Churches: Walk by the Spirit

There is no true Christian church without the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit. Churches should be communities that are sensitive and responsive to the promptings of the Spirit. Unfortunately, many churches are actually self-reliant communities who ultimately trust in the best practices of church growth and profit.

The Spirit leads churches to slow and consistent discipleship . . .
     not to flashes of growth fueled by shallow conversions.

The Spirit prompts communities to serve creatively & surprisingly . . .
     not to slavishly follow strategic plans drafted to ensure growth & stability.

The Spirit guides church leaders to form their members in the image of Jesus . . .
     not in the image of the prevailing cultural-ideal (like the American Dream). 

Spirit-less churches are communities devoid of Jesus and His Kingdom-priorities. They are an experiment in spiritual futility, lacking the equipping power of God for transformation and ministry. In the end, they are nothing more than another business competing in the marketplace of religious consumerism.

The Theologian’s Task?

“Theologians attempt to give voice to reality by speaking in tune with the event of God’s own self-introduction in Jesus Christ. It is gospel-shaped speech, and it is no easy task. The difficulty of the task must not become an excuse, however. Christian theologians must attempt to speak with God and their neighbours on the basis of the gospel.”

Lincoln Harvey - A Brief Theology of Sport   

Theology

I wasn’t really sure what this book was going to be about (people approach the idea of sports in all kinds of ways), but after reading the introduction I am excited about the direction it is taking. As someone who played competitive sports through college (not always in a Christian way), still plays recreationally and follows sport closely (not always in a Christian way), and is raising three sons who play and watch sports all day, everyday (most the time not in a Christian way), the idea of celebrating sports in a Christian way sounds fascinating and liberating.

On another front, I’m also a little mad I didn’t think of this first. Maybe I can follow up with A Less Brief Theology of Sport?

There will be more updates as I continue reading.

The Holy Spirit – Our Mother

Obviously the Holy Spirit is genderless. However, for a variety of reasons it’s not uncommon for scholars to refer to the Holy Spirit with feminine pronouns. That’s why I was fascinated when I came across the following quote which put the concept of the Holy Spirit as feminine together with an interesting take on a classic passage in Romans 8.

“When teaching us to cry ‘Abba,’ the Spirit behaves like a mother teaching her own little baby to say ‘daddy,’ repeating that word along with the baby until it becomes so much the baby’s habit that it calls it’s daddy even in its sleep.” – Diadochus of Fotike, On Spiritual Perfection, 61.

Matthew 19 & Rich Christians: Possible or Impossible?

Few stories fascinate me as much as the tale of the Rich Young Man (Matthew 19:16-30).

A summary: Jesus encounters an extremely wealthy man who, by all means, is also a very moral man. However, the man realizes that he is still on the outside of the Kingdom and is not experiencing eternal life. Jesus’ solution is a command –  sell all that he has and give it to the poor. In this way, Jesus implies, he will reach a moral standard consistent with entering into the Kingdom and experiencing eternal life. Indeed, this was the path already followed by his closest disciples (Mt. 19:27). The man walks away sad and unable to obey. Jesus, never one to pass up a teachable moment, tells the disciples that it is “difficult” for a rich person to enter the Kingdom. The then defines “difficult” as “impossible”: it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God.

The primary reason this is such a fascinating passage to me is because… I’m rich. And I live and worship in a wealthy (both relatively and globally) city. And yet there doesn’t seem to be an anxiety over our growing bank accounts, even with the extremely disparaging warnings about wealth like this one from Jesus. I constantly wonder, have we really felt the weight of Jesus’ words?

It is impossible for a rich person to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.

The passage also fascinates me from a hermeneutical angle – I love analyzing the interpretive practices of various groups. I know first-hand why this statement from Jesus doesn’t scare the hell out of those who are well-off. It’s because two verses later Jesus says, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Like a boy pursuing a girl playing hard-to-get, rich Christians are quick to go, “So, you’re saying there IS a chance.” And this statement from Jesus allows us to effectively forget his previously scary words. The moral import of his warning is drowned out by the credit-card shaped angel on our shoulder saying, “See, it’s possible! Don’t worry so much!”

Unfortunately, I’ve come to believe that this as an incorrect reading of the passage. The question needs to be asked: what exactly is Jesus referencing when he speaks of human impossibilities that are possible for God? Is it the possibility that a rich person will enter into the Kingdom or is it the possibility that a person will give up their riches in order to enter the Kingdom? This is a subtle yet incredibly significant interpretive decision. You see, Jesus never changes his command to the young ruler. The hope that Jesus holds out is not that the man might enter the Kingdom despite his disobedience. It is the hope that the man, through a powerful work of God, might come to a place where he fully loves God and others by giving away his possessions.

Stanley Hauerwas nails it, as usual: “Our temptation is to think that Jesus’ reply is intended to “let us off the hook.” Being rich is a problem, we may think, but God will take care of us, the rich, the only way God can. Yet such a response fails to let the full weight of Jesus’ observation about wealth have the effect that it should. We cannot serve God and mammon (Mt. 6:24). Jesus’ reply challenges not only our wealth, but our very conception of salvation. To be saved, to be made a member of the church through baptism, means that our lives are no longer our own. We are made vulnerable to one another in a manner such that what is ours can no longer be free of the claims of others. As hard as it may be to believe, Jesus makes clear that salvation entails our being made vulnerable through the loss of our possessions.” [1]

Or as Frederick Dale Bruner says: “What Jesus does not mean by “this is impossible for human beings” is the interpretation that says ‘If you will just be born again and experience miraculous conversion, you can then continue seeking money, honor, and success, for conversion does not replace all these earthly goods; it actually assist their acquisition.’ . . . . What Jesus does mean by this verse is that God can work the miracle of putting God instead of gain on the throne of the human heart (cf. Ps 119:36). No human power can displace the desire for “more” as the reigning human drive. Only God’s power can. Unless this miracle of dethronement-enthronement occurs again and again, there is no hope of salvation. That is the sober meaning of verse 26.” [2]

How Then Shall We, The Wealthy, Live?

I’ve already acknowledged that I am a relatively wealthy person (and not currently selling all of my possessions on eBay). So, I pass no judgement on those who like me follow Jesus and have wealth. However, I do believe two things:
- First, Jesus’s command to the rich young ruler is not a universal command. He doesn’t command all to give up everything, even as he clearly commands a radical commitment to the poor and oppressed from His people.
- Second, I don’t know the cut-off point! I have no clue “how rich” you can be and still enter into the Kingdom. So I can’t say “you have too much” (and neither should you).

What I do know, and would expect of those who follow Christ, is that we should be a people with bank accounts and storage closets that communicate a sacrificial love for God and others, instead of for ourselves and our stuff. I also expect this to be a gradual, consistent, and clear progression in our lives.

How do I respond to Jesus’ statements about money in this story?
First, with some anxiety. Second, with effort and intentionality, hoping that this year my habits of spending and accumulating will reflect Kingdom values more than it did last year.

Needle-through-a-camel


[1] Hauerwas, Matthew (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible),174-175.
[2] Bruner, Matthew, 308.

Were the Early Christians Communists?

Were the early Christians, living with everything in common (Acts 2:42-47), proto-Marxists?

Amos Yong says no:

“Don’t confuse this early Jewish-Christian way of life with some sort of socialism or communism. Karl Marx’s critiques were directed at the industrialism he saw in mid-nineteenth-century England, when workers were forced to sell their labor at the market rate (which was then insufficient to supply their daily needs) and then not allowed to keep their profits (which were pocketed by the capitalist merchants). Marx’s solution was to distribute both private property and the ownership of productive capital to the proletariat (workers) so that they could gain from the profits of their labor.

What happened among the three thousand converts on the Day of Pentecost was not an early expression of Marx’s manifesto. For one thing, the sharing of these early followers of Jesus as the Messiah was motivated by a repentant heart and the gift of the Holy Spirit, not by the socialist rule of law. For this reason, the selling of personal possessions was a voluntary practice rather than an institutionalized rejection of private property. Further, such sale and distribution of proceeds did not seem to have occurred systematically; instead, this unfolded over time, according to the needs of the community. What Luke describes here is not some early from of communism but is exemplary of the community of the Holy Spirit.”

- Amos Yong, Who is the Holy Spirit? A Walk With the Apostles, 30-31.