, one is not far removed from the parable of the “Good Samaritan.”  That parable is prefaced by an expert in religious law standing to test Jesus, just as He is being tested at this meal with this Pharisee, and saying “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (10:25b)  Jesus asks for this expert’s opinion, which comes back as “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself” (10:27).  Jesus acknowledges His answer by saying “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live” (10:28). 

When pressed by the expert as to who would be his neighbor, Jesus responds with the familiar parable of the good Samaritan.  The parable closes with Jesus asking the expert to identify the neighbor in the parable.  “The expert in the religious law said, ‘The one who showed mercy on him” (10:37a), that “him” being the wounded man.  To this, Jesus replied “Go and do the same” (10:37b).  With this parable, Jesus presented His expectations concerning the kingdom of His God and its requirements for costly acts of sacrificial love that show little concern for self, as demonstrated by the Samaritan. 

One does not travel very far from that telling within Luke’s Gospel before again hearing Jesus speak of love and a need for just actions, as in His first pronouncing of “woe” to the Pharisees that are present.  Indeed, there is a nearly direct parallel with the parable.  In addition, it should be noted that the Samaritan gives, and Jesus, unsurprisingly, speaks of a need to give from the heart to those in need.  This is unlikely to happen as long as His followers are overly concerned with the desire for conformity to communal norms that have little or nothing to do with the manifestation and advance of the kingdom.   

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Luke & Jesus' Kingdom Banquets (part 4)

Jesus says: “Do you see this woman?  I entered your house.  You gave me no water for My feet, but she has wet My feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair.  You gave Me no kiss of greeting, but from the time I entered she has not stopped kissing My feet.  You did not anoint My head with oil, but she has anointed My feet with perfumed oil” (Luke 7:44-46). With this, Jesus makes it clear that this man had acted improperly towards Him, and that the woman was making up for the slighting. 

In a sense, it can be said that by shaming herself at Jesus’ expense, she was attempting to enter into the indignities to which Jesus was being subjected.  As this is considered, it is almost impossible to not think of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Colossian church, in which he writes, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for you, and I fill up in my physical body---for the sake of His body, the church---what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ” (Colossians 1:24). 

Jesus then provides proof that He knew precisely what type of woman this was that was touching Him, by going on to say “Therefore I tell you, her sins, which were many, are forgiven, thus she loved much” (7:47a).  This did not call for supernatural insight.  Her expression of love was all He needed to see to confirm the forgiveness which she felt.  Much is spoken in these words.  One must notice that Jesus provides a sense of time and distance with His words. 

Even though Luke immediately goes on to write “Then Jesus said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven’” (7:48), His words concerning her response indicate that this was a reiteration of something that she had already experienced.  In regards to what she had done at the feet of Jesus, He said that “she loved much,” indicating that the acts of love (as one must not forget the suffering and shame associated with those acts) were in response to the fact that she had already had a sense of forgiveness, and had already passed into the kingdom of Israel’s God.  Jesus did not need to inform her that her sins were forgiven, as she already knew. 

Clearly then, the words were spoken for the benefit of those in attendance at the meal and who were surrounding Him at the table.  The reader can apprehend this when we moving along to find “But those who were at the table with Him began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this, who even forgives sins?’” (7:49)  Why would this be said?  It would be said because forgiveness of sins was provided at the Temple and was the domain of the Temple.  One could certainly be absolved of sin (failing to rightly bear the divine image, failing to live up to the obligations of the covenant), but only by presenting a sacrifice at and for the Temple.  With these simple words, Jesus demonstrates that He believes Himself to be Messiah---the embodiment of Israel’s God, and therefore the true Temple. 

By extension then, this woman’s costly act of sacrifice was, in fact, performed at and for the Temple.  This allows an observer to understand the full import and impact of His words when He says to the woman that “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (7:50).  Were not these words the words that would be spoken to those who had brought their sacrifices to the Temple, so as to receive confirmation of their forgiveness and right-standing before the Creator God there?