Featured

Baptism: Three Possible Futures

Not that baptism only has three futures, but I see three possibilities.

I’ve been thinking of this important Christian practice a lot lately as I’ve recently finished up a six weeks small group class that has covered the biblical material, origins, history, practice, and theology of baptism. In the last session I talked about contemporary issues, and among those was a speculation of where baptism may be heading in modern American culture. What I see is not all that great.

Future One–People Are Getting Baptize All The Time

Many Christian groups, particular those with an Arminian disposition, may have people who feel they’ve lost their way and come back to faith in Christ and want to celebrate this with getting baptized again. Other traditions, like my own Baptist heritage, has begun to view baptism as an almost expected double or triple experience. It is not uncommon for people to have been baptized as a child, then again as a teenager or in their 20s, and then finally when they join a new church that has a different practice. None of these things in itself might lead us to this new future of everyone getting baptized all the time, but combine it with the idea of using baptism to cleanse a conscience after a traumatic event or a startling life change, and it is not hard to see the idea of baptism as a symbol of renewal of Christian faith that might be repeated multiple times a year as Holy Communion is celebrated.

Future Two–No One Is Getting Baptized

Another variation is one in which the act of baptism has been ‘metaphored’ away into something that represents a decision to follow Jesus as Lord but the symbolic representation of the water has been removed as an artifact of a pre-enlightened world. This move would certainly be welcome to the large mega-church movement which are functionally non-denominational in their affinity appeal to ideology and style rather than theology or heritage. It is easier to move people without the trouble of water.

Before you object to this as an impossibility, consider this has already happened in most places with the concept of anointing with oil for prayer and healing. Whereas our foremothers and forefathers would have likely seen and participated in such moments of symbolic action, today’s Christ followers rarely if ever experience it.

Future Three–Everyone Is Getting Baptized

No, not because everyone is become a follower of Jesus, but because baptism has been secularized and no longer is rooted in faith in Jesus. In this concept, the world co-opts the baptismal font as a statement of cleansing or renewal in a psychological or emotional sense but no need to bother with faith or theology. The best example of this having already occurred is the cross. People adorn their bodies with a cross who have no faith in Jesus at all. Indeed, the government designates the cross as a secular symbol (click here for Greenbeans outstanding ‘The Cross Is Not A Secular Symbol’) that means death or cemetery. Can you see a future in which people are baptized after a bad day, a breakup with their boyfriend, or quit a job, or smoking? Sadly I can see backyard pool parties in which people promise to be loyal to themselves and to serve the better good as citizens of the world an some other bilge about the heart wants what the heart wants, then a good friend baptizes them and everyone sings a John Lennon song.

Each of these futures is horrific to me.

Featured

Advent 2020: 2 Thessalonians 1:1-12

During the season of Advent, I am translating from Greek to English the weekday epistle readings out of the Daily Lectionary of the Book of Common Prayer.

Wednesday, 9 December 2020 2 Thessalonians 1:1-12


The Text

2 Thessalonians

Chapter One

1. Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy: to the Thessalonian church in our Father God and Lord Jesus Messiah. 

2. Grace and peace to you from God our father and the Lord Jesus Messiah.

3. We owe it to God to give thanks for you, brothers and sisters, which is proper, because your faith thrives and the love you have for each other always increases. 

4. We ourselves brag to the churches of God about your patience and faith in all the persecutions and afflictions you endure,

5. evidence of the righteous judgment of God to consider you worthy to suffer for the Kingdom of God.

6. Since it is righteous to God to repay with afflictions those afflicting you,

7. and to relieve your affliction along with ours at the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven with his powerful angels 

8. coming in fiery flames punishing those who have not known God and those not obeying the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 

9. Whoever these people are being punished, they will pay with eternal doom from the face of the Lord – from the glory of his strength.

10. When he shall come, he will be glorified among his saints and marveled at by all those believing, because our testimony about you was believed on that day. 

11. Our prayer always for you is that you might be worthy of the calling of our God and desire goodness and faithful work in power. 

12. So that the name of our Lord Jesus might be glorified among you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and Lord Jesus Messiah. 


Commentary

The same three who were behind the first letter have written this second one. After spending a couple of verses (3-4) rehashing how great a church they are and how all the churches know about them, Paul moves on to the subject at hand: Judgment.

Jesus is coming to settle the score, to ‘afflict those afflicting you.’ This sentiment is not something we generally associate with Christian motivation, but revenge is certainly involved. It should call to mind the wonderful verse we often quote, “vengeance is mine, says the Lord” from its original context in Torah, Deuteronomy 32:35 and repeated by Paul himself in Romans 12, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay.” Paul is spelling it out here–this is exactly how he will repay. When Jesus returns he is going to do some serious smoking of those who have harassed, harmed, and hurt his people, his church. Vengeance is not bad, what is bad is when we seek revenge because we can’t do it without the problem of our own sin and guilt. The Lord however has no such hindrance and he is able to dish it out. This is a part of eternal justice.

The scene is like something from a science fiction movie. Jesus returns from heaven surround by the host of angels. Try as I might, my imagination cannot grab what that would look like. I feel it in my heart, but I can’t creatively work it out. But the scene is accompanied with fire.

Out of this free comes punishment. The punishment is for two distinct kinds of people. First, those who do not know God. This term feels nebulous to me and woefully unspecific. I would prefer here if Paul, Silvanus, or Timothy would have spelled it out that it is those who do not know Jesus as Lord. God is a looser term and may mean something less than the specificity we often give. The second kind of people he is after are those who do not obey the gospel of Jesus. This is more specific, but not enough to provide comfort. The gospel of Jesus, the good news of Jesus, in this context might mean the good news Jesus preached about repentance, kindness, and love. As a Baptist, I would really like for this to be about believing in the gospel, but it is not. It is about obedience. That means, as uncomfortable as I may be, some who do not know or believe could be obedient to the essence of the gospel while those of us who do believe, and know, may yet still be found disobedient.

I am no universalist, but in the depth of my soul I am certain we will all be surprised by who the Lord accepts and whom he rejects at his great day. That Paul feels this urgency is apparent in verse 11 — “our prayer is that you might be worth” — Yeah, when the stuff comes down, Paul is praying that the church might not be the ones receiving this judgment. Let that sink in a moment.

The punishment is a separation from the face of the Lord, from his presence into ‘eternal doom.’ A question we have to ask is this: is the doom one that lastings for eternity, or is the doom such that it has eternal consequences.

You’re on your own as you grapple with that.


Questions For Application

  1. Verse three indicates Thanksgiving is owed to God, like a payment, or honor, or worship. What thanks do you owe to God?
  2. Who is afflicting you, and do you want them punished by God? Now turn that around — are you afflicting someone else, and how exactly does God feel about that?
  3. Can you imagine the scene of Jesus’ return?
  4. I was once scolded by a parishioner for preaching about ‘doom’ — I was told that message was positive enough. Do you agree with that parishioner, that doom(ed) topics should be avoided or do you think folks should know all the possibilities?

On Treasure and Pearls

For the past several weeks I’ve been preaching through the parables found in Matthew 13. The more I study them, the more fascinated I am by the choices Matthew makes in including these, how he stacks them, and exactly what it is that Jesus is getting at with each one individually but also cumulatively.

The last two Sunday’s I’ve spent on tiny parables. Two weeks ago it was the one about hidden treasure.

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

Matthew 13:44

It is pretty straightforward, and the next one after it I covered this past Sunday.

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.

Matthew 13:45&46

Most commentators group these two parables together because they argue it is the same teaching in each parable. Their argument is the duality of the parable reinforces the lesson. Craig Blomberg summarizes the mainstream view by affirming, “Each contains one character and teaches one point, namely, that the kingdom is so valuable that it is worth sacrificing anything to gain it.” (New American Commentary: Matthew Vol. 22)

I see where Blomberg and others are coming from. The parables, or similes really, are very similar. Something of value is discovered and all resources are leveraged to get it. The problem is, Jesus chose to give two different parables, and they are couched in enough differences that I think they should be preached separately and appropriated separately. There are more differences than there are similarities. The similarities are more about our mind trying to categorize everything. If we will stop and evaluate I think we can see there is a lot more going on.

  1. One man ‘found’ the treasure accidentally in the field. The other man was looking for it.
  2. One man hid the found treasure until he could procure the property. The other man quickly secured the cash and bought it there in the open market.
  3. One man’s treasure was something he could use to live off of. By contrast, the pearl can only be admired.
  4. One treasure had been abandoned while the other was actively being sold.
  5. The purchase of the field with buried treasure comes with two benefits — the land is an asset as well as the treasure, whereas the pearl is unique and singular.
  6. The buried treasure actually has many characters — the one who owned the field, the one who left the treasure, and the one who bought all his stuff. These are implied characters where as the pearl comparison only has two man characters, the buyer and the seller.

In preaching these texts I didn’t highlight all these differences, but I did try to allow a complex hermeneutic ooze out. For me the key difference is the buried treasure is about stumbling across the kingdom of heaven. This is how some of us come to the Lord; a flashing light from heaven or a sudden realization in the midst of our hectic lives. If kingdom of heaven means spiritual enlightenment in general and not salvation in specific, then it can refer to any of those long illuminations we experience in our lifetime.

There is a randomness to the buried treasure story we can’t overlook.

By contrast, the pearl is dramatically different in feel. The buyer, who is meant to symbolize us, is actively in the marketplace searching for the pearl of great price. There is nothing accidental here at all. He knows what he is looking for. His eye is trained to identify the real deal and dismiss the phony baloney. If we take the verb at face value, then the seeker looking for the kingdom of heaven must be ready to buy it when it is found. I am reminded of Hebrews which teaches us the Lord is a rewarder of those who earnestly seek him. The parable also encourages ongoing discovery, seeking the Lord afresh in the morning or investigating the deep things in the darkness of night.

Here is something that I didn’t allude to at all in my sermons, but an idea that has been wiggling around in my mind. These two parables are stacked atop one another. Perhaps there is a flow in the logic here which Jesus intended. The kingdom of heaven for us is like the apparent randomness of buried treasure. This is probably how all of us feel about our experience with the risen Christ. It feels like we found something buried and obscure, but in reality someone buried it there all along knowing we would find it. The burier of treasure is Jesus. The second parable perhaps is the same man later looking for something specific. This is us in our lives of discipleship looking for the beauty, the enlightenment, the scope and breadth of the kingdom of heaven. This is us with books, prayer, meditation, and learning, yearning for a kind of treasure that we can’t live off it, but which is beautiful and meaningful.

What Makes You Thirsty?

At about 7:45AM yesterday (6 October 2019) I realized the sermon about John 7:37-39 was out of control.

On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, ‘If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’ ” Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.

water.jpg

I’ve preached this passage before, usually with mixed results. This time I tried to weave a little light exegesis with a constant hammering of metaphor — what it was like to be dehydrated. In fact, I used eight different metaphors–everything from mummies to Mars. I was having a hard time putting in all of the different things I wanted to say along with a baseline exegesis of the text, which is important as well.

Something had to go for me to regain control. What I cut was a wandering speculation about when do we get thirsty? I came up with five, and I intended to draw out the spiritual implications.

  1. When I first wake up
  2. After I eat something dry
  3. After exercise
  4. If I am sick, I am thirsty
  5. When traveling

It would be a safe jump to move “when I first wake up” into a “when I first become a Christ-follower”. I have found this to be inherently true of people who turn on their spiritual lives — they have a near insatiable appetite for the anything about Jesus — worship, church, Bible study, reading the Bible, and serving. Often they can’t stop talking about Jesus. It is because they are thirsty.

Eating something dry is a harder parallel, but not impossible. It could be likened to whenever I am around stale people, crusty ideas, or hardened hearts. Too much time in these environments will make me thirsty for Jesus all the more. Being thirsty after exercise is the opposite, in many ways to eating something dry. Exercise is when we are spiritually serving — for me this is when my teaching schedule is heavy, lots of appointments with people, people in the hospital — and I have exerted myself spiritually so much that I’ve ‘sweated out’ all my liquid. That is when I need to rehydrate and spend some extra time alone with the Lord and drink in his presence.

Antibiotics always make me thirsty. Medicine, in general, does. I like to think of this concept as running alongside the way I can become spiritually confused or even displaced. A good example is when a contemporary issue seems to be running right into the teaching of Scripture. This is a certain kind of dissonance that makes me need to spend more time with the Lord to gather discernment. I need a drink, so to speak, before I know what the healthy path is.

If I am in an airplane I am always thirsty. The same is true when I am in car. I think most people are this way and it is because of the dry recycled air. Recycled air is the key here. One of the problems in my life is I get comfortable recycling and repeating same the same things over and over again, neglecting the Spirits call to sing a new song, start a new thing, or travel in a new direction. When the air is dry and recycled, it is time to spend time drinking in the Lord.

So there you have it, the bonus material that had to be cut from yesterday’s completely out of control sermon.