Matthew 28:11-15

Matthew 28:11-15 contains the report of an alternate theory about the resurrection. Because Matthew is a believer it is told in a way that speaks of conspiracy theories and bribery. I’m not dismissing the authority of scripture when I say that we see evidence here of Matthew’s defensiveness. I do think believers get it into their heads (our heads) that certain things are true on out terms and anyone who has a different perspective is up to no good. 

In seminary, we were exposed to theologians who did not believe that Jesus lphysically rose from the grave. My initial reaction was strongly negative. The more I listened, the more I learned to value their insights. It was false to say they didn’t believe in the resurrection. They believed that resurrection was something other than the physical resuscitation of the body.  It caused me to expand my own understanding of resurrection. If it is simply the return to life of one who was dead then why isn’t Christ’s resurrection viewed in the same light as Lazarus?  
I have come to believe that resurrection is an act of validation. In crucifixion the world sought to deny the legitimacy of Jesus’s claims. In the resurrection God weighed in and judged the argument in favor of Christ. And in that way, it is an act of Grace. It is an eternal offer for people to rethink their rejection of Christ and his way. The empty tomb remains an open door through which people who have resisted God can return. 

What city are your Bible habits from?

            I sometimes ask people to be “Berean Christians.”  Acts 17 records the story of Paul and Silas, Christian missionaries who were run out of Thessalonica.  They went to a town called Berea or Beroea (NRSV).  In Berea, Paul and Silas got a better hearing.  The writer of Acts explained, “Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.”   You’ll occasionally see Sunday School classes called “Bereans” in older congregations.  It’s a reference to this diligence in studying scripture.
            You will want a good translation of the Bible—or two or three.  The Bible was written in Hebrew (Old Testament) and in Greek (New Testament).  So, we rely on a Bible translation.  There are a lot of translations of the Bible.  I don’t know why there are so many English translations but there are.  Let me make reference to just a couple.
            NRSV (New Revised Standard Version)—This is the version in our pew Bibles and is usually my preferred translation.  It tries to strike a balance between readability and accuracy of translation.
            NASB (New American Standard Bible)—The NASB strives for a more literal translation.  When you read an NRSV side-by-side with an NASB you’ll find that the NASB has more awkward sentence structure and several more footnotes explaining terminology.  Where the NRSV was designed primarily for the public reading of scripture, the NASB was primarily designed for study.
            NIV (New International Version)—The NIV was published in the 1970’s by Evangelical publishers.  It was revised in 2011.  The NIV like the NRSV seeks to be both accessible and accurate. 
            There’s a very helpful and short resource entitled, The Bible in English Translation:  An Essential Guide written by Steven M. Sheeley and Robert N. Nash, Jr.  It describes several more translations and gives a very helpful description of how these translations came to be.
    I pray that you will take time to read scripture, take time to know what you’re reading, and prayerfully consider what it means for you.  Bereans were more noble because they searched the scriptures daily.  May the same be said of us.   

Observing Eastertide

The scripture reading today is Matthew 28:1-11. 
The Monday after Easter is the day to test whether we believe what we said the day before.  Easter begins on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring equinox.  I think somewhere I read that there is a more complex algorithm that determines it but that the definition fits the Easter in most US churches.  Easter Sunday begins the season known as Eastertide that stretches for seven weeks until Pentecost.  I struggle to really make Easter journey solid.  I suspect I’m not alone.  Just as I do not observe twelve days of Christmastide because our culture has moved on, I tend not to observe the 50 days of Eastertide because the culture surrounding me moves on–to Mother’s Day, Memorial Day, Graduations and the wedding season.  This year, I’m making a commitment to Eastertide.  I invite you to make it with me.  I’ve collected the Gospel stories about Christ’s resurrection and resurrection appearance along with some texts from the Epistles that speak about resurrection.  My goal is to read through these texts during Eastertide and to ask the question each time as I do, “What does it mean to walk in newness of life?” 
April 20-April 26
April 27-May 3
May 4-May 10
May 11-May 17
May 18-May 24
May 25-May 31
1 Corinthians 15:3–8
2 Corinthians 4:1–15
June 1-June 7
2 Corinthians 5:11–21

Me being wrong doesn’t make you right

The internet has given a handful of people unprecedented power to correct the mistakes of the rest of us.  I’m not immune.  I once did a blog-post trying to rebuff people who refer to praise and worship songs as “7/11” songs.  Sometimes, though, our efforts to correct people’s mistakes can reveal more problems in our own thinking than it corrects in others. 

For Example, Ben Irwin recently blogged about five bible verses the rest of us tend to misuse.  He’s right enough, I suppose, in his assessment but I think he reveals his own blind spots in the process.

We misuse Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper . . .”  He implies that those who display this verse on Christian inspirational posters are probably thinking that it refers to “bad hair days, corporate ladders, or financial success.”  He explains that Jeremiah was addressing people who were facing an exile that would last 70 years.  What we mean by reciting the text today is not what it meant when it was written. 

Two responses—first, my 22 years in ministry have taught me one thing about people:  they are more complex than they appear.  I have learned that many people going through pain I simply cannot fathom.  Jeremiah 29:11 may be keeping a suicidal teenager afloat, or a man who’s been out of work for six months “keeping on keeping on”, or motivating a diabetic to get into shape.  Jeremiah 29:11 doesn’t address a high school context, a labor-market context, or a medical context.  But, if you think that God doesn’t care about depressed teenagers, out-of-work laborers, or diabetics, then we’re probably talking about two different understandings of who God is. I don’t think God minds their “misuse” of the text if it keeps them moving forward and faithful.  I think Christians need to get out of the business of assuming we know what’s going through people’s minds because we think we know what’s going on in their lives.  Just as “That verse you keep quoting? It may not mean what you think it means.” So also, people quoting that verse may not mean what you think they mean either. 

Second, all texts are taken out of context.  All biblical texts had a time and place being addressed.  No biblical text was specifically addressed to 21st Century, middle-class America, except maybe John 17:20-23 (probably not that one either but, I was reaching).  If the Bible is going to speak to us today, we have to strive for dynamic analogies between our day and the day addressed by the text.  Exegesis—striving to understand what a text meant when it was written, to whom it was written, by whom it was written—is essential but not complete.  The Bible becomes the Word of God as we seek to go from understanding its context and content to our context.  By the way, the Bible itself reveals this.  Later texts in the Old Testament reach back to retrieve earlier traditional elements and do so without insisting upon exact quotation or accurate contextualization.  New Testament writers also quote the Old Testament and do so without following the rules of exegesis.  (great treatment of this in Francis Watson, Paul and the Hermeneutics of Faith).  Exegesis opens up and sharpens application but does not settle it. 

Irwin said we misuse Romans 8:28, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God.”  And then he corrected our translation saying  “. . . a better translation is ‘In all things, God works for the good of those who love him.’”  The problem is, “in all things God” is not necessarily a better translation.  Ancient manuscripts were copied and recopied by hand until at least the invention of the printing press in the 1500s.  The diversity between Greek copies of any text are complex enough that some biblical scholars devote their entire careers to sorting out what are the most likely original versions of texts verse by verse.  They are called text critics and they have what I would regard as the dirtiest job in biblical scholarship.  Bruce Metzger, a respected text critic, explains that indeed the grammatical construction that makes God the subject of the sentence (i.e., ho Theos in the nominative) does appear in some manuscripts. The committee that edited the United Bible Society Greek New Testament (4th edition) regarded them as less likely to be original than the texts that had “all” (panta in the nominative case) as the original.  So, it could be translated, “In all things God works for good . . .”as the NIV translates it but, that’s not a definitively better translation.  Translation is tricky business. Be careful about claiming that something is better translated one way rather than another. 

Irwin seems to have a problem with prosperity gospel preachers who misuse Luke 11:9 or athletes who quote Philippians 4:13.  I agree with him that we too easily grab on to texts assuming that they mean that God can be conscripted into our agendas. The people who do it manipulatively to line their pockets anger me also.  But, self-interest creeps into everything. The difficulty is the binary that he continues to thrust: People use a text to mean X but the original author meant Y.  I think a better way to understand this process of allowing scripture to become to word of God is seeing it more as an essay test rather than a multiple choice.  One thing I learned doing essay tests was that if I kept writing about it, I’d likely land on an acceptable answer or weary my professor into giving me at least partial credit.  Multiple choice questions are either right or wrong.  I can sense that Irwin is fed up with people who have clearly misused a passage.  They keep choosing “A—it’s all good things for me and bad things for you” when they should be considering “B—It’s more complicated than it looks;” OR “C—There’s a word of warning.” Or “D—probably shouldn’t touch this text with a ten foot pole.”  What I see happening, though, is that we have frightened increasing numbers of people away from scripture by over-correcting their interpretation of scripture.  Maybe what we need is a new paradigm that teaches people that all interpretations are partial, contextual, and made by people “prone to wander.”  And that those interpretations are good and necessary.  Perhaps we should teach people that the right interpretation isn’t the one that ends the discussion but the one that continues to look, listen, study and discern.  I’m not sure I would love scripture nearly as much had Ephesians 2:10 not gotten me through the 8thgrade in one piece.  The whole of Ephesians 2 and Ephesians itself and the Deutero-Pauline literature is far more complex than I realized at that point.  But, I continue to believe God spoke through that one verse to that one 13 year old kid.  I think many people need to be able to find just one passage of scripture that they can hang their hearts on for a while before they can gather the motivation to study the rest of scripture and work to study it rightly.

We agree that Matthew 26:11 does not excuse people neglecting the poor.  Neglecting the poor in Jesus name isn’t just bad scripture study it is sin.  But, we shouldn’t overlook another aspect of that text in its context which is that it is good to enjoy the presence of Christ when Christ is present.  I believe it is the same with scripture.  We should let scripture speak on its own terms and mean what it means.  Yet, we should not let the process of intentional scripture study steal the joy from scripture study. I am grateful that Irwin reminds us that the message of scripture IS NOT:  God will fulfill your agenda.  Agreed.  But we should be just as quick to say:  But God’s agenda as revealed in scripture though at times painfully honest and confrontational is ultimately good and leads to true joy. 

Pastor’s Class lessons

Pastor’s class is a class that introduces students to the faith that leads to baptism.  As is the case almost every time I teach something, I learn as much if not more than the students.  Somewhat randomly, here are some things I learned through this season of Pastor’s Class.

1.       Sometimes you can work so hard to deliver one important message that you fail to deliver the other important messages.  I have tried to protect a person’s freedom to choose for as long as I have thought about my role in enabling people to make their confession of faith.  Faith was never forced on me.  People made sure I knew who God is but did not force me into a relationship with Him.  I have treasured that and I have tried very hard to make sure that I protect that same freedom.  What I’ve come to understand this year is that sometimes protecting that freedom can send the wrong message.  It can send the message that I (we) don’t really care whether a person accepts Christ or not.  We try very hard not to pressure people to join First Christian Church.  Do we sometimes try so hard not to pressure people that we leave them with the impression that it doesn’t matter to us whether they join or not?  Somehow we need to find a way to say to others “I will protect your freedom to choose AND I will rejoice when your choice moves toward God’s plan for your life.”

2.       The presence of other adults matters greatly. For the first time,  I have asked elders to serve as mentors this year.  They worshiped with the students on Sunday and then afterward had lunch, answered questions about their faith, and then we all went bowling together.  It was fun.  But the other thing I noticed is how important it was.  It was important for the kids to interact with school teachers, engineers, computer experts, scientists, and retirees who love Jesus Christ.  Most people don’t grow up to become ministers.  Consequently, kids need models of faithful living.  I am also very glad Bill Jeffreys included a day of fun with the mentors.  The playing together, I think, helps the kids see that even into adulthood play and friendship continue. 

3.       Sunday the students and mentors worshipped together.  The goal of worshiping was for the mentors to offer their insights about what’s happening in worship.  What I noticed Sunday was that the point in the service where I saw the most interaction—I could even hear a slight murmur—came at communion.  Communion is typically a very quiet time during the service.  It can leave people with the sense that not much is going on.  What I witnessed Sunday is what I always hoped was true:  while the Lord’s Supper appears to be simple and quiet there is more going on below the surface than meets the eyes.  Thanks be to God. 

When you can’t agree to disagree

            How do we stay in unity with the whole body of Christ when parts of the body won’t accept other parts of the body? The Apostle Paul said, “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”   So far as it depends on me?  I know a lot of people who think that’s pretty easy.  I never have.
            I grew up in a scholarly and conservative church.  I was taught to think, study, and discern, but I was also taught a pretty strict rules about conduct.  As I applied one set of principles—the ones about study, thought and discernment—I found tension with the other sets of principles.  I found that we tended to stress things that the Bible doesn’t stress.  My church emphasized things like music, appearance, and frequency at worship. The Bible stresses justice, ending violence, and caring for the poor.  We stressed walking the straight and narrow path.  The Bible stresses the expansive love and acceptance of God.  We could find the passages of scripture that spoke to our concerns.  We were biblical people after all.  But, when we look at the whole of scripture and ask what its prioritize are, it clearly places a much higher priority on concerns we ignore.  I love my home church.  I always have.  And I have always loved the more conservative side of Christianity that we call “evangelicalism.”  They are my people and they gave me faith.  I continue to love them even when I don’t know what to do with their emphases and priorities.

            Both Franklin Graham, the son of evangelist Billy Graham, and World Vision, an extraordinary hunger relief agency, were in the news this week regarding things they said or did in relation to same-sex unions.  I won’t try to characterize what they did or said.  They should be allowed to express their views on their own terms.  The membership of the church I serve includes people who would agree and people who would disagree with what they said and did.  And I suspect I’m not the only one who feels a little caught in the middle.  I disagree with their specific stands on those specific issues but feel tremendous respect for their overall work and witness.  I imagine that many people who know how I feel wonder how they remain in unity with me when they disagree with me about decisions we have to make.  I wish it were as easy as saying that we can all agree to disagree as long as we disagree agreeably.  We can’t always agree to disagree.  We participate in decision making of our communities, state and nation.  We influence companies and the policies.  Learning to keep the peace does not mean that keep silent.  But, we do have to find a way to speak what we believe is the right path in ways that still give space for people who disagree with us.  We must search for ways to form consensus without coercion and to engage conflict with hospitality.