We know how this is going to end. The question we have to answer is, Will it make a difference in our lives today?
- Out of sight, out of mind? Not with God.
- Rejoicing when we find something that was lost
- The vanishing point according to Paul
- Christ’s resurrection, our resurrection, and the labor of our lives
- How the Older Son’s laboring in vain kept him from rejoicing
- The choice we have to make
It feels sometimes that we are so far from home, it’s hard to imagine we can ever get back. By looking out only for ourselves, through our runaway consumerism and neglect of the needy, when we judge and condemn one another, we have scattered ourselves to various “distant countries.” We are so far from Eden, from the imago Dei (image of God) with which we were created, we wonder if even God can see us.
But like the Father in Jesus’ most famous parable, God keeps his eyes where his heart is, with us, scanning the horizon of our distant countries, searching until we are found.
And when we are found, there is in the heart of God a profound sense of relief and thanksgiving, just like when we find one of our lost treasures. We are profoundly grateful for averting what might have been. Time stands still, everything comes to rest for a moment, and we celebrate.
This helps to understand how the parable ends, with the unresolved estrangement of the Older Son and the Father. The Older Son cannot understand why the Father is rejoicing. And the Father cannot understand why the Older Son is not rejoicing. The reason is the Older Son doesn’t fully appreciate what could have happened. The Younger Son may have been lost forever! But he is not.
The Father feared the worst, but kept hope. The Older Son assumed the worst, and lost hope. Those with hope look to the horizon, to the vanishing point. The vanishing point is that place where everything appears to be pointing, which makes realism in painting possible. The vanishing point reveals what is most real in the spiritual sense also.
Paul knew where the vanishing point was. In the resurrection of Jesus Christ, Paul saw that God’s Kingdom had come, or at least it was arriving. Jesus’ resurrection revealed that the cataclysmic event known as “the general resurrection” had begun. In the general resurrection, God would make everything right.
For Paul, now that Jesus had been resurrected from the dead, it was only a matter of time before everyone else experienced the general resurrection. But “flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God,” so some people in his churches asked Paul, “How can those who have already died, and we who are waiting for the Kingdom, both experience it?”
Paul’s answer is that the “dead are raised imperishable,” and that the living, “will be changed.” Both must take on imperishability, for like flesh and blood, the perishable cannot inherit the Kingdom either.
Because of Jesus’ resurrection, Paul could no longer assume the worst. Death was not the final word. In resurrection, death was “swallowed up in victory.” And Paul invites us to thanksgiving, for “God has given us the victory in Christ.”
What is more, because we share in this victory now, because we can now see the vanishing point of God’s Kingdom, our labor is not “in vain.” Think of a field with row upon row of crops. Our lives may be a long row, or they may be a short row. They may end up being shorter than we expected! But they all end in the same place. They all arrive at the vanishing point of God’s Kingdom.
The Father in Jesus’ parable feared the worst, but like Paul, he kept hope. So when the lost was found and the dead returned, he rejoiced. The Older Son didn’t rejoice. He resented. Why? Part of the reason is because he had been laboring in vain. Those many years he labored in his own strength, for his own reward, out of duty instead of thanksgiving.
Unlike the Father, the Older Son assumed the worst. He assumed the worst of his brother (notice how he adds details about the Younger Son’s profligate life). And he assumed the worst of his father, that he would never show him the same generosity. So when the lost was found and the dead returned, instead of being generous and rejoicing, with his
laboring in vain and assuming the worst, the Older Son could only be resentful.
Today we have a choice to make, because we can see where this is going. In Jesus Christ, the lost will be found and the dead will return. The party has already begun. Will we maintain hope, rejoice with the Father, and labor the rest of our lives not in vain? Or will we assume the worst and remain outside with the Older Son, complaining of the Father’s grace and generosity?
Will we who are lost, be among the found?
The experience of losing hope is a painful one. It’s also the path to the true hope of heaven.
- The “Dark Night of Sense”
- How lost hope leads to truer hope
- The false hope of escape
- The truer hope of presence
- Psalm 126 as the summary of biblical hope
- How worship gives us our hope
- What a “new heaven and a new earth” mean
St. John of the Cross was a 14th century mystic who introduced to us the language of the “dark night” (no, not Batman). Contemporary spiritual literature has popularized the phrase “dark night of the soul,” but John of the Cross actually wrote about two aspects of the dark night. What most contemporary writers are actually referring to is the “dark night of sense.”
The dark night of sense refers to the experience that God is no longer responsive to prayer and other spiritual disciplines. Whereas such activities normally intensify one’s feelings of God’s presence and activity, during the dark night of sense, God feels more distant.
Our first impulse during the dark night of sense is to try harder. Increase our prayers, change our methods, study more, or go on a retreat. When even these fail, as they will during the dark night, it’s easy to lose hope.
Losing hope always feels bad. Hope is the fuel that moves us; it is our motivation for the future. Hope helps us to endure the present when it is challenging. And it is the path out of a painful past. When we lose hope, it feels bad.
But it isn’t always bad. The dark night is designed to deepen our love for God, to make it more sincere. It invites us to love God for God’s sake, not just for God’s benefits. If the dark night is fruitful in our lives, the hope we lose is replaced by a truer, deeper hope.
In Keeping Hope Alive Lewis Smedes identifies a number of false hopes from which we are liberated as we grow in faith and hope in God, our truest hope. One of those false hopes is the hope of escape. Hoping for escape is the natural response to a challenging present, and thus it has been the popular belief of religious people. It actually goes all the way back to Plato and the Greek philosophical dualism of soul versus body. The Greeks taught that the soul is immortal and good. It is trapped in a material body which is temporary and bad.
The Christian church incorporated this philosophy to varying degrees and began to distinguish between this life and the eternal afterlife. We also started contrasting life on earth to life in heaven. Given these dualistic assumptions, our hope got assigned to a location, namely heaven, to which we would escape from this earthly life someday.
The mystics like John of the Cross preserved a minority report, and thankfully their perspective is becoming more mainstream today. The mystics taught that our hope is not in escaping the earth, but in waiting for a person. Christian hope is like what an engaged couple experiences as they anticipate their wedding day. Then, they will start a new life together while not forgetting their individual lives to that point.
Just so, Christians hope for a person: God revealed in Jesus Christ. Now the person for whom we’re waiting isn’t present, of course. That’s the nature of waiting and hope. “Who hopes for what already is?” Paul asks in Romans 8. But Jesus isn’t fully absent either. And this is why Christian hope in God is the truest hope there is. God isn’t fully present now, but he isn’t fully absent either. Our truest hope is for God’s fullest presence.
Our hope would be false if we imagined Jesus, if we made him up in order to have hope. The Bible calls that kind of false hope “idolatry,” and it generates the kinds of behaviors that are condemned in vice lists. In our passage, the lists include such behaviors as sorcery, fornication, murder, lying, etc. All these behaviors result from idolatry—promoting something other than God as God and investing our hope into it.
By contrast, Jesus isn’t an idol. He’s not a figment of our imagination or an idealistic invention. He is a gift from God, a message of the divine, a Word proclaimed, a promise made, a testimony for the churches, a love note from our betrothed reminding us of our upcoming wedding day.
In a short six verses, Psalm 126 summarizes the biblical teaching on hope. It was written following the Exile when the Babylonians deported prominent citizens. After 70 years, when the Persians defeated the Babylonians, the exiles were allowed to return home. Psalm 126 begins by remembering God’s deliverance: “When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.” And it praises God: “The LORD has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.”
But by verse four, the Psalm acknowledges that the restoration wasn’t complete. The deliverance wasn’t total: “Restore our fortunes, O LORD.”
So it resumes with a prayer: “May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.” Finally it concludes with a more defiant and definite statement of faith and hope: “Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.”
Psalm 126 begins with the hope of deliverance, with the hope of escape from the Exile. But once realized, it discovers that escape doesn’t satisfy. If not a false hope, their escape was an incomplete hope. The truer hope returns to the LORD.
The deliverance was cause for rejoicing, like a harvest ending the farming season. But another season follows. Our true hope is not in the harvest. It isn’t in the deliverance or in the escape, but in the LORD of the harvest. The harvest is simply a reminder.
This is why testimony is so important. We remember God’s faithfulness in order to deepen hope. Testimony of God’s faithfulness in the past is preserved for us in Scripture and tradition. Testimony of God’s faithfulness in the present comes to us through the community of faith.
And this is why worship is so important. Some weeks you may feel you don’t “get anything” out of worship. I’m sure that’s true more often than I wish. But every worship service is a deposit into the bank of memory and faith. And when we need hope, we draw it from that account.
In worship through baptism, we remember the waters of life of which Jesus spoke. He proclaimed that the Spirit and the bride (and the bride is the church, by the way) say to the thirsty, “Come.” He encourages, “Let all who wish, take the water as a gift.” He assures, “To those who are thirsty, I give the water of life.”
In worship through the Lord’s Supper, we remember the bread of life which Jesus claimed to be. He said, “I am the bread of heaven.” And he promised, “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, whoever believes in me will never thirst.” (see John 6)
In worship we remember that God is present—in this world, in this life—through things like water and bread and harvests and stars. We don’t have to wait for “heaven” to encounter God. God isn’t just waiting for us in some existence we have after death. “Heaven” isn’t the place to which we escape from earth. We actually deny ourselves the truer hope of heaven with such an escapist view of heaven and earth.
This is why Revelation speaks of a “new heaven and a new earth.” It’s because our vision of heaven and earth gets distorted by our dualist thinking. Revelation’s visions are not disposals of heaven and earth, but corrections of our conceptions of them.
Revelation invites those of us with faith to rejoice in God’s presence in this heaven and earth, like those delivered from the Exile in Psalm 126. And we can likewise be honest about God’s absence, which is really just the experience of suffering in God’s presence. Our hope is the presence of God without suffering. That’s what Revelation envisions.
And that is the nature of our truest hope. It isn’t in a location, but in a time. Our hope is in the time when we will experience a fuller measure of God’s presence, in the new heaven and the new earth, where death is no more, where mourning and crying and pain are no more, and where God will wipe every tear from our eyes.
Today we remember the 2996 people who died 15 years ago, in the terrorist attacks on 9/11.
19 of those nearly 3000 dead had undeniably bad deaths. You will deal with them, as with all people, with justice, mercy, and love.
Many others of those nearly 3000 dead had good deaths, and their good lives will live on.
We remember those aboard American Airlines flights 11 and 77, and those aboard United Airlines flights 175 and 93.
We remember those who worked in and around the World Trade Center, and at the Pentagon.
And we remember the lives devastated and lost as a consequence of that day.
We remember those with permanently disabled bodies,
those with debilitating post-traumatic stress,
those with diseases related to the rescue and recovery and reconstruction,
those with holes in their hearts and lives,
those struggling to move into the future
those who live in fear or anger or unforgiveness.
As we remember all these people and feelings, we also remember you, Most High God.
We remember that you created this world, and created it good.
We remember that you called us to a good life, and that we failed to live up to your calling.
We remember that you did not abandon us, even when we made a disaster of your good creation.
We remember that you promised never to stop seeking us, your lost sheep, not matter how far into the wilderness we might wander or run.
We remember that you came to us in Christ, and, in his resurrection, began the redemption of all creation.
We remember that you sent your Holy Spirit to sustain us—through these remembrances of the past, and our hope for the future.
Bless all those whom we remember.
And bless those who dare to remember.
For we believe that by remembering, as Christ commanded us to remember, our faith is awakened and strengthened.
Your faithfulness to your promises does not depend on our belief.
But our reception of them in this life does.
Remember us, we pray, as we remember you.
And so we pray in accordance with your will as revealed in Jesus Christ, who taught us to pray, saying, Our Father . . .
Most people spend a lot of time and money pursuing the good life, when what they really want is a good death.
- The Dynamics of Death and the Rise of God
- How God Became Angry and Wrathful
- Three Outlooks on Life
- The Option Jesus Brings of a Good Death
- Three Characteristics of a Good Death
- Three Suggestions for Ensuring a Good Death
Something happens when we encounter and become aware of death. It is a “dynamic of death” that we see across cultures, religions, and among the non-religious. We witness death, and along the way decay, dying, and loss, and it raises questions for us. Questions of why, of purpose, and of trying to make sense. It also raises various feelings within us, including sadness, fear, and disorientation.
Eventually God enters the picture. Even if we didn’t know about God beforehand, the dynamics of death can cause us to look for God. In the face of death and dying, we reach out for something eternal, something undying, something forever strong to counter the weakness we see exposed by death.
Psalm 90 makes the contrast quite poetically. “God,” it says, “is from everlasting to everlasting.” And by contrast, we humans, “return to dust.” No matter how far humanity progresses, or how high we climb, the divine still says to us, “Turn back!” for we are merely “mortal.”
Still, the Bible teaches that we are made in God’s image. God has placed “eternity in our hearts,” as the New International Version renders Ecclesiastes 3:11. For this reason if not for more mundane ones, we resist death. We consider death our enemy. We avoid it, even talking about it. Death becomes something we dislike, maybe even hate.
And the dynamics of death evolve. After bringing God to our consciousness, the “why” question takes a predictable turn. We assume God is powerful, good, and just. Or perhaps we simply have a primitive fear of the deity. And so we assume that our death must be justified. The religious conclusion is that our death is the result of our sin. And God, if not feared before, becomes fearful as the judge, jury, and executioner related to our sinfulness.
This is how, as also in Psalm 90, we come to talk of God’s “anger and wrath.” We deserve to die. Death is the result of our lives, and an angry and wrathful God metes out the punishment.
The assumption of an angry deity who punishes an unholy sinner leads to three outlooks on our lives, whether we are conscious of them or not. One outlook is to hate our lives. We agree with God and pre-judge ourselves unworthy sinners who should be better. This attitude leads to various forms of self-destructive behavior, from cutting and drug use to competitiveness and isolation.
Another outlook is that we can redeem our lives. Following an enlightenment and repentance, we believe we can justify our lives before the judge. We can make up for our bad behavior with good behavior. We try to avoid judgment and condemnation by doing better and pursuing perfection.
A third outlook is to disengage from this sinful life. The “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die” attitude articulated in Ecclesiastes. We reduce our lives to being “hard, then you die.”
The best Psalm 90 can come up with is the plea for God to, “satisfy us with your love in the morning, and we will live this day in joy and praise.” (This is the opening collect in daily morning prayer, by the way.) In other words, the best we can do is worship God. (Here we must note that the use of “fear” in Psalm 90, while related to the “anger” and “wrath” of God, more closely refers to the reverence of God.) As part of this worship, we live our lives according to accumulated wisdom. The hope that Psalm 90, along with the rest of the Older Testament, gives us is that we can live thankfully aware of God’s presence, making continual progress in wisdom. It’s not a bad conclusion, given the dynamics of death.
But then Jesus enters the picture. He showed that there are more than three options. First, he didn’t hate his life. Given what we know about him and his last hours, Jesus loved his life. And while he believed in redemption, he didn’t look to his own work for it, but he trusted God to work it out in his life. And Jesus was far from resigned. Instead he fully engaged life. He even found the energy to love his enemies, to serve the undesirables, and to party with the drunks.
Jesus faced death just like all of us. But he faced it with faith and trust in God. His God was not the god of wrath, but the faithful and trustworthy God. And his God showed his faithfulness and trustworthiness by resurrecting Christ from the dead, thereby making Christ’s death a demonstration not of divine wrath, but of love.
In other words, after Christ’s resurrection, death is no longer a dreaded fear but a hopeful good. This means that we, like Christ, can also have the hope of a good death. Here are three characteristics of the good death we learn from the death of Christ.
First, the good death is an act of surrender to God. The one dying a good death leaves this world in the hope of a better one. Someone may have seen good in this life. Others maybe saw only pain and sadness. In either case, the good death sees it as a crossing over to better place. This gives us the ability to be gracious and hopeful for those who died as the result of their addiction or depression.
The good death is like the state border. We enter a new state, and death is the border we have to cross into that state. Death itself isn’t a state. Having crossed the border, we simply live in God in a new way.
Second, the good death follows a good life. Normally we think of the “good life” as enjoying leisure, the finer things, and pleasure seeking. But if Jesus models the good death, he also models the good life. Since the good death is a surrender to God, so the good life is also. Jesus’ life was characterized by love, which my seminary professor Diogenes Allen in a book by that title defined as “self-sacrifice for the benefit of the other.”
By this definition, the human ego is not naturally loving. It is self-preserving and hedonistic. Basically the human ego naturally avoids suffering.
But the good life is a life properly balanced by love. It doesn’t avoid suffering, but it doesn’t pursue it either. Instead, it pursues love, and if suffering comes with love, then we endure the suffering for the beloved’s sake. This is what Jesus did. And it’s what Paul aspired to do.
He writes that he, “desires to depart to be with Christ, for that is far better.” But he is willing to “remain in the flesh” and to suffer because that is better for the Philippians. Paul counted such a life a “privilege” and saw it as “evidence of salvation,” because part of salvation is overcoming the ego’s self-preserving, hedonistic orientation. In the letter to the Philippians, Paul invites us to this good life.
“For me,” Paul writes, “living is Christ”—that is, we can live the good life; and “dying is gain”—that is, the good death represents the end of suffering. For Paul, however, that good death wouldn’t come before he suffered loving the Philippians. The good death follows a good life.
Third, the good death extends the good life. It was only after Jesus’s ascension, following his death and resurrection, that the power of the Spirit came at Pentecost. The Spirit fills and empowers us to live as followers of Christ, to be Christ’s Body. In other words, the good life of Christ extends through us as we, like him and by his Spirit, surrender ourselves to God and serve others in love.
Paul envisioned the same thing for his life. He hoped that Christ would be exalted in his body, “now as always, whether by life or by death.” Paul saw that his life would continue in the “fruit of his labor,” namely, in the Philippians’ “progress and joy in the faith.”
So the good death (1) surrenders our future life to God, (2) concludes a good life also surrendered to God, and (3) begins the extension of our good life through others.
It is appropriate to conclude with this question: will we have a good death? Will our good life extend beyond our good death? Here are three practical suggestions. One, invest in the faith of others who will outlive you. This obviously includes children, but more essentially it is an attitude that assumes the good we do outlives us. What can you do to enhance the faith of someone else today?
Two, include your church in your will. You may have children of your own and other good organizations you want to support with the material fruit of your labor. But also remember that every time you witnessed baptism you promised to care for the children of God within the church. Your final gift helps ensure that you fulfill this baptismal promise.
Third, recommit yourself to living the good life from this moment forward. If you surrender your life to God in meditative prayer, he will show you how to live. If you follow God’s leading moment by moment, you will live the good life, and ensure a good death.
“If it bleeds it leads” is a venerable journalistic principle dating all the way back to the Bible. But the Bible has a better story to tell.
- The popular conception of final judgment
- The difference between legal justice and biblical justice
- The example of Psalm 98
- Paul’s understanding of the final judgment
- Beginning to live in God’s Kingdom today
- Questions for Discussion or Reflection
When you ask people about the final judgement in the Bible, they immediately pull up images of “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” of the “lake of unquenchable fire,” and people being devoured by a “worm that never dies.” This winter Dan Brown’s novel by the same name will reignite interest in Dante’s 14th century Inferno with its depiction of hell consisting of levels of horrible creatures and unending torture.
We’re fascinated by gore, suffering, and the misfortune of others. This is why there is rubbernecking at the scene of an accident. It’s partly because of a dark sense of gratitude, largely unconscious, that says, “Thank God that isn’t me.” This is also why Jesus warns us against our rush to judgment of other people. This fascination isn’t healthy for us, it isn’t good for others, and most importantly, it isn’t necessarily the best conception of God.
If one wanted to reduce the plot of the Bible to one line, it might be this: That God is about conquering enemies. Naturally when we hear this we think God is about conquering our enemies. This is because we fall to the original temptation of thinking we can accurately discern the difference between good and evil.
But Bible’s vison is bigger than God conquering our enemies. It’s bigger than the vision contained in many of the words of its authors. Still, the last third of Isaiah glimpses the bigger vision, as do some of the Psalms. Paul’s vision is perhaps the most detailed.
Take Psalm 98, for example. It begins by praising God for his victory over evil. It begins the story in terms of God’s faithfulness to the promises to ancient Israel. But the psalm quickly moves to include the deliverance of all nations. Then of all creation. God’s promises to Israel are actually promises through Israel to all nations and all creation—to deliver from evil so all can worship God. (See last week’s message.)
Here we see the biblical definition of “justice.” One conservative talk radio host often asserts, “There is no such thing as social justice; there is only justice. Social justice is a creation of the left.” He is entirely wrong. I suspect he’s referring to “justice” in the legal sense which means the application of law. But “justice” in the biblical sense means “righteousness.” It refers to the right relationships among all God’s creatures: From person to person; from people to creation; from nation to nation; and of course between God and creation. So we love our neighbors as ourselves, and we consume no more than we need to allow others to live also.
For example, it might be legally just for a farmer to harvest his entire field year after year and then sell his produce at the highest price the market will bear. But biblical justice require him to leave the corners of his field for those not blessed with a farm to glean for their survival, and to sell at a price that sustains society, and to leave the field fallow every seven years for the benefit of the land.
“Social justice” is the term we use to differentiate biblical justice from legal justice. It’s also the standard by which God judges us.
So God’s justice in Psalm 98 is not punishment of the wicked so much as it is deliverance from evil. Deliverance and restoration.
Paul’s most detailed vision of God’s justice is expressed in 1 Corinthians 15. Here he is defending Christian belief in the resurrection. Like most Jews of his day, Paul and early Christianity taught hope in a general resurrection of the dead, after which all people would face judgment and righteousness would be restored. Christians recognized that the general resurrection had begun with Christ’s resurrection. This is why Paul writes that if Christ is not raised, that is, if the general resurrection hasn’t begun, then Christian faith is futile because sin still reigns.
But Christ has been raised. The general resurrection has begun. Sin no longer reigns. So Christian faith is valid. The faith to which Paul refers here is faith in the general resurrection, faith in the triumph of God over sin and death. It is faith in the justice of Psalm 98 when righteousness is restored, when the Kingdom of God rules over kingdoms of earth.
This is why Paul finally envisions Christ handing over the kingdom to God. This is the final judgment of God. Today we live between Christ’s resurrection and this handing over. It is the time of the Spirit, the time of redemption moving towards restoration. All creation is in the labor pains of the new creation being born (see Romans 8). This is what Christians believe, and we act accordingly.
So 1 Corinthians 15 ends: “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” In other words, Kingdom living is not in vain. It endures, it gets “handed over” by Christ to God.
Paul is building on an earlier metaphor he used in 1 Corinthians 3. There he refers to the foundation of Christ in our lives. The basis of Christian faith is Christ and his resurrection, or in other words, the general resurrection and the Kingdom of God. Upon this foundation we build the rest of our lives. And we build either according to God’s kingdom, i.e., with gold, silver, and precious stones. Or we build according to the worldly kingdoms, i.e., with wood, hay, or straw.
Paul describes how, before Jesus hands over our lives as part of the Kingdom, he purges us with fire. Jesus burns out everything that isn’t Kingdom material. Wood, hay, and straw burns away. We survive on the foundation of Christ and are handed over with the Kingdom. But whether our lives come with us depends on how we built.
So look at your life. Are you building with gold, silver, and precious stones? Or are you building with wood, hay, and straw? Does your life reflect God’s Kingdom, or the kingdoms of the world? Are you living with faith in the resurrection of the dead, or as if this life is all that matters? These are the important questions that should govern our lives.
We can also begin to think about our rush to judgment in a new way. The refining fires of God’s judgment prepare us for Jesus’ final handing over of the Kingdom to God. We have a foretaste of those fires already in our trials and temptations. Let us try to welcome these fires as the means by which God is bringing forth virtue and character in our lives today. Our fiery trials and tribulations are somehow God’s working things out in our lives.
In Jesus Christ God has defeated the enemy, and the last enemy is death. And if death has been defeated, then we can live in God’s kingdom—now and when Jesus hands it over on the last day.
Questions for Discussion or Reflection
- How does the difference between legal justice and biblical justice change the way you think about what it means to live a just life? What difference might it make with regards to our legal system? Or with other social systems like economics, education, foreign policy, etc.?
- “Christian faith” is often reduced to “belief that Jesus died for your sins.” But if Christian faith is really faith in the general resurrection, begun in Christ, how does that change your Christian faith?
- Can you share some of the building materials in your life? What are some examples of gold, silver, and precious stones in your life? What materials are more wood, straw, and hay?
- Can you share some of the “foretaste of fires” you are experiencing today? Where might these be leading you?
Just how, exactly, are we to interpret “putting on the full armor of God”? The same way we are to read the rest of the Bible.
- The growth of “Spiritual But Not Religious”
- A comment on This Present Darkness
- How to get the most out of allegories and parables
- Two examples: The “sword of the Spirit” and the “shoes for our feet”
- Two clues for interpreting this passage
- Three answers to the question: How does God reconcile things
- Our congregational prayer which was interrupted during worship
A recent story based on documents leaked out of the ISIS camps proves what those of us who have studied Islam already knew: Most ISIS recruits don’t know much about Islam. They know plenty about hatred and violence. In the same way, those of us who know something about Presbyterianism readily acknowledge that though he claims otherwise, Donald Trump is no Presbyterian. He does know a lot about inflammatory rhetoric. These are examples of how something can be “spiritual, but not religious.”
According to the Pew Research Center, the percentage of religiously “unaffiliated” Americans rose from 15% to 20% between 2007 and 2012. And 37% of those unaffiliated say they are “spiritual but not religious,” or SBNR.
I first heard about the SBNRers when I was a college chaplain, long before it became popular to consider oneself such. I think the designation is helpful in maintaining a conversation about spiritual things and for what the church can learn from such people. But SBNR is entirely incompatible with mature Christianity. The Bible and theology and history all point to Christianity as a religious community. The best SBNR can do within is Christianity is produce anemic Christians, separated from the Body of Christ, however spiritual they may be.
That being said, SBNR does accurately describe Trump’s version of Presbyterianism and ISIS’ version of Islam, and also the state of war in which we find ourselves.
The biggest contributor to our experience of war, whether an internal struggle with our emotions and thoughts, the simmering relationships we have with others, or even the international conflicts that exist today, is spiritual in nature.
When I was in high school, Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness was the most popular book among my friends. It vividly describes two realms, the earthly and the spiritual, and how the latter determines the former, depending on the prayers of the faithful. It had the effect of bringing the spiritual back into consciousness. It also increased our prayer.
But the book also distracted us from action since we were praying so much. It gave us a sense of our own self-importance in determining the outcome of world events. It lulled us into collusion, which is the appearance of activity resulting in little progress.
Central to the “spiritual warfare” movement is this “whole armor of God” list. It is an allegorical passage, much like a parable. As such, it spawns creative reflection and application, like Peretti’s book. But it is not to be taken too literally.
We know this because the list itself is ironic. It is the “armor of God” to be worn in pursuing “the gospel of peace.” The point of the list is to redirect our trust to God, not to arms, and to pursue peace, not war.
There are two other cautions to keep in mind with allegories. One is to not become too attached to them. The way you interpret a parable today won’t be the same as a year from now. And don’t be too universalistic. The profound meaning you discern for your life today doesn’t necessarily apply to everyone else.
Let me share two examples of these interpretive guidelines from my own life. Ephesians lists among the armor of God the “Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God.” As a young conservative evangelical, I knew this sword was the Bible. We learned that swords are both defensive and offensive weapons. So we trained to use it that way: To argue, defend, and attack with the Bible—a verse parry here, a verse thrust there.
Later I discovered what Hebrews 4:12 says is true: “The word of God is living and active.” God didn’t stop speaking in the second century when the church decided what books would be in the Bible. I realized that the sword is “of the Spirit.” It continues to blow and flow, as Jesus said, and so God’s Word can’t be read off a page: It must be discerned.
Another example is the “shoes for your feet.” If you look around you you’ll see everyone has different shoes—unless you’re on a sports team! Just think how many different shoes you have for dress, sports, beach, etc. These are all shoes though they are different. They share a common purpose to protect your feet. But the choice is yours as to which pair will do that best. Just so, Ephesians says, we’re all to be ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. But how we do that varies according to each individual.
You can, and should, interpret every item on this list in the same way, and then discuss it with others, keeping in mind not to universalize your interpretation onto them.
The key to the meaning of this passage comes at the beginning: “Be strong in the LORD, and in the strength of his power.” We’re not to be strong in our own power. We’re to rely in all things on the Spirit. And we begin to do that through prayer—not so much prayer against the evil spirits, and certainly not prayer against our earthly enemies. But prayer discerning God’s will for the saints and our ability to proclaim peace.
There’s another clue in that Ephesians speaks about the “mystery of the Gospel.” The particular example of this mystery in Ephesians is the reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles. In principle, the mystery is God’s reconciling activity. How does God reconcile? Traditionally there are three answers.
One answer is that God separates in order to reconcile. This understanding helped Daniel and his friends reconcile living in Babylon, for example. They separated themselves with diet and prayer. This is also the idea behind an eternal heaven and hell. But it seems strange that reconciliation would employ separation, so another answer was developed.
The second answer is that God reconciles by annihilation. Instead of separating sinners and saints, for example, the sinners simply cease to exist. This idea seems to underlie such parables of Jesus about harvest of good crops and destruction of bad.
The third answer is what informs Ephesians. It is that the “dividing wall of hostility is brought down in Christ.” Somehow, the separated Gentiles are brought together with the Jews. Somehow the progidal son returns to the family. Somehow, mysteriously, God is able to reconcile all things.
And this is the point: it is a MYSTERY how reconciliation is done, and it is GOD’S responsibility to do it.
Ultimately the “armor of God” list invites us to meditate on these things: Dependence on God; the mystery of gospel; the person of Jesus Christ; the presence of the Spirit; and the true nature of our enemies. Meditating on these things makes it possible for us to: “Love our enemies; pray for those who persecute us; turn the other cheek; live in hope; and experience a peace that transcends understanding.”
And all this is possible when we remember that war is spiritual and not religious.
Below I include our pastoral prayer because on Sunday we were distracted with our concern for a member of the congregation who fell and was injured during the prayer.
This morning we remember with thanksgiving the life of Kathy Figenshau. We are in mourning over her death, not only because it takes her away from us, but also because it was so unexpected. We thank you for your faithfulness to her, and the hope we have because of Christ’s resurrection. As we remember her service to this church, and the example of diligence and excellence she offered to us all, we offer to you our grief and our thanks.
We pray for our congregational Nominating Committee who will prayerfully discern Kathy’s replacement on our session. Bless them as they perform this important service to our church, and also as they seek members of our Memorial Committee and the Annual Campaign Task Force. Make us all sensitive to your calling in the Spirit as we seek to follow Christ in service to the church and the world.
We pray regarding the murders of Sister Margaret Held and Sister Paula Merrill in poor, rural Mississippi. We thank you for their ministry of healing, of both body and spirit. And we pray now for comfort for their community, providence for their medical needs, and justice in accordance with your love.
We ask you to be with the recovery efforts in Italy following the earthquake there. We pray for the grieving families and friends of those whose lives were ended in this disaster. And we ask you to bless and keep safe all who are working to help affected communities respond and rebuild.
Praying in the Spirit, armed with your armor for the battle of redemption, we are bold to pray for that which can only come from you, even peace. We bring this supplication because we know you are a God of love—you want to help us. And we know you are a God of power—you are able to help us. Seeing your love and power revealed in Christ’s death and resurrection, we pray for the peace of the world, and give thanks for the progress of peace in places like the country of Colombia.
Armed with your Spiritual armor, we are also bold to intercede for victims of war. We ask you to comfort those who grieve the loss of their family and friends and health and homes. Guide military leaders to victories for peace, and guide political leaders to distribution of justice. And we pray for the other victims of war, those who perpetrate it. They act against the divine image with which you created us. They betray their calling as your children. Their brokenness manifests in their aggression. We pray you bless them with healing.
And as Ephesians urges upon us, pray for those who proclaim the mystery of the gospel, the good news of reconciliation. Make us all ready, by whatever shoes we wear, to join their ranks, and to be messengers of love and acceptance, and of forgiveness and reconciliation, and of your peace which transcends understanding.
In the silent moments that follow, hear the prayers of our hearts concerning those things that keep us from fully experiencing your peace in our own lives . . . Hear us, we pray, for we pray in the name of him who taught us to pray for justice and peace, saying Our Father . . .
The reason you can’t hold your breath is because God is always at work in your life.
- A depiction of how God’s Spirit saves us
- How Paul applied faith to real life
- More examples of how we can apply faith to our real life
- Another image to guide us
- Questions for discussion and reflection
The word translated “spirit” in the Bible is the same word for “breath.” It’s instructive that God’s breath/Spirit, which gives life to the first human, and makes the Bible’s witness authoritative, continues to flow through our lives to direct us in how to grow into Christ.
One of my favorite depictions of this reality is from the movie Signs. In this scene, biological father and reverend father Graham Hess leads his son Morgan through an asthmatic episode without medication. He invites Morgan to breathe along with him, to not fear, to believe that the air is coming, and that this trial will pass. Eventually the father’s coaching saves the son.
God really is present throughout our lives, and not only interested but involved in every aspect of them. We can trivialize God’s presence by praying for our football team to win or for a favorable parking space. But the fact remains that God is present, like air, whenever we turn our attention to him.
Philemon is the shortest book in the New Testament. It doesn’t even have chapters. It’s written by Paul to a church leader and a slave owner. Paul is sending Onesimus, a runaway slave, back to Philemon. He sends the accompanying letter asking Philemon to welcome Onesimus back as an equal, as a brother, as a free man.
It’s a fascinating book because it is a concrete application of one of Paul’s principles: In Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, man and woman, slave or free. (Galatians 3:28) It’s an example of Paul working out his faith in real life.
In other of Paul’s letters, he teaches principles, and then applies them. These applications must always be read in their context, and then interpreted in ours. The applications can’t be lifted out of their context and dropped on to ours. That’s an abuse of scripture and of our context, and a denial of the Spirit’s leading today. But the practice of applying the truth of God’s Word to our lives remains.
The process is: We hear the principles; we see an example of how they were applied; then we ty to find applications in our day.
Hebrews 13 is a good example. It’s not written by Paul, but shares the same pattern. It begins with teaching and ends with applications. How might we find applications today?
The preacher (Hebrews, scholars tell us, may have been a sermon preserved as a “letter”) begins by urging us to “practice mutual love, but to include strangers also.” The church is to welcome and encourage one another, but also eagerly welcome visitors. God’s Word (through “angels,” that is, messengers) comes to the church through such strangers!
Hebrews says we are to remember “prisoners” as if we ourselves were prisoners, and those who are being tortured as if it were we ourselves. Hebrews is not referring primarily to common criminals, but more likely to political and religious prisoners. This “as if” is an application of Jesus’ summary of all religion to “love your neighbor as yourself.” We’re invited to think of someone in our life—a neighbor, a fellow worker, someone we meet—How would we want to be treated if we were in their shoes? This one question is enough to lead our Christian life!
Hebrews’ statement on marriage, that it be held in honor by all, urges upon us the importance of promises. It directs us to keep our own promises and to help others keep their promises. As an example take the promises of childhood baptism. By their promises, the congregation takes on the role of parents. Baptism calls us to keep our promises, and to help parents keep their promises. The great symbol of this “covenant keeping” throughout scripture is marriage.
We’re urged to “keep ourselves free from love of money,” and to “be content.” We’re reminded of Jesus teaching that we “can’t serve two masters”: One we love, the other we hate. Perhaps this is the principle behind Paul’s letter to Philemon? Philemon needs to be free from an economic system that makes him believe he requires slaves. Onesimus needs to be free from his earthly master to serve a heavenly one. The questions for us are: How are we trying to serve two masters? And, How are we in the role of a master to someone else?
The final injunction from this passage in Hebrews is to remember our church leaders. Obviously to be a leader is to have followers. In the church, everyone, including leaders, is a follower of Christ. Paul tells us that Christ is the head of his Body the church. Together, leaders and followers grow into Christ. We’re always following, and always growing, because, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” Church leaders have additional pressure on them because they are leading others in following Christ. How often do we pray for our leaders?
We grow together as the church, but we also grow as individuals. And to do this, we have to be guided by the Spirit. To “conspire” usually makes us think of secretly collaborating with others in some usually illegal activity. But literally conspire means “to breathe with.” Like Graham Hess saving his son Morgan, the Bible calls us to conspire with God, to breathe with the Spirit, and in doing so to live into and bring about the Kingdom of God.
In scuba diving, if there is an emergency failure of air for a diver, a fellow diver shares air as a “buddy.” They engage in “buddy breathing,” passing the air from the good tank back and forth so that both divers can return to the surface. This is an image we can remember to live into God’s Kingdom. We are to breathe with God’s Spirit, to conspire with God, to turn our attention to God’s presence and leading at any moment in the day.
Imagine the effect upon your life and upon those around you if you would conspire with God in this way?!
Questions for Discussion and Reflection
- Some people avoid interpreting the Bible for their own lives, preferring to simply lift biblical statements out of their context and dropping them into our own. How do you respond to the invitation to the harder work of interpretation? What are some examples of how you have interpreted the Bible for your own situation?
- When have you been surprised by the Word of God coming to you through an “angelic” stranger?
- How do you help others keep their promises? How are you doing at keeping your own?
- In what ways are you trying to serve two masters? Or how are you limiting the freedom of someone else to serve God?
- How often do you pray for your pastor and the other leaders in your church? Do you just assume they are “covered” by their professional association with God? How do you pray for other leaders whom you follow?