Faith and Thought

Baptism: A Normative Redemptive Act

Baptism is a normative redemptive act

I believe a conversation about baptism begins with humility.  As we wrestle with the function and importance of baptism we should regard ourselves as finite interpretive beings led by the communal work of the Spirit. I cannot know perfectly the mind of God but I can faithfully and humbly approach His word. As a part of the Christian community we can all grow together as we share the Spirit’s work in us.

In discussing baptism, two questions come to mind, how do we frame the activity of baptism (anthropocentrically or theocentrically), and how does baptism participate in the larger theodrama (the action of God reconciling the world to Himself). Christians often look at baptism through the way they participate in its activity, “I decided to be baptized”. Equally important, if not more so, is the activity of God through baptism (Col. 2:13). The activity of God, I believe, is the transforming work of His grace through Jesus that gives baptism its significance (Rom. 8:29, 2 Cor. 3:18).  This transforming activity fits into the grand-narrative of God’s work through history by conforming us to the image of His Son. God desires to dwell among His people (Rev. 21:3 and Gen. 2:2) so he achieves this through our transformation.

Thinking about baptism as a transforming activity and ritual (an activity that brings us into God’s presence) moves us away from a bordered (you’re in and you’re out) framework of baptism. Instead we recognize the conforming process that goes on in a person as they move from unbelief to belief. As a part of God’s redemptive process they follow Jesus into the waters of baptism.

For much of the last two thousand years debate has surrounded baptism. The mode, function, requirement, and type of baptism have been questioned from every angle. We ask questions like, “what happens when an elbow or a part of their clothes doesn’t enter into the waters?” or “If they are walking to the waters and die are they saved?” or “What if they say the wrong thing?” or “What if it wasn’t exactly as they did in the Bible? For most of these questions I think we rely on the fact that God is the transforming power through Jesus behind the activity of baptism we can trust the working of His grace. In issues of mode, for example pouring, I believe first we must recognize the faithfulness of the one who was baptized in this way, and then we can offer encouragement for them to continue their faith journey (process) by doing as Jesus did and being baptized as he was. We should in no way discount the faithfulness of their past actions. Instead we look to Scripture that shows God to be merciful when we choose to act faithfully (Acts 19:1-6). The reign of Hezekiah is a wonderful example of God’s choice of mercy over ritual. Hezekiah gives the Passover to unclean people during the wrong month. He knowingly acts contrary to law but receives mercy from God in his attempt to faithfully worship (2 Chron. 30:18-20).

In the end, our transforming process in baptism should result in our growing likeness to the one who died for us. We are buried with Jesus through a baptism into death so we might be raised, as he was, into a new life (Romans 6:3-4). We continue to be transformed until that eschatological future where we are sown imperishable.

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Faith and Thought

Thankfulness

When Giving Thanks Includes More Than what Makes You Happy

I was asked by our local interfaith clergy group to say a few words on the topic of thankfulness. I was hesitant at first but decided to accept the invitation. Since then, I have been mulling over what to say. It occurred to me that the chance to speak was an opportunity for which I should be thankful. The opportunity to speak to an audience of diverse beliefs doesn’t come up every day. So I have been prayerfully considering what to say and that the Holy Spirit would guide me.

That said, a Scripture that comes to mind for this month’s Pilgrim is, Ephesians 5:18c-20.

“…but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,…”

In this text Paul suggests a relationship between worship and being filled with the Spirit. When Christians gather together in psalms, hymns, and in thanks to the Lord, His Spirit is in our midst and fills us. This is just like how God fills the temple in 2 chronicles 5:13-14. A part of this is our thankfulness.

We obviously have a lot for which we should be thankful. Jesus is our hope, salvation, and our Lord. Through Jesus the Father has established his Kingdom and we are blessed to be a part of it.  As revelations 11:17 says, We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty, who is and who was, for you have taken your great power and begun to reign. Paul doesn’t imply we should be grateful just for the good God has done. He says we should worship in thanks, doing so, always and for everything. Paul implies that what God has done should extend into the fabric of our lives. We should always be giving thanks. This means living a life of gratitude to God. We should also praise God for even the little ways He blesses our lives.  Having said that, feeling grateful is not always easy. Hardships may make thankfulness difficult to feel or express. Hardship can make human beings callous. Yet I am encouraged when I witness those few people who discover a way to be thankful despite trauma or chaos.

They remind me of James 1:2-3 that says, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” I think when Christians go through difficult times and find love, joy, and thankfulness, it is at that moment we are most like Jesus. At the very least we are like Daniel when he prayed and gave thanks despite the wicked plot prepared for him by his enemies in Daniel 6:5-11. Daniel was thankful, and in that dark cave filled with lions, God was with him. When we live a life of thankfulness we are filled by God’s Spirit. That may not save us from the lion’s den but God has already saved us from the lions.

Suffering

Toward A Healthy Response to Hate

2 Corinthians 5:17-19

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.”

A lot has been happening in the world lately. Maybe like me, you are asking the question, “What’s my response supposed to be to what’s happening? Is a verbal condemnation enough or am I supposed to do more? If I am supposed to do more, what can I really do to change things?” That has led me to search for healthy responses to hate.

To help guide me I have been diving into the scriptures and into the words of Black Theologians and ministers. The Black author and social activist, John Perkins has offered some guidance in his work, Dream With Me: Race, Love, and the Struggle We Must Win. Much of what I want to say comes from John Perkins.

The world has always known hate. At least since sin came into this world, we have been plagued by it. But we want a community without hate, but what does that look like? If we wanted a community founded in the life of Jesus, what does that look like?

My suggestion is that this is what healthy church is; it is an assembly of believers who have been transformed and no longer live according to the hate, sinful desires, and racism in the world. Faithfulness to Jesus requires good neighborliness. This is the second greatest command.

Racism, Hatred, Maliciousness, is antithetical to neighborliness. They are mutually incompatible. In a post recently on FB someone said, that all of this fighting against racism was distracting people from the mission of the Gospel. I could not be more disappointed that one of my brothers in Christ has missed how fighting hate is part of the gospel message. The Jews hated Samarians so much that many Jews would not even walk through their country. Instead, they would walk around it. From Judea to Galilee was a straight walk through Samaria but these people refused to have contact with those people. It’s no wonder that Jesus talks to the Samaritan woman at the well, healed a Samaritan leper, made a Parable about a Good Samaritan. Jesus is bringing the world together.

Galatians 3:27-28

“For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

So what is it we can do to put action to our words? John Perkins suggests three biblical ideas.

Relocation:

In a way, our congregation is founded on this first principle because people relocated in order to bring the gospel to Burlington and Billerica. They followed Jesus not by visiting our area but becoming neighbors and living in Burlington. Just like how Jesus “became flesh and dwelt among us.” (John 1:14)

Relocation means embracing God’s calling to live in a community. To embody Jesus’ act of dwelling among us we have to dwell or involve ourselves in our community. That means, knowing our neighbors, learning about the issues they confront daily, and knowing their hurts.

I have often thought of myself as a voice to the voiceless but that can be patronizing and imperialistic. People don’t need others to speak for them; they need people to start listening. They need avenues for people outside their community to hear them.

Relocation is really about incarnation. Incarnation meaning “in the flesh” Jesus dwelt in the flesh as a man but also now in Christians. Incarnational living means we embody Jesus and live with people, love them, and learn from them. We don’t expect them to get to where we think we are, they follow Jesus from where they are.

Reconciliation

The heart of the gospel is about reconciling the world to God. It is God’s process of building a relationship with us and making us His. Jesus came to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10b). Hate is obviously antithetical to reconciliation.

“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility” Ephesians 2:13-14

Jesus is bringing people together. As Jesus reconciles people to himself he opens the door to forgiveness, for our own forgiveness that we need between us and God, and for forgiveness between each other, humanity with humanity.

Consider how important reconciliation was to Paul:

“11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party.[fn] 13 And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 14 But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” 15 We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16 yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. Galatians 2:11-16

A church that learns to reconcile, is a witness to God’s power to make the impossible possible.

Redistribution

Everything we have belongs to God. But we lose sight of this at times, and forget that God entrusts us with the things we have. This is not simply about money; this is about all our resources. Redistribution of skills is vital. Sharing those skills with people who would struggle to obtain them opens a path for people to they could not have before. Sharing our skills, our money, our time, with others raises us all out of the flood.

We need a property on higher ground

Revelation 7:9-10

“9 After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

“We must all have the compassion, wisdom, and mutual respect to rise above slander, slurs, and snubs, to a place of love. What we ought to be striving for today is a new language of love and affirmation that will replace these slights.” John Perkins in Dream with Me

We can focus on our anger but that will get us very little. It is better to find a way to joy in living out the calling God has for his people.

“You are not big enough to accuse the whole age effectively, but let us say you are in dissent. You are in no position to issue commands, but you can speak words of hope. Shall this be the substance of your message? Be human in this most inhuman of ages; guard the image of man for it is the image of God –Thomas Merton.”

Random

Herod and Herodias

The story of John the Baptist’s imprisonment and death is an interesting foreshadowing of what was going to happen to Jesus. John prepared the way for Jesus but he also prefigures his life. John’s imprisonment, binding, and death also occur to Jesus. Still, the question of why John the Baptist was imprisoned is an interesting one and it’s what I would like to explore in this pilgrim.

King Herod, as the text calls him, was Herod Antipas the ruler of Galilee and the Transjordanian region of Perea. He wasn’t really a king. He was a tetrarch, a puppet ruler for the Romans. In Mark 6:14-29 He is responsible for the killing of John the Baptist. His Father Herod the Great was a Jew by religion and an Edomite by birth. Herod the Great married a woman from the Hasmonean family. It was a politically motivated marriage but Herod did love her. The marriage solidified Herod the Great’s position in the eyes of the Jews because the Hasmonean dynasty was a powerful Jewish family. When Herod died his kingdom was divided by Rome according to his wishes. His sons were each given an area to govern. Herod Antipas, was the most accomplished ruler between the brothers. He reigned for about forty years.

The trouble began when Herod Antipas divorced King Aretas’ daughter in order to marry his niece Herodias, the wife of his half-brother Philip. John the Baptist condemned this marriage and it eventually led to his death. Why did John feel the need to speak out? Obviously it had something to do with this new marriage. The family tree of the Herodian’s is complex due the fact that Herod the Great had ten wives. It’s further complicated because intermarriage was common in the family. Herodias was the daughter of Aristobulus IV one of Herod the Great’s children. This made Herodias the niece of her first husband Philip (not to be confused with Herod’s other son, Philip the Tetrarch). When Herodias divorced her husband/uncle and married his half-brother Herod Antipas she was engaging in an illicit incestuous marriage in two ways. First, due to the incestuous behavior of the family she was Herod Antipas’ niece. Herodias’ daughter, the one who danced for him at the party was Herod’s niece, his grandniece, and his stepdaughter. This is more than enough reason for John to speak against Antipas’ new marriage.

Second, Leviticus 18:16 and 20:21 prohibit such a marriage.

“You shall not uncover the nakedness of your brother’s wife; it is your brother’s nakedness.” (Lev. 18:16)

“If a man takes his brother’s wife, it is impurity. He has uncovered his brother’s nakedness; they shall be childless.” (Lev. 20:21)

So Herodias is, according to these laws like a blood relative. She is like a sister since she was married to Antipas’ brother. The fact that Philip and Antipas were only half-brothers doesn’t make the marriage acceptable. Only in the case of Deuteronomy 25:5-10 is it permissible for someone to marry his brother’s wife and it’s more like a requirement than permission. Deuteronomy 25:5-10, is about the perpetuation of a sibling’s family line. The marriage is protection for the widow and the deceased husband since he died without children. This is not the case with Antipas and Herodias. She already has a child with Philip and he is still alive.

What we are left with is an illicit incestuous marriage. John boldly attacks Herod Antipas for this behavior. His scathing attacks against Herodias drive her to scheme against him. She found the opportunity to attack John when her daughter, Herod Antipas’ step child, danced for Antipas and leading men of Galilee. This lewd act garnishes favor with Herod and ultimately leads to John’s death.

This brief epic is like a seedy soap opera but it also depicts a powerful martyrdom story. Herod himself recognizes John the Baptist as a “righteous and holy man”. John is the man who challenges a “king” bravely standing up for righteousness in the world and fighting the political machine. The Hellenistic world loved bold speeches such as John the Baptist’s denouncement of Herodias’ marriage. They would certainly have honored him for this virtue.

Faith and Thought

The Brother VS The Watchman

The Brother versus the Watchman

One thing I believed I have learned, and try to implement, is that there is one Lord, and Christians live and die before him. Jesus is the judge of the living and the dead, and everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name. Peter preached just this message to the household of Cornelius. I try and practice this belief by playing the role of the Brother and not the Watchman.

The watchman is a guard. He guards against what he considers moral failure. Since every action is a practice in morality, every action must meet the nuanced standard he has created. Anyone who fails received a chastisement or a grumbling remark.  The watchman creeps up in scripture in a few different ways. In Romans, it is the hard-hearted and impenitent hypocrite who judges others but fails to live up to the same standard. To him Paul says,

“Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.” (Romans 2:1)

You can hear the hardness of their hearts in Paul’s words. The watchman is more concerned with setting people straight than he is his own relationship with Jesus.

James gives us another picture of the watchman. In this case, suffering Christians turn their fatigue into accusations against their church family. Frustrated by what’s happening in their own lives they grow impatient and lash out at others. James responds to this by saying,

“Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door.” (James 5:7-9)

In this case the watchman is restless. His own circumstances drive him to lash at others rather than resting in the comfort of Jesus and his compatriots.

The watchman is also the prominent figure in Jesus’ parable of the log and the speck in Luke 6:41-42. He is always looking for even the most minor infractions of others. Lack of attention to his own spiritual condition has distorted the watchman’s perspective. He views minor transgressions as huge failures instead of seeing them for what they are, tiny specks.

In line with these, the watchman has forgotten two major things. He has forgotten that there is only one Lord and that his job is to be a brother and not a guard.

A Christian’s first concern is to follow Jesus. Having the same righteous character as Jesus takes diligence and devotion. It’s only through our commitment to live righteously like Jesus that we become well enough to help our brothers. As Jesus says,

“…first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye.” (Luke 6:42c)

Three times Jesus refers to the one who needs correction as ἀδελφοῦ σου, “your brother.” This emphasis reveals how we should see others who need correction. They are our brothers and sisters. We treat them as we would our family. This is the way of the Brother. The brother takes the same care Jesus had with his disciples.

One final scripture demonstrates the difference between the Brother and the Watchman. The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18:9-14. In this parable, a Pharisee and a Tax Collector go up to the Temple during public prayer time. The Pharisee judges himself a righteous man and compares himself to others he has judged to be lesser men.  The tax collector in Jesus’ parable humbles himself before God. He is mindful of the wide chasm between his stature and that of God. About these men Jesus says,

“For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:14b)

The Pharisee acts as the Watchman as he doles out judgment upon him who should be enjoyed as a fellow believer. In contrast, the Brother acknowledges his need for mercy and speaks to God with humility.

Anyone can become the Watchman. Human beings are great at comparing ourselves with others, pointing out another’s faults, and heaping undue blame on others to hide our own inner anxiety. Unfortunately, that has been me more times than I would like to admit. It’s easy for human beings to lie to ourselves and convince ourselves we have another’s best interest at heart. The Watchman is always ready to make excuses. Standing before God, however, the façade is washed away and our true intentions are known.

Don’t be the Watchman, be the Brother.

Random

Aliens and Strangers

Maybe it’s just me, but I see a lot people in this world whose lives don’t have the comfort and convenience I am used too. If it gets chilly in my office I need only walk a few feet to turn the heat up. More importantly, no one is going to arrest me for sharing my faith. A few months ago a family in our congregation returned to their home country of Liberia. They face immense challenges. Things we take for granted like power and internet don’t come easy where they live. Getting clean water is a real challenge.  In response to such things I am moved by the letter of 1 Peter. The author brings hope to those without comfort and pushes the rest of us to be faithful with God’s blessings.

The letter is addressed to resident aliens and strangers living in Roman provinces. These provinces were located where modern Turkey is today. This large region was culturally diverse. Due in part to its rural nature most of it did not Romanize like other areas with large cities. In fact no cities are mentioned in the letter. While it is easy to understand the author using the metaphor of strangers in his letter, it is good for us to understand his addressees were probably literal resident aliens and strangers in the provinces. This language, taken literally, has social implications; “strangers” refers to a class of people viewed lower than local citizens. They were excluded from voting, landholding and civic offices. They were limited in their legal recourses, intermarriages and commerce. It was possible they might be forced to serve in the military or receive harsh punishments for crimes. Despite this they were required to pay all the same taxes as full citizens. The native population was also suspicious and antagonistic toward them. Being a Christian made it more difficult. Christianity was not an official religion at the time and people were suspicious of it. What was meant to provide salvation and church family may have created even more conflict with locals.

In spite of the challenges these Christian strangers faced, the author reminds them of the hope they have through Jesus.

“According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” v.3b

These Circum-Mediterranean Christians were born into a new life.  The Greek, anagennao (born again) only appears twice in the NT and both occur in chapter one of 1 Peter. It illustrates how different they are from what they once were. When God transforms your life it is like being reborn as a new creature.  It’s no wonder they feel alienated as believers. Despite how alienated they may feel from those around them, they are united into a new relationship with God and other believers. One of the benefits of their new life is a living hope. This gift of hope is confidence that God will work things out for the good of his people. Similar to how the Kingdom of God broke into the world, hope breaks into the daily lives of Christians. It is meant to change the outlook of these resident strangers in the provinces of Asia. Every Christian has an imperishable inheritance guarded by God through our faith. The trials and suffering the strangers experience in life breaks against the living hope they enjoy. Hope drives their faithfulness to God. It shapes how their daily experience.

It is certainly something Christians should remember today. For those of us blessed with many comforts and luxuries we must remember that it is all worthless compared to the living hope we possess. It should spur us to faithfulness. Everything we have should be devoted to God. We may not be geographical strangers, or exiles, or Liberian missionaries, but all Christians are new born children living as spiritual strangers and foreigners in the world.

Elliott, John Hall. The Anchor Bible. Vol. v. 37B, 1 Peter: a New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. New York: Doubleday, ©2001.

Holidays

The Preacher On Holidays

Ecclesiastes might seem an odd choice for the holidays but it’s a book that relates to many people this time of year. The Preacher grapples with the question, “how can I live a full life?” For some the holidays are a reminder of what’s missing, whether they have had loved ones pass or no one with which to share the holiday. The financial strain of the holidays can also be challenging. Either way the holidays can be difficult, so it’s important for us to see how we can find Joy this time of year.  At first glance it is difficult to see how such a mournful book might help us to understand fulfillment and find happiness. The writer begins his work by exclaiming, “Everything is meaningless”. The Preacher finds one thing however that he sees as a gift of God, to enjoy food and drink and find satisfaction in our work. It’s a gift that harkens back to God’s original gift in creation. In Genesis 1, God tells Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the whole world and reign over it. He gives them food to eat and work for their hands. The preacher looks at the joy he gets from these fundamental parts of life and recognizes that without God he could not even have those things.

What the Preacher could not know, and what Christians are privy too is the great mystery of God, that He planned before the forming of the world to bring all things in heaven and earth under Christ. The futility of the world read through the eyes of the Preacher is replaced with God’s promises. The truth we find in the Preachers words is that this world is futile in many ways. Everything under the sun comes and goes. How many of us have felt months and years frittered away by the futility of life. As the preacher says, “there is nothing new under the sun.” In Jesus however we find something new. We discover God breaking into the world, ending the merry-go-round of life, and pushing us toward our future with Him.

What Jesus did through his life, death, and resurrection, gave us back every moment and made it precious. It’s the reason we read Paul rejoicing despite his discouragement about being in prison. Even in moments he felt great despair Paul kept the joy and hope he had in Jesus. So while the Preacher teaches us a valuable lesson in Ecclesiastes, a full life doesn’t come from the world, every moment is given new meaning in Jesus as we rest in God’s promises and hope for the day we dwell in God’s presence. As we sit together around the table this year take thanks in honor of God who brings joy to every moment whether it be with Turkey, burnt rolls, or both