Sunday, June 28, 2015

Defying Amaziah: A Sunday-School Lesson on Amos 7-9 for Our Time

As we've been working our way through the Book of the Prophet Amos this month, we've finally come to the end. And while our lesson manual only calls for the bulk of Amos 8, I think current events require us to zoom out a bit and include the context, looking at Amos 7-9. In these chapters, Amos gets a sequence of vision-messages: God sort of brainstorms with Amos through riddles and pictures. In chapter seven, there are three of them. In the wake of threatening that he was “raising up against you a nation, O House of Israel” (Amos 6:14), God shows Amos a massive swarm of locusts who would consume all the vegetation of the whole land (Amos 7:1-2). But Amos objects that the judgment is too harsh. It's overkill, he says, so God moves on to option two: a shower of fire that would burn the land to a crisp (Amos 7:4). Again, Amos objects: “O Lord God, cease, I beg you! How can Jacob stand? He is so small!” (Amos 7:5), and for a second time, God relents and cancels the proposal (Amos 7:6).

Finally, there's a third vision, and God asks Amos to describe it. Amos sees it for what it is: a plumb line. God is standing next to a wall built using a plumb line, and there he is, holding the plumb line (Amos 7:7). The wall is being compared to the original standard. And that's exactly what's happening: This plumb line is God's red line, the final line, the one Israel does not get to cross and survive. He says that he's “setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by,” never again spare them or look the other way, never again back down. The plumb line is the last straw (Amos 7:8).

Through Amos, God delivers a final pronouncement that “the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with a sword” (Amos 7:9). In short, the climax of these three oracles is a judgment against Israel's government and against the form of religious worship officially endorsed by the state. All the organs of official state ideology are subject to God's judgment because of the way they've collaborated with the sinful desires of the Israelite leisure class, who feel that they can bend God's laws to their whims.

Naturally, this threatens the gatekeepers of public opinion, the propagandists of the party line. That's really what Amaziah is. Amaziah is introduced to the action here: his title is “priest of Bethel,” which is the headquarters of Israel's state-sponsored pagan cult, the established state religion – or, perhaps, irreligion. As soon as he hears that Amos has declared a challenge to the state's idols, he springs into action. Amaziah sends a letter to Jeroboam II, Israel's king at the time, and lodges an official complaint, accusing Amos of treason and of upsetting the status quo. In the very halls of power, Amos has dared to speak against the state. And as in any tyranny, that can't go indefinitely unpunished, because “the land is not able to bear all his words” (Amos 7:10). Amos is officially a rabble-rouser, a dissident. He's the exception to tolerance, he's a threat to civil order, he must be stopped.

So with a complaint lodged with the king, Amaziah takes it upon himself to confront Amos. Amaziah tells him to take his trade and pack up his bags and go home to Judah, because no one in Israel wants what he's selling (Amos 7:12). Amaziah wants to have Amos kicked out of Israel, excommunicated from society as a whole, because his challenge to state ideology is just intolerable. Amaziah is very clear: he does not want Amos prophesying at Bethel, “for it is the king's sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom” (Amos 7:13). There's no place for Amos' kind in the public square, Amaziah makes clear. If Amos wants to worship God in private, he's welcome – for now – but the moment he tries to live his public life in society on that basis, he's crossed the line where Amaziah takes his stand. The solution is censorship of speech and of action: “Do not prophesy against Israel, and do not preach against the house of Isaac” (Amos 7:16). It's the same as when the Sanhedrin freed Peter and John but “ordered them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:18). Amos can talk about whatever else he wants, but he'd best not dare touch the sacred cows in the state herd. He can preach personal conversion to his heart's content, thanks to the state's oh-so-generous permission, but now he's preaching politics, and that breaks all the rules.

It's a remarkably familiar story, when put in those terms.  One of my favorite authors, G. K. Chesterton, once famously said, “Once abolish the God, and the Government becomes the God.” Just two days ago, our own government – in terms of the judicial branch of the federal government – took a decisive stand saying that marriage is officially something other than what God made it, and that every state government absolutely must play make-believe with the same legal fiction. Paul said in Romans 1 that a confusion of the distinctions between created things is the closest sin, as an idea, to idolatry itself, the confusion of the distinction between creature and Creator. The de facto law of our land now enshrines confusion as a god – a culturally popular one, to boot – in our fractured national pantheon and demands us to bow the knee to Baal. You can worship whoever you want in private, but your public actions – business decisions, political or charitable donations, acts of speech – will in time be judged for compliance with the law of this “temple of the kingdom.” As in Jeroboam's Israel, so in five justices' America.

How does Amos respond to Amaziah's ruling of exclusion from Israelite society? Amaziah had made a claim, an accusation against Amos, that Amos is just out to “earn [his] bread” in high-profile places through his prophetic ministry. Amaziah accuses Amos of being motivated by the quest for personal benefit. Amaziah has become so compromised that he can't imagine being motivated by a conviction about truth. Motives that pure are actually incomprehensible to Amaziah. He doesn't think in terms of truth; he thinks in terms of interests. About thirty years ago, the late Richard John Neuhaus – one of the leading thinkers on issues of church and state in America – wrote:

Without a transcendent or religious point of reference, conflicts of values cannot be resolved; there can only be procedures for their temporary accommodation. Conflicts over values are viewed not as conflicts between contending truths but as conflicts between contending interests. … In a thoroughly secular society, notions of what is morally excellent or morally base are not publicly admissible. That is, they are not admissible as moral judgment: they have public status only as they reflect the “interests” of those who hold them. … In that approach, as we have seen, all values and all truth claims are reduced to the status of individualistic “interests.”

Amaziah is alive in America today! Just like Amaziah, many of the architects of the modern American state pretend that truth is irrelevant, that all that matters is balancing the interests of one group with the interests of another. And many of those crowing in triumph in the wake of the Obergefell v. Hodges verdict accuse disappointed Christians of just being upset that we didn't get our own way, of being sore losers. Just like Amaziah, they can't see any issues of substance at stake, only the will to power of one group pitted against the will to power of another. If anything, through sleight-of-hand they'll proclaim that “love wins,” that that's what this case was ultimately about. But “love … does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6). Who here better stands for the real victory of love: Amaziah or Amos?

Amos rejects the not-so-subtle insinuation that his public stand is a mercenary one, for sale to the highest bidder and peddled like vacuum cleaners at people's doorsteps. Amos disavows any professional status: “I am no prophet, nor a prophet's son, but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me, 'Go, prophesy to my people Israel'” (Amos 7:14-15). He isn't in it for the money. He isn't in it out of choice. This wasn't a life that Amos chose for himself, and it doesn't serve his interests. He didn't pick it; God did. God wrenched him from his peaceful, quiet life and tossed him into the thick of conflict with a controversial message to bring, stoking the fires of public passion and getting him nothing but ill-treatment and mockery. That's often where God sends his unlikely messengers.

Amos refuses to leave things at a secular plane, as though they could be fully accounted for just by counting up the contents of the prophet's wallet or seeing if he gets his kicks out of controlling others. Amos instead jarringly reintroduces what Neuhaus called “a transcendent point of reference,” saying that it was a divine call that broke his life and gave him a mandatory message. Amos refuses to assent to Amaziah's reduction of truth to interests. Amos insists that self-interest takes a backseat to truth. The value of his message isn't whether it helps Amos get ahead in life, the value of his message isn't whether it wins him popularity contests, the value of his message isn't whether it makes him feel good to think about it. The value of his message is that it's true, and the truth has practical consequences. And because Amaziah threw his hat in with the authorities under judgment, the authorities insistent on censoring Amos, he'd join their fate; Amos said that Amaziah would personally “die in an unclean land, and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land” (Amos 7:17).

On the other side of that face-to-face confrontation, Amos gets one last vision from God: a bowl of fruit (Amos 8:1). It sounds like a cheap painting you'd pick up at a yard sale! But there's a point being made here. This is no plastic fruit; it will spoil and rot. And Israel's shelf-life isn't looking so great. God actually gets a bit punny here with Amos. He sees a basket of qayits, summer fruit, and it shows the imminent qets, the end, the doom of Israel. God repeats exactly what he said before: “I will never again pass them by” (Amos 8:2). No more second chances. When the fruit spoils, it's gone. When the doom comes, the door's shut.

The list of problems is familiar by now. They're the same ones that Amos has been hammering at for the whole book: the corruption of the judges, ensuring that the system can be manipulated to keep the poor downtrodden. The elite class of Israelite society “trample on the needy and bring ruin to the poor of the land” (Amos 8:4). Some of them pretend to be pious, devoted to the LORD. But Amos has exposed that pretense. Even when they have to observe the sabbath for outward appearances, Amos sees through the display. Instead of finding joy in the rhythms that God established for our benefit, they're eager and chomping at the bit to get back to their real passion: commerce and deceit (Amos 8:5-6). They check their watches when the sermon goes over, worried they'll miss the first minutes of the big game. They find God's laws constricting and unfair, and if they follow the big ones at all, it's only a hypocritical show for the sake of social respectability, and not because of any serious commitment to discipleship and transformation.

To emphasize his seriousness, God swears an oath not to let Israel off the hook; and he swears, not by himself, but by “the pride of Jacob” (Amos 8:7), the very thing that he hates the most (Amos 6:8). To get out from under this divine commitment, they'd have to repent! God swears that he will never forget what they've done, never forget that they've decisively rejected him. And he promises judgment that would shake the land like the rising and falling of the Nile River (Amos 8:8; 9:5). Around the time Amos was preaching, a massive earthquake struck Israel around 760 BC – stronger than anything the continental United States have ever seen.

With that on everyone's mind, God warns that he can make the land tremble indeed. And, he poetically adds, “I will make the sun go down at noon and darken the earth in broad daylight” (Amos 8:9). In books of prophecy, it's common to use the sun, moon, and stars as a symbol for nations and rulers. Think of the way Joseph dreamed about his family government – the sun, moon, and stars – bowing down to him. Think of the way Revelation talks about Jesus holding seven stars in the palm of his hand. The imminent downfall of Jeroboam's dynasty, and the disaster it will spell for the nation within a generation, is serious enough to use the same language. And Amos was right in prophesying a sword against Jeroboam's house: his own son Zechariah wouldn't last six months before being assassinated by Captain Shallum, who reigned a month before being assassinated himself. God will indeed turn their feasts into mourning, their songs into laments – because the fruit of sin is bitter, and God won't restrain them from tasting it as it is. Over the last couple of days, we've seen a great deal of celebration by the worldly – including some who profess to belong to God's people – over the bad law, bad philosophy, and bad culture-making in which a narrow Supreme Court majority has been engaged. The official state ideology collaborates with the desires of the elite American leisure class. Let's pray that, unlike Israel in the days of Amos, the plumb line hasn't been dropped just yet. Let's intercede on their behalf more urgently even still.

We'd like to think, as Americans, that we're special. So did Jeroboam's nation. But they aren't as special as they assume. Sure, God saved them in the past, leading them in an exodus – but God's had his hand in plenty of national pies before and since: “Are you not like the Ethiopians to me, O people of Israel? Didn't I bring Israel up from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor, and the Arameans from Kir?” (Amos 9:7). If even Israel wasn't chosen in a way they could honestly brag about in front of even their worst enemies, can we seriously think that America is? Aren't we like Ethiopians or Philistines or Arameans before the LORD?

Amos warns that the final curse is “a famine on the land – not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD” (Amos 8:11). This is the last straw. Having shown Amos the door, the people of Israel are going to find that this amateur prophet was their final lifeline. When all grows dark, when the time of luxury unravels, when Jeroboam's twisted parody of Solomon's glory loses all its lustre, the people will wish they had a word from God to get through it. They'll want that comfort, that hope, that glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel. And with Amos gone, they'll come up dry. God has said all he has to say to them.

That sounds cruel, almost – but it isn't. The people will “run to and fro, seeking the word of the LORD,” they'll “wander from sea to sea,” they'll go questing in the north and searching in the east – but there's one direction they won't go: south (Amos 8:12). South to Judah, where they sent Amos packing, where the LORD still sends prophets to his people. This famine is largely of their own making. That old “pride of Jacob” will keep them stuck in their sin. They're desperate, they'll go anywhere, they'll do anything – except the right thing. They'll ask anybody – except God.

See, Amos does end his book with a prophecy of hope and restoration (Amos 9:11-15). But Israel chose not to even hear him out to the end of his case. They chose to stop up their ears, they chose to avert their eyes, they chose ignorance of the truth. They don't want to hear it. Their minds are made up: Amos is nothing but a bigot and a hater, he's on the wrong side of history, he has no place in the national conversation, his voice is a danger, he must be silenced. So they don't know that the bad news always gives way to good news! They don't know that there's always a gospel after the earthquake! They don't know that comforting word of peace and security, through the falling and rising of David's booth in Jesus Christ (Amos 9:11). Unless they know to store their life in what will rise even though it falls, they're doomed to “fall and never rise again” (Amos 8:14), the fate of everyone whose ultimate allegiance is to the official ideology of any earthly power, including our own impulse to play at being kings for a day.

Amaziah can evict, Jeroboam can frighten, the elites can bribe and feast and lie – and, to be sure, many well-meaning people will be swept up in the currents of culture that Amaziah's kin are stirring. It's no surprise that “distressing times will come” (2 Timothy 3:1). But Amaziah does not last. Amaziah does not have the last word. The LORD does, even when he chooses to bring it through unlikely figures like Amos and you and me. The recent Orthodox saint Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain once remarked, “What I see around me would drive me insane if I did not know that, no matter what happens, God will have the last word.” And God will have the last word. Amos had no reason to be afraid of Amaziah. Amaziah can do his worst, but God's call is God's call, and while Amaziah is dead and gone, our God is alive! So even today, Amaziah's followers can mock us, they can belittle and misrepresent us, they can accuse us of acting in bad faith, they can try to shut us out of the public square, they can try to exile us into insignificance, they can even go so far as to challenge our livelihoods. But God's people have seen plenty worse.

If we're thinking with the mind of Christ, this should scarcely faze us. It's sad, it's bad for people both within the church and outside of it, but we will get the message out. Like Amos, we persist in proclaiming a message “by which all existing establishments and revolutionary would-be establishments are brought under divine promise and judgment,” to quote Neuhaus again. We dare to contradict the new gods of identity politics, just as we contradicted the gods of Greece and Rome. They called it blasphemy then, they may do the same now. If we have to proclaim it from the margins of society instead of the halls of power, so be it. If we have to proclaim it from poverty or prison or exile, so be it. The people of the truth cannot be silenced. With gentleness, with respect, with winsome words backed up by actions of evident love, we will not stop living according to the word of God – not just teaching our faith, but exercising it also. “I have kept for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal,” says the LORD (1 Kings 19:18; Romans 11:4). Whatever happens to to our bodies or our possessions, no disciple of Amaziah can destroy a believer's soul (cf. Matthew 10:28). Whether in this age or the age of resurrection to come, you and I will see the end of this Court term. You and I will see the end of the next election cycle, and the next, and the next. You and I will see the rise and fall of nations. When proclaiming the good news, the church has the mandate of urgency; but when weathering the changing winds of culture and law, the church has the luxury of God's own patience: With the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day (2 Peter 3:8). This will pass. “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:8).

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Earthly Talk, Heavenly Wisdom


  
How does the world work? For all the complexity of his thought, Paul is pretty clear on this point: The customary 'logic' of the world, as we see it working all around us, isn't really a good logic at all. That's because the real logic, the Logos, is the one who was “in the beginning with God” (John 1:1-2). The real Logic of the real world is none other than God's Logic, who stepped visibly into our world and introduced himself as Jesus Christ. But the so-called logic by which the world around us works, its common-sense instincts, its proverbs and principles – without Jesus, these are all bad masters. Paul says, make sure that none of them slap the cuffs on you! Keep clear of their chains! See to it that you don't get enslaved by the world's 'logic', because you belong to a better Logic, a philosophy according to Christ (Colossians 2:8). The principles that underlie the world, the powers behind it – Jesus unmasked them as idols and frauds and “disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public spectacle of them” in his cross and resurrection (Colossians 2:15). Instead of being “conformed to the world,” we have the chance to give God the opposite of world-conformity. Paul calls it “logical worship,” meaning a living sacrifice, the offering up of a life “transformed by the renewing of [our] minds” to replace the outline of worldliness with the likeness of Christ (Romans 12:1-2).

So why, Paul asks, do Christians keep insisting on following the frauds when Jesus took their masks away? Why do Christians offer their wrists to be shackled by the flurry of maddened conventions that pass themselves off as wise? Why do Christians think a prison jumpsuit befits a priceless soul better than robes washed white in the blood of the Lamb? After Jesus died to buy us from the world's slavery and manumit us, ushering us into the freedom of his light, “why do you live as if you still belonged to the world” (Colossians 3:20)? The problem with the church at Colossae was that their focus, their attention, was at the wrong place. Real liberty was right overhead, at the right hand of the Father, because their lives were hidden with God by being stored safely in the risen life of Jesus himself (Colossians 3:3). Our lives are stored above, so we “seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on earthly things” (Colossians 3:1-2).

Now, this doesn't mean that our goal is an ethereal heaven, or a rejection of the body's goodness in present or future. Our bodies are made by God, they're made to live on earth, and God has no intention to forsake his plan. This doesn't mean that the earth is expendable or a second-rate part of God's creation. God calls us to treat the earth as a garden and to sanctify it for the sake of his name and to do his will here and serve his kingdom here. This doesn't mean that knowledge of the earth and its created realities is unworthy of God's people who bear the mind of Christ. Christ himself wanted to speak to Nicodemus about both heavenly things and earthly things (John 3:12).

But it does mean that the center of our faith is Jesus Christ, whose life flows from heaven into us through the Spirit sent down from heaven. It does mean that we're to live our lives, even on earth, in ways guided by the heavenly wisdom that comes from God's will. It does mean that our orientation is heavenward, in the sense of being toward God and toward edification, which 'builds up'. There's a reason that, in nearly every culture's spatial metaphors, 'up' has superiority – which itself a spatial metaphor, 'super' meaning 'on top' or 'above'. By definition, wisdom 'from above' is better than wisdom 'from below'.

'Earthly' is the easy thing, because gravity is a moral phenomenon as much as a physical one. Our sin is a heavy burden, we remember, that pulls us down into the mud and inhibits our real freedom. Ever been stuck to the ground, pinned down? Thirteen years ago – July 23, 2002 – I was in a horse-drawn cart accident in Ireland. A wooden shaft snapped, the horse bolted, the cart flipped, and I got thrown to the ground and pinned underneath the overturned cart. I could scarcely move; I was trapped and confined. I couldn't stand, I couldn't do anything but roll slowly through the dirt and gravel, peering with dim eyes through the cart's shade at only the slightest glimmers of light beneath the edges. Strength drained from the impact, bones broken and body battered and bleeding, I couldn't raise myself up out of the dirt, couldn't toss the cart aside by my own broken works.

That's what it's like to live in an 'earthly' way. The 'earthly' people think they're free, but sin isn't freedom, sin isn't liberty. Sin means weakness. Sin means slavery. Sin means the path of least resistance. Sin means wriggling in the dirt and the rough stones, instead of standing tall the way we were meant to live. 'Earthly' speech, 'earthly' actions, 'earthly' attitudes, 'earthly' thinking – they trap us, they limit us to the most impure, most compromised forms of human expression. That's not what we were made for. We originate on earth, we're meant to live on the earth, but we weren't meant to be 'earthly', not in that way. Sin binds us to an 'earthly' life, a less-than-human life. We oppose sin, not just because we're reflexively against modern culture, not just because we're cantakerous contrarians, but because sin gets in the way of a more-than-earthly life.

That day in Ireland, a passerby – or perhaps it was the cart's driver – came and knelt in the stony ground, gripping the cart and lifting it and tossing it aside; I don't remember his face, but his silhouette sketched against the freshness of the noonday sun was the sign of my freedom. I stood up from the dirt, surveyed the injuries of the others, and set myself to the work of prayer. More importantly, I can testify that Jesus came and knelt in this stony ground alongside us. Coming to the lowliness of our position, the earth stained by human sin, he gripped the tomb of our demise, lifted it onto his shoulders, and was buried in death – taking our burden away, and lifting us up from the muck and mire through his risen life. And the glimpse of Jesus, radiant with the brightness of God, is the victory banner of our freedom. Physically, gravity doesn't just hold us to the earth; it tethers our world to the sun. Spiritually, gravity wasn't meant to chain us to the lowest lows. The Christian life is about being propelled by the Spirit into Christ's orbit, falling further and further upward into the heavenly 'heaviness' of his glory.

Yet even Christians have to be told to break ties with earthly talk, earthly deeds, and earthly wisdom, and to replace them with heavenly talk, heavenly deeds, and heavenly wisdom. What's wisdom? Wisdom is skill for living in the creation, especially the moral order that God decrees. There's a true wisdom, but there's also a phony kind of wisdom, earthly wisdom, a pattern of living that looks skillful but isn't, because it misidentifies in practice what the real moral order is. “False wisdom is the attitudes, aims, and values of the dominant society,” as opposed to the kingdom of God (Richard Bauckham, James, p. 153). We see that all around us; sometimes we see it in us and among us: ways that look like they're bound to “get ahead,” assuming that “getting ahead” is the ultimate good of human life. That's what James means when he denounces certain ways of living as wisdom that “doesn't come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, and devilish” (James 3:15). These ideas, these practices, these attitudes – they aren't from God, they don't resemble his character, they aren't what the Spirit is up to. Instead, we're supposed to live by “wisdom from above” (James 3:17), because Jesus himself is the Wisdom of God who came from above 'for us and for our salvation'. Paul says that these other options, these fake skills, these false paths, only really have “an appearance of wisdom” but are ultimately “of no value in checking self-indulgence” (Colossians 2:23).

Paul and James both identify kinds of actions, speech, and attitudes that are 'earthly', in the sense of being unmoored from God's orbit, weighed down by sinfulness, unedifying, and dominated by phony wisdom. Paul talks about “fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed” (Colossians 3:5), and he adds “anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language,” as well as lying (Colossians 3:8-9). James mentions “bitter envy and selfish ambition,” as well as anything “boastful and false to the truth” (James 3:14). And who can forget James' stirring passage about the wayward nature of the earthly tongue, which is “a restless evil, full of deadly poison,” able somehow to not just bless God (as it was created to do) but yet to “curse those who are made in the likeness of God” (James 3:8-9)?

Have we spurned earthly talk? Have we really put aside evil desire and greed and envy? Have we denied earthly wisdom? Well, what wisdom sits at the wheel of our car: earthly, or heavenly? (Some of us might be in trouble on that one!) What wisdom guides our attitudes toward our church family: earthly wisdom, or heavenly? You know that some have, over the years, withdrawn their involvement here because of needless personal offenses. That's different than finding the whole church corrupted in doctrine or dominated by a Diotrephes like Gaius had to deal with in 3 John – some of you have seen that first-hand. But do we insist on lamenting the color of the carpet? Do we pick on one another's clothes? Do we look down on one another for our musical tastes? Or do we set our personal preferences aside and focus on living out proactive forgiveness?

What wisdom chooses our words? Are they earthly words – compromising, one-sided, unkind, bitter, careless – or heavenly words – truthful, fair, gentle, peaceable, careful? Jesus said, “On the day of judgment, you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36-37). Jesus, you mean I'll be held to account for every unsavory suggestion, every off-color joke, every explosive expletive? “Every careless word...” Jesus, you mean I'll be held to account for every comment about immigrants and foreigners and the people I see at Walmart? “Every careless word...” Jesus, even what I say about Democrats and Republicans, MSNBC and Fox News, Obama and O'Reilly? “Every careless word...” Okay, but what about the people who personally cheat me and rob me and belittle me? “Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you … If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? … But love your enemies, do good, and lend without expecting anything in return” (Luke 6:27-35).

Even in the church? “Don't speak evil against each other, brothers and sisters. Whoever speaks evil against another or judges another, speaks evil against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you aren't a doer of the law but a judge” (James 4:11). We have to be careful here, because in today's culture, we automatically assume that making any evaluation of right or wrong is 'judging'. But from first to last, James is telling us kinds of behavior and attitudes that are right and kinds that are wrong, and he doesn't mince words about it. What he's talking about is substituting our own agendas and preferences for God's wisdom, and about rushing to condemn others within the church as being unsalvagable by Christ. When we do that, then we're setting ourselves up as judges who can revise or adjust God's law, rather than as people called to submit to it as it finds its perfection in the Spirit.

And we believers do sometimes set ourselves up as judges of the law – and not just in the 'liberal' direction. It's obvious how readily we do that today, but what James probably had in mind were those who made their own personal biases the real standard – especially the rich pretending to be better than the poor (James 2:1-7; 5:1-6), or some Christians pretending to be above others on the grounds of a more socially acceptable list of pet sins (James 2:8-13). James aims to undercut our presumptions, not just the presumption of being “able to save and to destroy” as God can (James 4:12), but even about being confident in our plans when so much in life is beyond our control (James 4:13-16). And even if we find that someone stands afoul of God's law, the course of church discipline reaches its pinnacle in letting the offender “be to you as a Gentile and tax-collector” (Matthew 18:17). And how did Jesus and his apostles treat Gentiles and tax-collectors? He drew them near to salvation with his unyielding love and compassionate mercy, for “whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save his soul from death and cover a multitude of sins” through “constant love” (James 5:20; cf. 1 Peter 4:8).

Anger, wrath, malice, slander, foul language, derogatory and bitter remarks and complaints – that's what earthly wisdom recommends. But what does earthly wisdom get us, in the end? “On account of these, the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient” (Colossians 3:6). Yet wrath isn't God's plan for us, it isn't what God wants for us. God “desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). God's desire is not for us to live by earthly wisdom. Instead, God wants us to live by heavenly wisdom that produces heavenly thinking, heavenly doing, and heavenly talking. This kind of wisdom is “the God-given ability of the transformed heart to discern and to practice God's will” (Richard Bauckham, James, p. 152).

James says that “the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy” (James 3:17). First of all, before anything else, heavenly wisdom is pure. It's a pure heart that produces the best love (1 Timothy 1:5), and Paul asks us to “not participate in the sins of others; keep yourselves pure” (1 Timothy 5:22), and yet without being exclusionary or self-righteous. Pure wisdom also has to yield pure religion, pure piety, and that means “to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27).

Can we say we do both those things, or have we learned to specialize in one to the neglect of the other? And if we do both already, then we can move along and add to it being peaceable, which is the only way to get “a harvest of righteousness” (James 3:18). We're called to “contend for the faith” (Jude 3), but not to be contentious and divisive people. We stand where God has called us to stand, but we reach across the gap with outstretched hand, seeking to “agree with one another, live in peace” (2 Corinthians 3:11), and to “live peaceably with all” so far as they'll let us (Romans 12:18). And to that, we'll add gentleness, one of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:23). If someone is discovered in sin, Paul tells us to “restore such a person in a spirit of gentleness” while avoiding the temptation ourselves (Galatians 6:1). Gentleness is how we redirect sinners, gentleness is how we correct those who disagree with the faith we hold (2 Timothy 2:25), and the gentleness of heavenly wisdom should be shown in all the works of our lives (James 3:13).

Paul talks about this heavenly wisdom as a new outfit, an outward enactment of an inward change, because in baptism, we become “raised with [Christ] through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead” (Colossians 2:12). You “have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its Creator” (Colossians 3:10). Old self off, new self on. Off with the First Adam, on with the Last Adam. What does that mean? It means, “Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, meekness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12). That's the character of a holy people who experience the love of God. What would it look like if the world couldn't help but admit that the church is where to go when you want to experience compassion and kindness and patience?

Paul reminds us to “bear with one another: if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Colossians 3:13). Does that mean that we never mention behavior that bothers us, that we bottle it up inside? No, it means the opposite of bottling it up inside; it means letting it go, which often means gently broaching the issue as needed but not harping on it. And if it's a matter of out-and-out sin against us, we try to work things out, we bring it to the church body for mediation if needed, and we give it into God's hands and out of our hearts. It means that we're always looking for the good, always seeking reconciliation, always stretching ourselves and finding ways to stop personal conflicts from growing before they get in the way of our common mission, like when Paul and Barnabas split up for a while because Paul wouldn't forgive Barnabas's cousin Mark (Acts 15:37-39). Yet by Colossians, Paul can commend Mark: “If he comes to you, welcome him” (Colossians 4:10).

What does that mean for heavenly wisdom in dealing with those outside the church, those who aren't just sinning but are dead in their sins, but whom God invites to life in Jesus Christ? What does heavenly wisdom ask us to do with pre-Christians, even pre-Christians dead-set against the witness of Christ's body? How do we conduct ourselves toward outsiders? “Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders” (Colossians 4:5). Again, we can't escape the necessity of heavenly wisdom. To conduct ourselves wisely at all, we need to be formed and shaped by the revealed Word of God and tutored through experience by the Spirit of God. That experience isn't just our own private experience; it's the experience of the whole church, the whole Christian community, both here and far away, both now and long ago. How do we get wisdom? “Ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly” (James 1:5), and God will lead us through whatever experiences we need to develop endurance and maturity, if we navigate according to what we find in his gospel (James 1:3-4).

Conducting ourselves wisely toward outsiders means “making the most of the time,” or “making the most of the opportunity” (Colossians 4:5). Our opportunities aren't unlimited. “The time is short” (1 Corinthians 7:29), and “night is coming when no one can work” (John 9:4), for “yet in a very little while, the one who is coming will come and will not delay” (Hebrews 10:37). We conduct ourselves wisely when we “let [our] speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt,” so that we practice the skill of being able to give the right kind of answer in the face of each kind of questioning or accusation (Colossians 4:6). And so we explain the gospel, first with our lives and then also with words chosen by heavenly wisdom for the situation at hand (cf. 1 Peter 3:15-16). But we can't do this unless we first ditch our earthly wisdom, with all its earthly deeds and earthly talk, and replace our own pretended self-sufficiency with “the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD” (Isaiah 11:2), the same Spirit who rests on and comes from the Son who ascended to the Father, who with the Son and the Spirit is “the only wise God … to whom be glory forever” (Romans 16:27)!

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Stand Firm in Eternal Comfort


In the wake of warning about the “man of lawlessness” who would come, and of the influence already then at work (2 Thessalonians 2:7), Paul notes that some people in this world choose to live in darkness. Such people are “perishing, because they refused to love the truth and be saved” (2 Thessalonians 2:10). And because they steadfastly set themselves against the truth, God hands them over to their desires. All they have to do is “love the truth,” and they'd be saved. But they won't: they're “a band of ruffians” who “don't set [the LORD] before them” (Psalm 86:14). Some people don't love the truth. Given a choice between the honest-to-God truth and “wicked deception,” their choice is consistently for the second option. And so, in the end, God lets them chase down that trail to its end. Because God doesn't coerce us, he doesn't force us to “love the truth.” He sets the truth in front of us, he sends his Spirit with prevenient grace, but he lets us pick how to react to it. We can love the truth, or we can invite “a powerful delusion” and “take pleasure in unrighteousness” instead (2 Thessalonians 2:11-12).

Doesn't that ring true today as much as then? Take the case that has the media's attention for this moment. You might have heard of Bruce Jenner. Decades ago, he set a world record and won an Olympic gold medal in the 1976 men's decathlon. He was called the “world's greatest athlete” and an American hero for winning the medal back from the Soviets. But all that time, Jenner never felt comfortable as a man – he described himself as “lonely” and “totally empty inside” – so he's now gone through cosmetic surgeries and hormone treatments to portray himself to the world as a woman, just as he felt he always was – he has “the soul of a female,” he said. And now Jenner is a very public face – and, with praise from the president and awards from ESPN and television specials and endorsement deals, a very well-compensated face – for what it means to be, as they call it, “transgender,” joining others like the upcoming Pennsylvania Physician General.

It would be easy to just give in and live by the motto, “Whatever floats your boat” – whatever you personally want to do with your body, whatever you personally want to claim to be, we'll accept you as the final authority and play along and yell at anyone who disagrees. That would be the easy road, and many take it. Many in America today demand that we all agree that this man Bruce Jenner is now Caitlyn Jenner, a woman in all ways that count. Many in America today insist that we accept one of two versions of the story. One is that the body doesn't matter; that the true you is who you feel like you are, that the true 'you' is your feelings or brainwave patterns and not your body, and that if the body doesn't fit, then it just has to be fixed. How you feel is the 'real' you, and being honest and authentic is just asserting your feelings as the final arbiter of truth. The other version is that 'man' and 'woman', 'male' and 'female' – these are just phases, dealing with inward chemical and outward form, that doctors can change through the triumph of science, dominating nature like a potter molding clay (cf. Isaiah 29:16). In this version, 'male' and 'female' are our playthings to construct and deconstruct and reconstruct to our whim and pleasure. As an eminent psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins lamented, “Without any fixed position on what is given in human nature, any manipulation of it can be defended as legitimate.” These surgical efforts, he said, are simply “collaborating with madness.”

That's because neither of those popular stories is the truth of the matter. Both are a “deception for those who are perishing” (2 Thessalonians 2:10). The truth is that we are not just our spirits, nor are we just our bodies. We are living souls, meaning that we're body and spirit, not one without the other or one over against the other: “Glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:20). The truth is that “from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female” (Mark 10:6), that “in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). The truth is that no amount of surgery or chemicals can replicate the unique history of growing from a boy into a man or a girl into a woman, with all the aches and pains and experiences that bind together all men and all women as partakers in a common experience. The powers of Mammon cannot buy true womanhood for a man, as if it were some trinket that could be obtained for a price or appropriated through sheer self-will and autonomous choice. Being a man, being a woman – these are gifts from God; and in the first century, a magician named Simon learned a hard lesson from Peter about trying to buy the gift of God with money (Acts 8:20), nor can this gift of God be appropriated by works, even medical or pharmaceutical works (Romans 4:4). Many today don't love the truth. Instead of the popular, easy road, we “walk in [God's] truth” (Psalm 86:11).

It would be easy to pretend we can buy the gift of God with money or works, and it would be easy to pretend that we weren't made essentially male and essentially female from our very start. But it would also be easy to turn to mockery. In the professing Christian media, some have taken the easy road of labeling Jenner “a freak,” “a monstrosity,” “sick,” “disturbed,” and so on. It's easy to shake our heads and wonder what this world is coming to. It's easy to just sigh a sigh of disgust and wish that celebrity news would go away, but this speaks to our culture. This athlete, this celebrity, this reality TV star, is a man made in God's image; he is meant for so much more than this. Yet this man is a man in a fallen world, a world where plenty can go wrong with our body or brain development or psychology; a world where we're all full of disordered desires and desperate doubts, not just him.

I can't even begin to imagine what it might be like to live with gender dysphoria, the exceedingly rare conviction that your body is the wrong sex. At National Conference, we put off a suggestion to address this issue directly in our Discipline, because it's just too complex a situation to answer fully, fairly, and graciously without a lot of preparation. Gender dysphoria must be an unimaginable pain, and yet the procedures some men go through in their covetous yearnings to possess feminine allure as their own are, at their best, only a desperate attempt to be freed from an inner turmoil – and it doesn't work. An estimated 41% of them later attempt suicide anyway – which Jenner said he'd already considered. And there are plenty of testimonies from people like Walt Heyer who went through it and then repented and reverted years later, and they tell us that it can't alleviate the inner estrangement between body and soul. It may give relief for a time, but it can't produce joy. Only the gospel can heal – though it may take a lifetime of struggle, and though God may bring healing through therapy and counseling and medications alongside the ministry of the Word and the Spirit.

Just the same, I cannot imagine what it's like to live with body integrity identity disorder, a very real condition where someone experiences a body part as so foreign that they want to have it amputated or want to become paralyzed. And some do just that, and some fringe doctors are even willing to help those people become “transabled,” just as some doctors are willing to help people with gender dysphoria become “transgendered.” Nor can I imagine what it's like to live with species dysphoria, just like gender dysphoria but with discomfort, not over male or female, but over a human body itself. I once had a chance to talk with some people who suffer species dysphoria, and it was one of the most perplexing experiences of my life. Neither of those conditions have met with mainstream applause – yet.

These must all be painful conditions, so it's easy to pretend that any surgery that gives surface relief must be okay. And these are certainly unusual conditions, so it's also easy to ridicule and mock and denounce and demonize. But neither path is open to us if we want to follow Jesus. If we listen charitably, Jenner's story is one of pain, one of sorrow, one of confusion and self-doubt. He and others like him deserve our compassion and our love, and Jesus insists that we give it. When we condone, we lose sight of the truth; but when we mock or scoff, we lose sight of love. And neither condoning or mocking does any good to someone in pain or sorrow, nor to any of the silent sufferers watching from the sidelines and wondering if anyone has an answer or if anyone can love them through their shame and their longing.

It's easy to pretend we're better. It's easy to point the finger and say Jenner has crossed the line, the line whose good side we're safely on. But “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). All of us are past the line. All of us are broken. We all experience the world as broken – not just the world outside, but the world within, the inner sanctuary of the soul, which turns out to be desecrated and no safe haven. Gender dysphoria, species dysphoria, body integrity identity disorder – those are just specific ways in which the shattered pieces of a shattered world cut some. But we all bear the wounds and scars.

All of us are alienated, not just from God, but within ourselves. We all have shame, we all have doubt, we all have confusion. Jenner and others like him may experience the effects of the Fall in some different ways, as well as in many of the same ways, but a different set of struggles doesn't make him worse than us. In Adam, we're all “sick.” In Adam, we're all “disturbed.” In Adam, we – no less than Bruce Jenner – feel the dysphoria between our “inmost self” and “this body of death,” and we know that our members house “the law of sin” that holds us captive and makes war with “the law of [our] mind” (Romans 7:22-24). No hormone injections can reconcile the two; no surgery can assign us back to righteousness. In our most honest moments, in our confrontation with our loneliness and fear and shame, our smallness in the face of the pervasive power of lawlessness even within ourselves, we look in the mirror and see a “wretched man,” just like Jenner did and maybe does, and ask “who will deliver [us] from this body of death” (Romans 7:24).

I can't imagine life with gender dysphoria or species dysphoria or body integrity identity disorder or same-sex attraction. I can't imagine life with alcoholism or heroin addiction or schizophrenia. But I do know what it's like to lose sight of the light. I do know what it's like to lose all hope and fall to pieces. I have known what it's like to feel completely alone, what it's like to feel like I've got something to prove, what it's like to feel mismatched and full of shame, what it's like to feel out of control and in a free-fall toward self-destruction. In the years of even my short life, I've spent time in the darkness, listening to the voices of self-doubt and of my demons – not all the metaphorical kind, either. And so I may not be able to relate to Jenner's specific struggle, and the gospel forbids me from condoning his actions, but I also can't stand as judge, jury, and executioner. Finding alienation within his own self, finding his mind and his body, his spirit and his flesh at odds, Jenner grasped for a solution. Finding other kinds of alienation within my own self, I've also cried out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24). And if I were a betting man, I'd bet that you can relate to at least some part of that. I've cried out that prayer, I've felt that pain, I've reached for any way to cope, any solution – but even when my back was turned, the Solution was reaching out for me.

What do we need? We need “eternal comfort and good hope.” And who can give it to us? “Our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father” (2 Thessalonians 2:16) – so “who will rescue [us] from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25)! The world can give us passing comfort at best. In worldly ways, we can gain temporary catharsis, dulling our inner pain for a moment through ultimately self-destructive coping mechanisms. We can shield ourselves from the full brunt of our burdens that way, but at what cost and for how long? That's the question for every addict, those who get trapped in cycles of chemical escape to handle the loneliness and desperation. But that's the question for all of us. In the First Adam, we're all sin-addicts. Only in the Last Adam is there freedom that lasts. Only in the Last Adam is there eternal comfort made available, to return to again and again. Only in the Last Adam is there hope that's good.

The same Jesus who cast out demons at Gadara still pierces the darkness today (Luke 8:26-33) – I know it's true! The same Jesus who prayed for Peter still prays for us today (Luke 22:32; Hebrews 7:25) – I know it's true! The same Jesus who calmed the wind and the waves still “speaks peace to his people” as the risen Lord (Psalm 29:11) – we know it's true! And the same Jesus still offers “eternal comfort and good hope” through his love and grace (2 Thessalonians 2:16). He offers it to you, and he offers it to me. Jesus came down and went up to send us the Holy Spirit as another Comforter to work real peace, real wholeness, real shalom within our hearts and souls. He listens to our griefs and our sorrows, our pains and our insecurities, and he will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes (Revelation 21:4).  We've seen him work wonders already in this assembly called together by God.

We were called by God – how? “Through our proclamation of the good news” (2 Thessalonians 2:14), Paul and Silas and Timothy write. We are chosen by God as the fruit of God's saving work (2 Thessalonians 2:13) – how? By grace, the same grace that gives eternal comfort (2 Thessalonians 2:16). And how do we recognize the grace? Two ways. One is “belief in the truth,” the truth of Jesus Christ. Christians are called to “love the truth,” to walk in the truth, but do we? That truth is that Jesus died on the cross to destroy our sin, and that Jesus rose from the dead to give new life, and that Jesus ascended to heaven to pour out his blessings, and that Jesus is our living Lord who will return again. The truth is that Jesus is the Creator who, from the very start, made a universe where two complementary things are meant to unite in harmony: heaven in harmony with earth, land in harmony with sea, man united in harmony with woman – each engaged in a distinctive kind of self-giving. The truth of confession is that we broke them all and sent them spinning and crashing. The truth is that Jesus is the Redeemer who wants to bring heaven back into holy unity with earth, land into holy unity with sea, man into holy unity with woman as one flesh, mirroring the eternal distinction and intimacy between himself and his holy nation, the Church, whose God is the LORD (Psalm 33:12; 1 Peter 2:9; Ephesians 5:25-33).

And, Paul says, we're chosen as the fruit of God's saving work “through sanctification by the Spirit” (2 Thessalonians 2:13), the same Spirit who inspired the scriptures that minister comfort unto hope in “the God of steadfastness and comfort” (Romans 15:4-5), the same Spirit whom Jesus called “the Comforter” (John 14:26) and who guides us into the truth we're called to believe and love (John 16:13) and who brings “life and peace” for sure (Romans 8:6). We're chosen by being made holy, we're chosen by being set apart, we're chosen through the Spirit of Eternal Comfort, who changes and transforms us and leads us through the valley of the shadow of death but teaches us step by step not to fear (Psalm 23:4).

Why has God chosen us? Why has God given us eternal comfort? For what purpose? “To obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ,” and to “stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us,” and to be made strong in “every good work and word” (2 Thessalonians 2:14-17). On the one hand, we aren't to hold loosely to what the apostles handed down. Many churches do hold them loosely, very loosely, refusing to keep a solid grasp on what the apostles taught about faith, or about money, or about sexuality, or about human life, or about the reality of God and the lordship of the risen Christ or about the life-changing power of the Holy Spirit. But we're meant to have a strong grip on these things. “Stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong” in the face of this world's challenges (1 Corinthians 16:13). Are we “standing firm in one spirit, striving side-by-side with one mind for the faith of the gospel,” being “in no way intimidated” by those who try to shout us down (Philippians 1:27-28)? Can we see that opposition, if it's because we're standing for the truth and not because we're being jerks in the truth's name, is a “privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well” (Philippians 1:29)?

At the same time, we were chosen and gifted with eternal comfort to be made strong in “every good work and word” (2 Thessalonians 2:14-17). Our faith, our hope, our comfort – it isn't a gift for our own private reserve. That isn't what God is doing. It's meant to minister to others within the church and to the world around us with good deeds and good words. What words are good words? How about “sound speech that cannot be censured” so that “any opponent will be put to shame, having nothing evil to say of us” (Titus 2:8)? How about words that are “always gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone” (Colossians 4:6)? How about an answer about our good hope, made “with gentleness and respect, keeping your conscience clear” (1 Peter 3:15-16)? When we talk about celebrities and politicians, are our words “always gracious”? When we discuss issues of serious sin, both inside and outside the church – because Bruce Jenner isn't just a political conservative but even a professing Christian – is all our talk both “sound speech” and “always gracious”? Is it well-seasoned through biblical wisdom and experience before we grumble or accuse? Are we truly “quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19)? “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but the prudent are restrained in speech” (Proverbs 10:19). Do we show, by our willingness to listen and our gentleness in bringing Scripture to bear on the situation, that we're inviting all people into Christ's love, the love where we turn for comfort from the storms and senselessness of our very souls? Does our character imitate the “God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Psalm 86:15)?

Does our church look like God's mercy seat? Is our church a community where Jenner could “fervently kneel,” could “bring his wounded heart, tell his anguish,” and find that “earth has no sorrow that heaven can't heal”? Can others bring their wounded hearts and tell their anguish and sorrow here, in the presence of heaven's healing? If we're holy, are we also an embracing space where sinners can come and meet that healing, find and approach that eternal comfort in the Way, the Truth, and the Life? Is it true that this church is a hospital for [all] sinners and not a museum for saints? Can people come to our church and find comfort for their ailing bodies and hope for their despairing souls, and reconciliation between the two? Can people come and find loving hearts to seek them relentlessly through all their shame hearts with love that, like Jesus, will “love through every changing scene,” in spite of any wanderings, any relapses, any agonies to overcome? Do we offer the bread of life and the “waters flowing / forth from the throne of God, pure from above”? Because there's eternal comfort and good hope in the name of Jesus Christ! Neither sin nor hell can turn that eternal love and comfort away.  Does it flow through us also? Are we known for “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15)? But to share that love, God first had to love us (1 John 4:19). When we open our arms wide for each other, when we open our hearts to one another to share our hurts and our fears and our loneliness and our doubts, we do it in the name of the LORD who first “helped [us] and comforted [us]” (Psalm 86:17). “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 7:25)!

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Taken Up to Send Down: A Sermon for Ascension Sunday

Christ is risen! “Our God is a God of salvation, and to Yahweh the Lord belongs deliverance from death” (Psalm 68:20). As our celebration of Eastertide draws toward its close, we remember that, even after his deliverance from death, Jesus visited his disciples for forty more days. Does that strike anyone else as odd? I mean, the Ascension could have taken place on Easter Monday. It could have even taken place on the eve of Easter Sunday, with Jesus rising from the roof of the house in Emmaus where he broke the bread. But Jesus stayed, not just for a day, not just for a week, not just for a month, but for forty days – a nice, round number of biblical significance. Jesus chose to wait forty extra days before being enthroned in heaven's glory. Why? Was there some benefit he got out of it? The benefit wasn't for him. The benefit was for the disciples. Jesus had his focus securely on them and their needs, even after his resurrection. Is an abrupt goodbye really the Messiah's style? Here they are, still in shock after the crucifixion, still befuddled by the emotional wrenching back and forth of the discovery of the empty tomb, still awestruck and perhaps confused by seeing him living again. They're joyful, but believing their eyes is a long-jump of faith. Even after the resurrection, even in the midst of appearing to the believers in Galilee, “they worshipped him, but some doubted” (Matthew 28:17).

If Jesus had left immediately, even the earliest disciples would have been left with divided hearts, afflicted and assailed by their doubts and questions, their misgivings and misunderstandings. So Jesus stayed to give them “many convincing proofs” of his risen life (Acts 1:3). And when he stayed, he wanted to make them ready for what was to come after he'd go. What did Jesus do to occupy his forty precious days as the firstfruits of new creation, still walking the corrupted soil of an old creation? He brought them peace, wished them peace, but he also gave them teaching. Once a teacher, always a teacher. Did he teach them off the top of his head while he was “giving instructions through the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:2)? No, he pointed them to the books of the Old Testament, saying that “everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled”, and “he opened their minds to understand the scriptures” and how they were really a story about him and his mission (Luke 24:44-45). Jesus reminded them that their work would be anchored in understanding Scripture – and has that changed? Is biblical literacy no longer vital to the church's work? Only if you think Jesus was wasting his time those forty days! The church is absolutely called upon to be a community saturated in the Bible, learning from the Bible, wrestling with the Bible, praying through the Bible, teaching each other the Bible – because it's from the Bible that we learn God's story, our story, creation's story, and are trained in the roles he's given us.

Beyond teaching his disciples to understand in their minds and hearts what the Bible was saying, he also gave them a gift, a gift which – to look at many believers today – you'd think the church resents. That gift was a commission, a calling, “to be witnesses of these things” (Luke 24:48), called to declare both forgiveness of sins and repentance through the name and authority of the Messiah – not just to the Jews, but to “all nations”; and not just to foreign nations, but “beginning in Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47). One and the same gospel is for Jews and Gentiles alike, revolving around the authority of the same Messiah, who offers forgiveness for sins and calls us to repentance. Those are two sides of the same coin: without repentance from sin, there isn't forgiveness, and without forgiveness being granted, there's no power to really repent.

The church is called to keep those thoughts together. If we're so paranoid to avoid looking 'exclusive' that we forget that forgiveness requires repentance, then we're failing to be witnesses to the whole story. If we're so self-centered that we don't bother to proclaim outside these walls, then we're scarcely witnesses at all. But “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8), he said – which is exactly how Acts runs, starting from Jerusalem and rolling the gospel mission right to the halls of imperial power in Rome. And the story isn't done, because here we are, across the ocean from Jerusalem, and there's still proclaiming of repentance and forgiveness of sins to be done. Jesus gave his disciples a mission. Are we his disciples too?

So after forty days, Jesus led them to the village of Bethany, on the southeastern slope of the Mount of Olives. And outside that village, standing higher even than the Temple Mount, he commissioned his disciples one last time, and then “as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight” (Acts 1:9). “Lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven” (Luke 24:50-51). What was Jesus doing while he parted from them? Was he waving a tender goodbye? Was he turning his attention to his upward journey? No, even on the skyward trek from earth to heaven, his thoughts and actions are still on the band of disciples left below. Even while being caught up to heaven, even while the cloud interposes itself, Jesus is actively speaking words of blessing over them! And doesn't that just sound like the Jesus we know? Do you think he stopped once the cloud concealed him? Or do you think that he kept blessing them even while hidden from their earthbound gaze? I dare say that these words, “while he was blessing them”, have been his chief mode of operation from that moment forever onward; and of every other action he takes from his heavenly throne at the right hand of the Father, it happens “while he was blessing them” – and we're them. From earth to heaven and everywhere in between, his love pours itself out in words of beautiful benediction upon each and every one of us, and upon the tempest-tossed church as a whole. He blesses us still and “daily bears us up” (Psalm 68:19).

What did the disciples do when Jesus ascended, when they saw him go up and then saw him no more? Their gazes were fixed on his heavenward track, 'til a pair of angels asked these “men of Galilee” why they were just gawking at the sky and longing for the status quo (Acts 1:10-11). The status quo was no more. Then “they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple blessing God” (Luke 24:52-53). When they witnessed the ascension, they worshipped. Their worship was focused on Jesus – unabashedly, unashamedly, true disciples worship Jesus. But never to the exclusion of the Father: true disciples are continually blessing God. And as true disciples bless the Father and worship the Son, they return with great joy to do what the Father and Son say. They returned down the mountain, down to Jerusalem: We can't always live on the mountaintops of spiritual rapture; we have work to do, but while we may not always have bliss, we can take the “great joy” of the Lord with us where we go.

The ascension motivated the worship of the early church, and the ascended Christ still spurs our worship today. But the ascension also motivated them to something we seldom think of: strategic planning. Where does that come in? Well, when the disciples came back down from the Mount of Olives, where do they go? They go to the Upper Room, to the midst of the praying community of believers – which by now includes Mother Mary and the formerly unbelieving brothers of Jesus, like James (Acts 1:13-14; cf. John 7:5; 1 Corinthians 15:7) – and, while the gathered church is still only 120 strong, Peter leads the charge in filling out the leading body of the Twelve, since their number had dropped to an ill-suited Eleven (Acts 1:15-22). This was the only time a replacement was ever made, because it wasn't the death of Judas that required it, but his betrayal of the faith. Peter, Matthew, John, Thomas – they all still hold the office now that they held then, no matter the surprise it is to groups like the Mormons who hail their leaders as apostles who replace the original Twelve.

But here, a new apostle has to be found from among the ranks of those who were eyewitnesses “during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us” (Acts 1:21-22). The final choice here was by God himself – the Eleven prayed and cast lots, knowing that God would answer them (Acts 1:24-26) – but first they had to propose two candidates, and that took strategic planning (Acts 1:23). Using God's wisdom, they brainstormed options and then laid the question before the Lord. Hammering out the strategy for the church's mission isn't the opposite of living by faith. God calls us to pray, and God calls us to think and plan. What the church does every Sunday is and should be a response to the reality of Christ's ascension. But the same goes for what the official board does on the first Tuesday of every month, and for the trustees and the stewards and the Christian Education Commission whenever they meet. In the wake of Christ's ascension, we need to bring all the wisdom and experience God has given us, and we need to plan strategically for the mission, and then we need to offer it up to the Lord who “knows everyone's heart” (Acts 1:24).

That's how we respond to his ascension. But why did he have to ascend at all? What makes that so important to our faith? Why couldn't the forty days be forty centuries? Wouldn't it be wonderful to have Jesus still here with us in the flesh? Yet “it is to your advantage that I go away” (John 16:7), he said. Where's the advantage? Well, first, the ascension of Christ is critical to his ongoing priestly ministry. Without ascending, there would be no lawful priestly work of Christ, as the author of Hebrews says: “Now if he were on earth, he would not be a priest at all” (Hebrews 8:4). The foundational act of Christ's priestly ministry was to offer up the sacrifice of himself as a perfect atonement for our sins. But in order to bring such a sacrifice, one has to go into the right holy place to meet with God, just as the high priests of Israel went into the temple. And just so, Jesus had to ascend to the heavenly Holy Place so as to present his own sacrifice to the Father (Hebrews 9:12). And so Jesus “entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf” (Hebrews 9:24).

Furthermore, if we live through Christ, then we're “in Christ”, as Paul's so fond of saying (Romans 16:7). If our lives are “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3), then our lives are located wherever he is. If our lives are embedded in his risen life, then where he goes, we spiritually go. And it's only because he has ascended above all things to the Father's presence that we spiritually live the ascended life already: God “raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:6-7). We've already inherited such a high and secure position, but only because Jesus spiritually brings us with him to the high and secure place where he's ascended. And only in that way do “we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus” (Hebrews 10:19).

With the ascension, Jesus Christ is fully empowered, raised and acclaimed to the highest position, being “enthroned at God's right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but in the age to come” (Ephesians 1:20-21). After having “made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Hebrews 1:3). Jesus is enthroned as the King of the kingdom of God – having “purged our stains, / he took his seat above” – but he is there as both a king and a priest. As a king, he lives in God's heavenly throne-room; and as a priest, he lives forever to minister in God's heavenly tabernacle, which is one and the same reality (Hebrews 8:1-2). And in being there, directly in the immediate presence of the Father, he can present our prayers to the Father in person. Jesus “always lives to make intercession” for us (Hebrews 7:25). And because our spiritual location is in his location, our seemingly earthbound prayers hit the ears of the Father through the lips of the Son at the Father's right hand – only because Jesus ascended.

As if that weren't enough, the ascension of Christ is a precondition and a guarantee of the greatest Gift. Why is it an advantage to us to have Jesus in heaven? Because “if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7) as the “Spirit of Truth” who “will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13). He was taken up to send the Spirit down. And the ascension accounts agree. The disciples had to stay together in Jerusalem, because even with all that Jesus had taught them from the scriptures, they weren't ready yet for their real mission. All the biblical knowledge there is, isn't enough in itself. After all of that, we need to be “clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). We need to “wait for the promise of the Father” (Acts 1:4), knowing that we “will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon [us]”, as Jesus said (Acts 1:8).

What's so important about that? Well, unless we're filled with Christ's Spirit, we can't be Christ's body (cf. Ephesians 4:4). A body without its own spirit, is a cadaver. And the church is not called the motionless cadaver of Christ; we are called the body of Christ, a living body: “You are the body of Christ, and individually members of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27)! And how can we carry out our commissioning if we're anything less? The Church cannot afford to be a zombie! Jesus gave us a Christ-sized mission! Who else can save the world? Who else can initiate people into salvation? Who else can teach mysteries from heaven? Who else can bring such healing and spiritual power? The Great Commission is a Christ-sized mission, and that will take the very body of Christ, living and animated by the Spirit of a risen and ascended Christ, to carry out.

This same Spirit, who animates the body of Christ, also is the means by which Jesus spreads spiritual gifts throughout his body. Although we're united as one body, responding in one Spirit to one God and one Lord, joined by one faith and one baptism into one hope of our calling (Ephesians 4:4-6), yet we have different gifts and graces, “according to the measure of Christ's gift” (Ephesians 4:7). For “when he ascended on high, he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people”, or perhaps “gifts in his people” (Ephesians 4:8; cf. Psalm 68:18). What gifts? “The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers” (Ephesians 4:11). That's not a complete list, as Paul shows elsewhere by listing more “varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:4).

The point is that the ascended Jesus has freely and abundantly sprinkled these gifts throughout his body, and I don't for a minute believe there's such a thing as an ungifted disciple, a believer whose purpose is just to take up space in a pew, a Christian whose calling is to be a consumer and not a contributor. Every believer has a role, every believer has a function, and the body of Christ can't grow properly without it. Because the purpose of the gifts is “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12-13). We have to become fully grown, fully matured, fully equipped, because it's a big mission. That's one major reason why we get together regularly as a local church body: to equip each other. Not just for a preacher to prepare an audience, or a teacher to prepare a class; it's for each and every one of us to actively contribute our gifts to the spiritual improvement of the whole body.

And we have to grow into Christian adulthood. Children are easily misled, tricked by the lies and half-truths of the world, “tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people's trickery”, as we see with sorrowed eyes too often in American churches (Ephesians 4:14). But we grow up through living the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15), and Jesus will provide for our unified growth as we do that (Ephesians 4:16). Real adulthood, real maturity, doesn't conform to pagan culture or impurity, living “as the Gentiles live”; but rather, real adulthood, real Christian maturity, means using the spiritual gifts to help the whole body become more like the perfect likeness of Jesus himself, “created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:17-24). And it's because our ascended and exalted head has gifted his body through the Spirit sent down, that we can grow. The Spirit was given so that we could be the body of Christ on the mission of Christ: so that, even today, we could keep understanding and living out the scriptures and could continue being empowered witnesses, living the truth in active love.

Furthermore, the ascension of Christ is a precondition and guarantee of his eventual return: “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Bodily he went up, bodily he'll come down. We have a certain hope, a guarantee, that Jesus will come back. And when he does, the kingdom of God will not just be inaugurated; it will be consummated, made full and perfect upon the earth as it is in heaven. When? The disciples had that question too: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). Did Jesus say, “That will be May 14, 1948”? Did Jesus say, “That will be December 21, 2012,” or, “That will be September 28, 2015”? No – no, Jesus said, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority” (Acts 1:7). We have the guarantee that Christ will return, but speculating on it is pointless. Ignore the ravings of the end-times pontificators, the prophecy speculators, the Robertsons and the Falwells and the Campings and the Hagees. The Father has set the times by his own authority, and we're called to be as ready for Jesus to return tomorrow as for Jesus to return in a century.

Finally, in being taken up into heaven, Jesus “ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things” (Ephesians 4:10), and the church is “his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:23). If there were any doubt, Jesus is most definitely in a position vastly above all of creation, spiritual and material. His station is eternally secure: “His kingdom cannot fail, / he rules o'er earth and heaven.” And so his changeless character – “while he was blessing them” (Luke 24:51) – is eternally welded to changeless authority – “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me; go, therefore, and make disciples...” (Matthew 28:18-19) – to give us a firmly-anchored hope beyond all fluctuation and beyond all shadow of turning. The Ascension is not some second-rate appendix to Easter, something optional to remember. The Ascension is a vital sequel in the ongoing victory of the risen Lord of Life! So “lift up your heart, / lift up your voice,” O church, and “rejoice! the Lord is King” in heaven indeed!