Highs and Lows in Christian Theology

To know God is the highest goal of humankind. Theology is really The-ology, the highest thinking, the highest study, the highest knowledge. Yet, the human perspective is limited. We cannot fully know God. This would require equality with God. Christianity affirms that Jesus is the one exception, but even he is said to have not considered equality with God as something that could be attained (Philippians 2:6). He taught and modeled God knowledge through lowering of the self in love of the most high God by serving the lowest among human beings, even as far as death on the cross, among the thieves and murderers. Jesus has a way of turning The-ology on its head.

Of course, this is one particular understanding of the life and mission of Jesus drawn from the source of the Christian scriptures, one common among the Anabaptist tradition that I speak from. This has historically been a minority voice within Christianity as a whole, though ardent proponents of this view assert that it is true to what the earliest Christians believed before the faith’s accommodation to empire under the auspices of Constantine. I am not sure this is a convincing argument as we do not have time machines to go back and find out exactly what the earliest Christians believed. We may just as easily find out that the conversion of the Roman Empire was one of their goals (i.e. “make disciples of all nations” [Matthew 28:19]).

Christian theology has always been a messy business because it is deeply rooted in the human experience, which it affirms as fallen, incomplete, in need of redemption. The human experience cannot be trusted, but it is all we have with which to approach God through Jesus Christ. We do have sources outside of experience to help us in this task (reason, tradition, scripture, Jesus/God [we might even say in order of hierarchy from least to greatest]), but all colored by our experience. Our theology can never escape our humanity and it is dangerous to believe that it can. Jesus points us back to ourselves and our greatest need, to find God in our lowest times when we feel lost and forsaken, without hope in the world. The-ology without the humility to be like Jesus is really an empty bag.

Transfiguration Sermon

Delivered at Beacon Heights Church of the Brethren, Fort Wayne, Indiana. February 15, 2015

Text: Mark 9:2-10 (Philippians 2:6-11 undercurrent in places)

Today’s episode of the Gospel according to Mark follows Peter, James, and John up a high mountain with Jesus.

This triad of named disciples, by tradition three pillars of leadership in the early church, encounter another triad: Jesus, their rabbi, along with Moses and Elijah, pillars of ancient leadership in the Hebrew faith, who also spent time on high mountains
in solitude with the Holy One.

We might even say that a third triad is evident: the voice of the parental God, Jesus revealed as God the glorious and beloved Son, and God the Holy Spirit appearing as a cloud.

This event in the life of Jesus and his closest followers is cloaked in mystery and shrouded in symbolism. But at its heart is change from one form into another, transfiguration, metamorpho’o in the original Greek.

We learn about metamorphosis in science class as the process by which a caterpillar transforms into a butterfly. The transfiguration of Jesus is a little different, it is instantaneous and fleeting, a sign of his identity as the glorious and beloved
Son of God.

At least, this is the explicit purpose of Mark the evangelist, to reveal the identity of Jesus as the Son of God.

Even the best of the disciples are thick headed in this moment and want to set up tents, dwellings for their leader, along with Moses the great law-giver, and Elijah, chief among the prophets.

Their intentions in this are anyone’s guess. Perhaps they want to preserve this mountaintop experience, or simply erect a memorial, as was common in the days of the great ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob, Leah, and Rachel.

But God speaks and the apparitions disappear, the transfiguration is over and they must go back down the mountain. The disciples are ordered not to tell anyone “until the Son of Man has risen…” This transfiguration is left as a puzzle in the minds of the disciples and in our minds as we engage with this ancient and mysterious text.

Transfiguration is a common literary theme, even in today’s media. It is a class taught by Professor McGonagall at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where students learn the magical art of changing things into other things.

Gandalf, one of several more than subtle Christ figures in Tolkien’s mythology, is given dazzling white robes and a loftier persona.

Obi-wan Kenobi mysteriously vanishes as he is struck down by Darth Vader, becoming more powerful then can possibly be imagined.

Mild mannered reporter Clark Kent becomes Superman. The Doctor regenerates. And a favorite from my childhood, The Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers.

Out of this handful of examples Superman easily compares to the transfiguration event of Jesus on the mountain.

In order to relate with humanity, Superman must hide his true identity as Kal-el from the planet Krypton. Only as Clark Kent can he connect on the most basic human level. The telephone booth transfiguration into the heroic persona partially reveals
who Superman really is as an extra-terrestrial being with fantastic abilities and powers. This god-like hero with a triune identity is a lot like Jesus.

In a way Jesus of Nazareth is equivalent to Clark Kent; A human identity formed in a typical Galilean household, fully involved in cultural life, helping with the family business, well thought of and well respected, deeply formed in the best
of human values.

You could tell the same story about Clark Kent, replacing Nazareth with Smallville, a typical rural Midwest town, where he learned a particular version of Truth, Justice, and the American Way.

I can imagine that Superman, could discard his alter-ego, if he so chose, and be a hero 24/7. Yet, identity is not so simple.
To do so would deny a part of himself. The essence of who he is would be compromised. He might lose sight of the values
which formed him as a person and inspired the heroic vision of Superman; namely Truth, Justice, and the American Way.

The persona of Clark Kent keeps Superman grounded in his mission, and also serves as a reminder that the world
does not need Superman in every moment of every day.

Without Clark Kent, Superman can only impose Truth, Justice, and the American Way, from high in the clouds. As Clark Kent, Superman can step back, and allow these values to work for themselves.

And if he needs to step further away the Fortress of Solitude allows Superman the chance to reflect on his true identity as Kal-el of the planet Krypton.

I think there are similar reasons for Jesus wanting his true identity as the Son of God to remain hidden. He could discard his human identity (he is God incarnate, after all), but he chooses not to. He would rather meet people where they are and relate with them. This is something that he cannot do in the same way in his pure essence as the Son of God.

In the same way, Jesus the Messiah, as conquering King, in the minds of Jewish people in first Century Palestine does not relate with people on the most basic human level.

A high flying superhero fighting for Truth, Justice, and the Hebrew way, can only relate with God’s chosen people from the top down. Jesus of Nazareth relates with all people at the bottom and from the bottom.

We as people may need a conquering Messiah sometimes, a Savior to lift us up out of the pit of oppressive and evil forces, but we also need to be built up, we need to be empowered. This can best be accomplished through solidarity. This is why Jesus never gives up his fully human identity, so he can truly be with us in the pit, even as far as death on the cross, to bring us toward redemption and toward new life as children of God.
As we reflect on the identity of Jesus in the context of the Transfiguration it only seems natural to reflect on our own identity and change in our own lives.

I encounter this theme quite often as a hospital chaplain. Sometimes it is just a minor or otherwise routine surgery and the patient goes on his or her way later in the day. But more often than not, illness requiring an extended hospital stay means some major changes, for the patient as well as for their families.

I never quite know what to expect as I walk into a room where a complete stranger is receiving medical care. I know very little besides their name and how long they have been at the hospital. For a shy introvert like myself who is also prone to  anxiety, visiting patients at random is the most difficult aspect of chaplaincy in the hospital. Navigating this has truly been
a transfiguring experience in itself.

I probably will not become a bubbly and outgoing person, but I have found that getting past the thresholds and having holy encounters in hospital rooms is a deeply rewarding experience.

I meet people and in a way they become part of me. I carry their stories with me and they become part of my story. For me, this is practicing my faith. In this fully human and fully divine process I meet Jesus, the one who carries all of our stories, all of our joy, and all of our pain.

I had one such encounter about a week ago that I am still digesting, still assimilating into my being.

It was my first visit for the day in the Oncology unit. All I knew going in was his name and that he had been admitted the day before. We can call him Bill.

It started out fairly routine. I knocked on the door and introduced myself as the chaplain and asked if I could come in. As Bill invited me in I noticed a chair next to his bed and asked if I could sit.

He was pretty quick to share that he did not have the best news. He had cancer for some time and the chemo was not working. This fact was not very distressing to Bill. At 81 years of age, he figured that the end of his life was quite a natural thing. He felt that if there was something after that he would qualify for it.

Through the course of our conversation he shared that he had grown up and was baptized in the Church of the Brethren; as he put it: “in the days of Dan West.” He was involved for many years with a congregation in Northern Indiana, but had  become disillusioned with the church, and left some time ago.

Bill shared of his involvement in overseas agricultural work, specifically in Sumatra where he worked closely with the villagers and how they shared the land. He saw the benefits of the people’s religion, but also saw how it held them back. This caused Bill to seriously reflect on his own religious background and how to make sense of how God works through other religions and very different cultures.

He did not say so exactly, but I got the sense that he also became aware of limitations within the church when he returned home. He shared his frustration with ministers that were in his words, “just plain lazy.”

In leaving the church Bill said that he had to come up with a definition of God that he could be OK with.

He shared what he believed, that there is a kind of energy that flows between people and he calls that energy God. He expressed great faith in people and great hope that they would learn how to work together.

Bill shared that he has a disagreement with his daughter who he described as “a good Christian woman,” though he did not
want to put a label on her. He says that the energy is generated by people, but she says that it comes from an outside source.

Fully enjoying this time of theological reflection, I could not resist asking him, “If it is generated by people, then who generates people?”

He chuckled and commented that it was a good question. I commented that things seem to get more complicated the closer we look at them. He agreed and said that is something that he does a lot.

I affirmed Bill’s compassion for people and shared my hope that he would get to see the new creation.

In turn he affirmed me and my ministry and said that the world needs more people like me.

I experienced the presence of Jesus in this mutual affirmation. Jesus, who sees the good in all people.

Jesus, who works through the most basic human interactions to bring out the potential for good in all people, even amid suffering and death.

Part of the lesson of the Transfiguration is that even as we face major changes in our lives, who we are as people is  important. Every part of ourselves Has value in the eyes of Jesus, who emptied himself and lived a fully human life.

Like Peter, James, and John we can get caught up in the spirituality and theology of change. Church people of all varieties
can get distracted by their own versions of  the change they expect of themselves and of others.

Theologians have spent centuries grappling with concepts like conversion, sanctification, regeneration, deification, and many others that relate to change.

It may be tempting to want to set aside who we are and our current formation as we take hold of the new. I’ve been there. I’ve wanted to forget who I was and reach for the new person arising through Christ. But the old person has a way of  reasserting himself from time to time.

I recently had an encounter with my self from 10 years ago, while going through a box of college materials. It was a reminder that who I was back then is still a part of who I am, though I am in a very different place. God reminded me in that moment that even that person, with all of his virtues and all of his flaws; all of his hopes, all of his pains, and all of his  unrealized dreams; even that person is important and worthy of redemption.

Jesus came, not so we could escape the wretchedness of existence, but so that we might find the beauty in it and know that even the last and the least Are worthy of God’s love and God’s redemption.

God’s message to Peter, James, and John long ago on the mountain still speaks to us today: “This is my Son, the Beloved;
listen to him!”

Truly listening to Jesus can take on many forms, but I like to think that it is in ordinary everyday interactions, on the most  basic human level, that Jesus speaks to us most clearly.

We may catch glimpses of glory, moments where the new creation peaks through. We might have visions of heaven on  earth, signs of the promise of new and eternal life. But these are not meant to be the object of our worship.

“This is my Son, the Beloved; Listen to him.” It is Jesus that is to capture our attention, the one who reveals both God’s faith in and involvement with every aspect of humanity.

God is deeply involved with us, but also gives us space to form our own identity and our own destiny. This thought is both comforting and discomforting.

As we listen for Jesus in our everyday lives there will be times when we hear words of affirmation and words of  encouragement, but there will also be times when the still small voice will be barely audible and we may even experience absence.

But I like to think that even absence is an expression of God’s love, a sign that we are entrusted with whatever the future
may have in store for us. We all have a part to play in the new creation.

Our part starts with listening, listening to God’s story revealed in Jesus, listening to our own story as it unfold in relation to others, listening to the stories of others as they become part of our own.

Jesus is in all of these things, there for affirmation and support, there to shape and form us, there to pick us up when we fall
and give us everything we need. May this awareness grow in our hearts and inform our actions as we seek participate
in the unfolding of God’s will in this good creation.

David and Jonathan

I am always struck by the mild homo-erotic undertone in the relationship between David and Jonathan. There is talk of souls being bound together, the making of a covenant, and a kind of ceremonial disrobing (1 Sam 18:1-4). There is even kissing (20:41). This bromance was apparently more important to David than his relationships with women (2 Sam 1:26). I choose to use the term homo-erotic because I believe we do a disservice to the text, and a disservice to ourselves, if we gloss over possible responses we may have. I know I raise my eyebrow every time that I read these parts of the narrative. This may say more about homophobia in my own culture than it does about the text itself, but this too is part of why Scripture is so important for people of faith. It can shine light on parts of ourselves where we need to give attention.

I am part of a culture where things like racism, sexism, and homophobia are the norm, not the exception. It is a culture where human sexuality is a battle ground laced with minefields and all kinds of offensive ammunition on all sides. I know I would prefer a culture that allows sexuality to be a private matter, but I do not have to be reminded that silence is part of the problem. For reasons that are beyond understanding, people tend to experience things like sexuality (and gender) in a more complex way than tradition is comfortable with. Even king David experienced sexuality in a more complex way than his tradition was comfortable with. Remember Bathsheba? I would also point to his relationship with Jonathan, which, as far as we know, was not explicitly sexual, or even fundamentally erotic, but was certainly more than what we would call platonic.

Indeed, love is a more complicated emotion than tradition would like it to be. Tradition knows from experience that out of control love and sexuality have very real consequences, and not just unwanted pregnancies. Tradition wants to spare us from things like heartbreak, ill health, economic hardship, and social exclusion. Rules and norms are put into place for very good reasons, but they become hypocritical when they end up causing the things that they were designed to prevent. We often interpret many sayings of Jesus as valuing the spirit of the law over the letter of the law. The spirit of the law is to foster things like wholeness, health, prosperity, and community. We do well to remember this in both our zeal for tradition and in our critique of it.

Knowing God and the Point of Christian Faith

As a practicing Christian, I claim to know the living God. I certainly cannot know God fully, as only the Son can, but I do believe that years of prayer, study, and serving others (not necessarily in that order) have given me a small window into the infinite mind of God. Yet, I do find my own beliefs troubling. Prayer, study, and service mean very little in and of themselves. The fact that I do them, and have spent years doing them, does not increase my faith in and knowledge of God. The growth does not come through sheer force of will on my part. It is more like practicing my faith keeps me open and receptive to divine relationship. The idea of spiritual growth in itself may be misleading. It is not the point of Christian faith, but it is an added benefit.

So, what is the point? I have used the word relationship. Yet, this may also be a given. All human beings are, in a sense, in relationship with God through Jesus Christ whether they realize it or not. I do not believe that this relationship can be flat out rejected by the human party, or that the heavenly Father would ultimately choose to reject human beings, or choose to allow any to fall to a point beyond redemption. But we are allowed to fall, we are allowed to resist, and we are allowed to become lost. As to the permanence of this, we really will not know on this side of the resurrection. Yet, I do like to think that all the saints in heaven constantly petition for the return of all that are lost.

In light of this, seeking out the lost becomes an important Christian activity and perhaps the most important one. To not only join the saints in petition for the lost, but to become instruments of God’s redemption in this world, may indeed be the point of the Christian calling. But even this point has its limits. The redemptive work of Christ cannot be replaced or augmented by human effort. The point is to seek out the lost and join them in fellowship and solidarity and, in doing so, witness God in action. All of the prayer, study, and service in the world cannot replace this kind of first-hand God knowledge.

Worship and Authority: NuDunker conversation

I spent much of my energy in seminary in historical studies and in the theology of worship. So, I feel like I have something to offer in this conversation. Yet, I do feel somewhat on the sidelines as I watch my peers offer their leadership on the denominational level. I am sure that part of my feelings are because I do not often actively seek to include myself and make my voice heard. I certainly should not pass on the invitation to offer my thoughts on worship and authority.

It strikes me how central worship is to the stream of traditions that has emerged from the Schwarzenau Brethren of 1708. It was through radical acts of worship that this movement started. There were secret Bible studies, Love Feasts in people’s homes, and believer’s baptism (a capital offense). Anabaptists had already been around for nearly 200 years, enduring the full brunt of religious persecution for defying the state church authority. But even in 1708, the theological implication of believer’s baptism was to claim allegiance to the authority of Jesus Christ over and separate from the authority of the state.

Baptism does not quite have the same gravity today, but it is important to keep in mind that, traditionally speaking, Jesus is to be understood as the primary source of authority. Yet, authority is not a one way street. The community must understand and interpret the teachings and example of Jesus in light of its own relationships and experience. This can be a very messy thing and there are sources of authority that influence us whether we like it or not, or even if we are aware of them.

I have reflected on authority in isolation in another post: Authority and Receptivity.

For me, worship is a part of becoming more receptive to Divine authority. There is a distinctly prophetic function to the activity of worship that is very important in my thinking. Sunday worship can often be more about encountering one another than about encountering God. Yes, a basic tenant of Brethren theology is that God is encountered through our relationships with one another, but worship is a time to be more intentional about expressing this belief. Our work and service can certainly be worshipful, as we strive to be doers of the Word, but we also need to set apart time and space to hear and be grounded in that Word.

There is a much deeper conversation about the role of Scripture in this process. I find the COB’s 1979 statement on Biblical Inspiration and Authority to be a very helpful and more or less complete discussion on the topic. Its breadth and complexity may be problematic for some, but I appreciate that we continue to affirm the document.

In my recent experience, I am given a voice within worship at the Beacon Heights congregation as a participant in the worship planning team. Part of this is planning and coordinating a worship service every 6-8 weeks. There is a collaborative part of this, where other members of the team suggest hymns, songs, and other possible elements to fit within the service. The preacher also gives a synopsis of the upcoming sermon. Most of the time, I end up not being overly creative and stick to the basic pattern that the congregation tends to follow. I almost always compose my own gathering liturgy, such as a call to worship and/or an invocation prayer. This is an important place to set a prophetic tone for the time of worship. My final project in MDiv review was specifically on the call to worship and its prophetic function in “free church” worship.

I cannot really say where specifically the authority in worship is located, or where it should be located. God’s authority can be present and experienced in worship in any number of different ways in various contexts, through various different sources that may be given a certain level of authority, consciously or unconsciously. I acknowledge that I have some worship authority in my own context, but I am far from being the authority, even on the Sundays when I put together the worship service. I probably have more freedom than I take, but I like to keep the expectations of the community in mind as I work. Honestly, it is much easier to follow an established pattern than it is to reinvent the worship wheel every week.

In closing, my thoughts return to my sideline feeling. I wonder how many others are in a similar position, whether it is because of age, personality, lack of connections, or any other reason. It is very relevant to the question about who we call out as a community to provide leadership and how we develop their skills. The prophetic voice often comes from places that are not looked for and even unexpected. It is quite a challenge to invite the unexpected into worship, which often demands some type of adherence to an established pattern. What are some ways we can do this?

Convicting Words of Jesus

“You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life. I do not accept glory from human beings. But I know that you do not have the love of God in you. I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not accept me; if another comes in his own name, you will accept him. How can you believe when you accept glory from another and do not seek the glory from the one who alone is God?” (John 5:39-44 NRSV)

The words that Jesus speaks against the religious authorities of his time can be difficult in our own time. The temptation to use these words as ammunition against our theological enemies is all too real. There are Pharisees and Hypocrites around every corner if we go looking for them. It is frightening to think that if we shine the light back on ourselves we might find one. For all the efforts of the religious to build our own righteousness, it is quite disappointing for Jesus to inform us of our refusal to come to him and have life, as well as the lack of God’s love within us.

It is difficult to imagine ourselves as adversaries of Jesus. We usually reserve this role for those we disagree with. It is much easier that way, but in doing so we can easily become blind to our own need for repentance. While it may not be absolutely essential to be able to enter the Gospel narratives as the opponents of Jesus, it can be a deeply profound spiritual practice. Such a reading can help shed light on the ways in which we come up short as those who confess faith in Jesus, whatever our reasoning for this faith may be.

Jesus would not be a very good Savior if he did not challenge our faith and assumptions when they hold us back from his glory. We cannot simply assume that Jesus is always on our side by virtue of our confession of faith in him. We should expect to be challenged and resisted when our faith and our works do not bear fruit. To use another biblical metaphor, we should expect some pruning as we grow in the Lord. No matter how strong our faith may be, there are always ways in which we refuse to come to Jesus and have life, as well as ways in which the love of God does not fully permeate our being.

Words like these hit me the hardest during those times when I feel weak in my own faith and perhaps there are some cons to reading myself into the text in such a way. Maybe my own guilt can be crippling at times and to feel at odds with Jesus for whatever reason is holding me back as a disciple. At these times, I try to remind myself of God’s grace revealed through Jesus and that I do not have to be perfect in my walk. Yet, I cannot discount the convicting side of God’s Word in Scripture. I think the best that I can do is recognize that discomfort is a sign that the Holy Spirit is moving in my life in order to bring about repentance and regeneration.

Thanks be to God!

Big Question

Did humanity fall from perfection, or rise up out of innocence?

This is my big question at the moment, which emerges from the second creation myth (Gen. 2:5-4:24). It is difficult to get a sense of perfection in this account. It is all sort of messy. God forms the first human (Adam) out of the soil (Adamah), in order to tend to the garden of Eden. Again, no claim of perfection is made for this garden which God plants. Though, perhaps we can infer that God made it according to a plan, and it grew according to God’s intent. But the intent of God is not fully revealed here. We are not told whether Eden is to be Adam’s eternal home or merely a safe place for development before fulfilling a greater purpose.

Yet, we are told that God sets up boundaries. Adam may eat from any tree, except for the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The concept of innocence is not explicitly addressed here. This is also an inference. As long as Adam does not transgress the boundaries set up by God, guilt is not incurred, which would entail a loss of innocence. However, these concepts are not specifically addressed here. Innocence may not be the best term for the original state of Adam.

The process of finding a suitable companion for Adam creates some problems for the speculation of original perfection. God does not appear to get it right on the first try. None of the animals, which God forms out of the soil, is just right for Adam. God’s intent here is eventually fulfilled by the Woman that God forms from Adam’s rib. Together they are naked and unashamed. Again, we are not told if there is a greater intent for this couple, or if it is God’s desire for them to remain obedient garden dwellers for all of eternity.

Enter the serpent, one of God’s creatures. The serpent reveals a choice that these human beings did not even know they had. They can remain as they are in the garden, or they can eat and achieve a higher state of being, to become like God, knowing good and evil. What is neglected by these three (serpent, woman, and man) are the consequences of crossing boundaries. God proclaims curses on all three for their respective transgressions, but death is not immediate. There is mercy in the judgment and opportunity to face new challenges, which will also result in pain and hardship.

Perhaps the choice to eat represents the first flexing of the human will. The exercise of will comes with consequences. The fall is not so much a loss of perfection, as it is gravity catching up with willful action. Humanity rises and falls at the same time. This is the great paradox of human will, there are both good and evil results in its exercise. It is good that humanity rises from basic existence in the garden, but it is evil that pain, hardship, and even death are the consequences. (I can’t seem to avoid a major loose end in theodicy here. God appears to have a part, at least passively, in the creation of evil.)

Eventually, outright sin creeps into the picture as Cain murders his brother Abel. Murder is the ultimate transgression of the human will, effectively extinguishing the will of another. Yet, we again see God’s mercy in judgment. Cain is allowed to live and becomes the father of several nations. God’s guiding hand is always present no matter how far humanity falls.

My opening question remains unanswered, but perhaps the question of the original state of humanity is not the point. My brief tangent into human will and theodicy may also miss the mark of this ancient origin story. God’s mercy is readily apparent, even in the earliest events of salvation history. This is something that should not be overlooked. God’s saving action within history is as old as history itself and is a theme that is constantly reiterated in the Scriptures. We do well to draw this out of this text, whatever we may read into it.