Thursday, April 8, 2010

Chapter 25 - Reading and Understanding the New Testament

"Moreover, the question of how the New Testament should be understood is not only concerned with matters related to the different genres or literary styles to be found in its pages, but also relates to important considerations of ideological perspective and cultural change." (p. 458)

Now, nearing the end, Drane reminds his readers that the word is alive. It can be hard slogging through the Bible if your heart is closed to the life within. Reading a text about the Bible might prove even worse, if you cared not for the material. But...the author came through. The Bible is more than the sum of its parts - it is God's word, and it is authoritative in the lives of Christians. The word today does tie the modern Church to our earliest Christian brothers and sisters. Wonderfully, the word not only informs Christians from God's perspective, but the Bible itself is a part of our world-view.

"World-view." I think that's what others might call "baggage." Drane might be one of the first commentators I've run across who admits we bring all that stuff to our reading and interpretation of Scripture. Calling the process of not trying to divorce ourselves from our understanding of the word, Drane says we enter into a "dynamic" and "holistic" process. (460) Instead of attempting to objectify the Scripture, Dranes says we can enter into a two-way relationship with in which we apply our setting to its context, and it informs our situation back. WOW! That's communication - God communicates to us through His word.

The sooner we begin to understand what it is we (as we engage Scripture) bring with us, the better off we'll be in the conversation. How can we lay aside our entire life's social context, or the human conditions of our birth? Who do we think we truly are if we feel we are able to dismiss the struggles and successes we experience on a daily basis? And just what makes me think that I can instantly think differently about a Scriptural matter than the way I've always been taught? I think, especially for that last one, it would be great to come to the Scriptures with no training - just an assurance that what you'll read is God's word. I wonder what would come out the other side of that experiment!!

We are a people of the book! We know it to be God's word given to humanity through the minds, hearts, dreams, memories, and hopes of various men throughout the ages. If we're serious of getting the most out of Scripture, we need to be serious about getting into Scripture. We need to acknowledge our own human traits that we bring as we come to the word. And we dare not forget the human traits the writers each brought as they delivered it. Each of us is called to do the best for God in the ways that He has equipped us - and that includes sharing the Gospel (and the rest of the Scripture).

Let's dig in - let's try to hear the voice of God through the pages of the Bible. There are many sources, and somewhere along the way we have to trust the expertise of those "who know." When I look at the words, are they the ones God gave to the original authors? And when we've got that all worked out, we really should want to know "why?" What was going on in the world at that time that God spoke out in that way? On a personal level, I want to know - what has God have for me in His word, given just where I am at in my walk? And across all the ages, how does God's word speak into our own times and cultures today?

You know, looking in the mirror and introducing you to yourself can be a scary prospect. How much more terrifying can it be to think to meet God? But Drane is right - it's really only when we start getting comfortable with ourselves and how we fit into the world around us, that we are prepared to get in to understanding the heart of God through His word.


Saturday, March 27, 2010

Chapter 23 - The Church and Its Jewish Origins

Moving away from Paul's letters, Drane introduces us to four shorter epistles he sees as intrinsically linked to the Christian origins found in Judaism. Even though the letters we call James, Hebrews, 1 Peter, and Revelation are relatively shorter than much of Paul's work, "they are no less valuable...for they give us direct access to areas of the church's life and thinking that are mentioned nowhere else in the New Testament." (409) As the church grew, questions of Jewish heritage began to be discussed. As more and more Gentiles became Christians, much of the Jewish "way" became seemingly unnecessary. The writers of these four letters saw the changing shape of the church, and understood the cultural challenges that were arising.

James, who may have been Jesus' brother (or not), dedicated his writing to instruction in proper Christian living. Just as Torah proclaimed that righteous Jewish life was expressed in obedience to God's will, James reminds his Christian readers that our lives in Christ do not end at the church building door. Our devotion to Christ, our lives reshaped by His Spirit, must show the recreation of which Paul wrote. It was not enough to say "I am Christ's," but to ignore the struggles of our neighbors. It is not right to proclaim the King with one breath, and lose control of a wicked tongue with the next. Although James may have relied on Jewish notions of rightful living to convey his message, all Christians should be able to quickly see how right he is.

Drane points out that the Temple that Jesus knew was constantly under construction. I had never thought about it before, but it's a really interesting point. Imagine if the building that your church gathered in was constantly occupied with scaffolding, or paint drop-clothes, or other construction equipment. I can just picture how edgy all the people of Jerusalem must have been - all the time. Their land occupied by a foreign empire, under the control of a ruthless local governor, not even really being able to turn to their place of worship for peace. MAN!!

It was into that kind of mess that the writer of Hebrews wrote his letter. Seeing little to no peace or truly lasting value in the systems of old, he wrote that God had put it all aside in favor of a priest, prophet, and sacrifice that was superior to everything and everyone who had ever come before. The letter to the Hebrews is obviously written to an audience which would have extensive knowledge of the OT. For the author, God had been showing the Jewish people the shadows of the things He was going to do in Christ. In Jesus, the Temple system, which was no longer offering peace, had come to an end. In a way, although Drane states that the letter could have been written as late as 96, I think it must have been before the fall of Jerusalem. If I received the letter that is Hebrews, with all it says, and I was as emotionally tied to the Temple and Jerusalem as the intended reader surely would have been, it is hard for me to think that great offense would not be conveyed - just 26 years removed from so terrible a time.

As the Church spread, Christians had to rethink the covenantal relationship God had with Israel. Jesus established a new covenant with His own, so what did those God made with Abraham and Moses have to do with them now? Seemingly the Apostle Peter, writing from Rome said - "Not much, and everything!" For the Christian, the need to enter into the earlier covenants did not exist. Christ's blood had done away with the old, and Christians had "been incorporated as full members into 'the people of God.'" (432) Peter stated clearly that there is a huge difference between the children of God under the old covenant than those under the new - namely the matter of sharing their faith. As children of God through Christ, we are not to keep our faith as a personal and private matter - we are to share the Gospel with all we can. We no longer rely on Law, but now on love.

We carry a message of hope. Our hope is in Christ. At times, the prophets of the OT wrote in seemingly hopeless fashion. They saw no way the evil of this world could be redeemed - God would have to destroy this world and start again. One day, a man named John had a vision in which Jesus led him on a journey seeing the work God was doing to bring an end to evil. Even though Christian scholars and theologians have wrestled with the book of Revelation throughout the centuries (some dismissing outright), it is a part of our Bible that continues the message of hope. Starting with stern warnings to the various churches of Asia minor, or perhaps to the Church throughout the ages, and moving to strange imagery of epic war, destruction, and monsters, Revelation is nevertheless truly a message of how God has been and continue to bring evil to an end. All creation is His, and He will possess it as His own. This is accomplished through the life, death, burial, and resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ. Revelation is a "heavy-duty" book of symbols and language that have had different significance to the first Jewish readers that to our modern eyes. Even still, it continues to offer us a message of hope that God has "it all under control."

The little Jewish sect that started in Palestine 2000 years ago is no longer Jewish. And maybe it never was. It was a difference of a different kind, and that made it something new. We have to realize that the first Christians writers wanted to convey what God had laid on their hearts very much, and they wanted to draw others to Christ. Necessarily, they had to use language their first Jewish readers would understand. That truth remains the same for us today - no matter how important a message is, if I don't get, I don't get it.

Οὑτως γὰρ ἠγάπησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν κόσμον, ὡστε τὸν υἱὸν τὸν μονογενῆ ἒδωκεν, ἱνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν μὴ ἀπόληται ἀλλ᾽ ἒχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Chapter 22 - The Spirit and the Letter

Don't worry. As long as you hit that wire with the connecting hook at precisely 88mph the instant the lightning strikes the tower... everything will be fine. (Dr. Emmett Brown)

Reading this chapter containing a brief overview of the earliest days of Christianity was nice treat. You see, as the Church changes shape, while continuing in the same mission of proclamation that Christ gave it so many years ago - I found myself living in those days (in some way) this past weekend. Our church in the Halifax area came to an important decision a little while ago - namely, that they must follow God's call to move into a completely new mission field. We moved from the community of Spryfield to Herring Cove - and this was our first week in the new field. OHHHHHH THE NERVES!!

What's all that got to do with Drane's commentary on the changing shape of the earliest church. Well, nothing directly, but it just feels to me like one more subtle little shift in the Universal Church. How Drane treated his material was quite welcome to my sensibilities, and I appreciated the care he took with those who had little choice but to change what church could/should be. Before I continue, I guess it would be helpful for me to plainly state that I believe that each and every Christian and Christian congregation is a part of the one Church - that of Christ. We each have our own God-given responsibilities to fulfill, as God sees fit. That means that we are all part of a greater whole than I think we sometimes think about. God is in control, and He is working the components as is necessary to fulfill His will.

That, basically, has been what has happened as the Church has grown over the years. Don't get me wrong - I do not believe that God ordained the Crusaders to proclaim a gospel of the sword in Palestine. And I do not believe that God intended for the church to extract the dross from heretics in exactly the same way they would have gold. And I do not immediately see God's hand in the volumes of "prosperity preachers" who seem to flood the TV screens of those who are trapped by the gospels of false-hope. But none of that means that the Church cannot or should not change.

The first Church was comprised of "individual disciples [who] experienced the compelling power of the Holy Spirit for themselves." (p. 394) Their meetings were characterized by a charisma that is seldom seen in the institutionalized church. But, what some do is characterize the formalization of the Church and its structures as wrong and inconsistent with God's will. As I read this chapter, at first I thought certainly that this would be the direction in which Drane would take us. I was pleasantly surprised to read that the author took a much different approach. No matter what we take the first Church to have been, it was in its infancy. By the Spirit, it was birthed on that Day of Pentecost so many years ago. Like anything born, it had, and continues to have, life. And must grow.

If decisive leaders had not have emerged from the Christian woodwork (far more many that only Justin Martyr or Ignatius of Antioch), willing to give all they had to stand for Christ's Church, where would our faith be today. (Hmmm - I guess that one goes ways, doesn't it?) But the facts are, there were people attempting to reshape the beliefs of Christians with quasi-Christian teaching. And although the earliest leaders/bishops may have gone a bit far with claiming apostolic succession, we need to stand up and applaud quite loudly that God saw fit to give the men and women of the now toddling Church the courage to move away from what they knew to something even greater (perhaps more important.)

Okay - back to 2010....

Folks, I believe God is still reshaping and reorganizing His Church to accomplish His mission. The challenges haven't really changed much - there a still groups out there spreading quasi-Christians messages, and trapping those they capture. Christ still has a proclamation mission for His Church. The times, they are a-changing and things seems faster, more demanding, draining - even for the men and women of the Church who have to go to work day after day after day after day after...I think it is absolutely beautiful how God has organized His Church. If you just read this and you still long for the first century Church, well you can go....

...back in time.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Chapter 21 - Freedom and Community

This may seem almost heretical coming from a student nearing the end of classes, but --- this chapter seemed a little light.

I very much appreciated how Drane started out. How many times have we heard someone say, "Hey, I'm going to church." How often have any of us said, "Yes dear, we can go to your mother's after church is over on Sunday." Or, maybe you've been asked by a fellow believer from a different congregation, "How do you guys do church?"

I wonder, along with Drane, what Paul would have thought about the heart behind these statements/question? The church is not a place, "a building nor a sect." (p. 381) How could I possibly go to it? If we agree with Paul's vision that "the church [is] indeed a new society," (p. 381) how can we possibly go somewhere after it is over? Not being an authority in eschatology my understanding may be a little shaky, but I don't think church is over until Christ returns. I think it's that last question (or some variant of it) that makes me the most excited. "How do you do church?" Friends, church is not a verb. One cannot be churched nor is one able to church.

The church is a body - it is the walking, talking active and physical presence of Christ in the midst of the people of this earth. Paul saw that the "Christian gospel [has] within it the power to transform relationships" (p. 382) and lives. I know all of us have seen those women and men who allow the truth of Christ in their lives to really settle in. The peace their lives exhibit - the desire they have to serve the people around them with all the gospel entails. How all of us should long to live the significance of the cross as they do.

We all have something different to offer - Christ's Spirit is equipping His people to reach the lost and to bring a message of peace to those who battle their Creator. Not one of us is more important than the others - we all have such significant missions to complete, together. Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians (or second or third....) plainly shows us that in the diversity that God bestows on the church, the Lord sees great unity (1 Cor. 12:4:13). The apostle's writing is amazing - just as we serve and are equipped for and by the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Unity in Diversity) the church is formed as different parts of one.

I started off by suggesting that this chapter seemed a little short, but maybe I was wrong. Maybe, in the end, the church needs a little talk and a lot of motion!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Chapter 20 - What Does it Mean to be a Christian?

We'll come back to the video in just a bit - but for now, I would like to quote Drane, albeit in reference to the thought behind the title of this chapter and not to the question he poses in his work.

"It is easier to ask that question than it is to answer it." (p. 366 - careful of the page reference folks. It's really close to being so evil that it lights your computer monitor on fire.)

Wouldn't this whole thing be somehow easier if Jesus had have only kept on going after Peter's confession. "You speak well Simon bar Jonah, and you are blessed because My Father has revealed this to you. From now on, you are Peter, and this Rock I will build my Church. Now, when you get together as a Church, here are the things I want you to do, and the ways I want you to do them. First..." Of course Jesus didn't do that, and Drane reminds us that Paul, in all his Christ-appointed missionary work, didn't lay out any specific liturgies either. Paul didn't go so far as to make a collective statement about the theological things he believed an why. We have God only to thank for calling such a dedicated, determined, and intelligent thinker to spread his word. We need also thank the Lord that He providentially preserved Paul's writings for us to have today.

Providence - maybe that's the point. Drane reminds us that Paul's letters weren't epistles as such - they were all specific communication for specific people at specific times. We have gained so much from them today, but what of the Galatian church had have been the same as the Ephesian church, who were the same as the Corinthians, who were the same as the Philippians, who were the same as the... You get the point. God had the right man on the job, at the right time, mixing it up with the right band of people so that Paul had to write what he wrote, and we are blessed immensely by the heart of God poured through the vessel of Paul. When I think of how God used Paul to bring a message of peace to a world shaped by so many didn't mini and macro cultures, I think of different colors. Then my mind goes back to God's first sign of peace with the world - the rainbow. Folks who know will tell you that EVERY color that is, is in the rainbow. It just seems that God has a penchant for diversity.

Paul's testimony to all who listened was plain, there is one living God and He can "only be fully known through Jesus." (p. 369) The message remains the same today. Drane reminds us that Paul realized that there was nothing he had done and there was no part of him that deserved God's love and the salvation He gives. How has this changed in 2000 years? Are any of us more deserving than Paul? Have any of us done something that has impressed the risen Lord with just how amazing we are? Of course not - Christ's Holy Spirit chases us down and draws us to Him, precisely because we are totally incapable of finding ourselves - let alone our Creator. How can anyone of us react any differently than Paul did. Our faith too is the response of God's presence in our lives. Paul's encounter with Jesus was something that I dare say most of us just won't experience. Jesus already has my attention - so I'm guessing that when I see the Lord face-to-face I'll be helping a garden grow.

Drane says that Paul's faith was a "response to God...based on a holistic perception that began with his direct experience" (p. 370) with Jesus (a.k.a. Holy Spirit). Here's the thing - me too! That's my story, that's yours. My friend John asks me (all the time), "How can you tell me with certainty that there is a God?" I tell John, "I can't tell you anything else. He has revealed Himself to me, I know He is alive, and if I told you otherwise I would be lying." That's where Paul found Himself - and I expect that's where many of you are.

Paul realized, and we should too, that the reality of Christ and His mandate for His Church compels each of us to care for our neighbors. This really is an outworking of the Holy Spirit - Christians are the body of Christ, Christ is its head. What the head says do, the body does. Paul saw that if God would go through the hassle of loving him, one who was out to destroy the Church, then "Christians must show the same openness in their relationships with others." (p. 371) It's more than what we do - it's who we are. And this realization gets into the heart of how Paul began to reinterpret the Law.

Yes, God had given Israel His perfect Law, but something had gone wrong. Who was to blame? God? Israel? For Paul the answer was plain - by "keeping [the Law] most meticulously, Paul had clearly found himself on the opposite side to God!" (p. 372) Just as with our neighbors, the answer is the same with Jesus. God desires relationships with His people. The trouble for the Israelites, and for a lot of us today - is we want rules. Relationships are tough; they take time and energy to get right. Rules are easy; just follow them - or don't. I'm sure it must have really caused Paul a lot of heartache and head spinning when he first started to get God's message - Relationships, not Rules! I wonder, how do you feel about that?

Okay - back to the video. It's kind of fun, and it sort of makes a point. At first I watched it and got a chuckle - and if I was completely truthful, I'd have to say it still makes me smile. Its point is plain, and it's made in a fun way. But here's the thing - maybe it's counter productive, and just not necessary. I guess, if I were to say I see myself in the video, it's on the side of the Mac - casual. But - who cares? I go back to the rainbow - there are Christians in suits, Christians in hoodies, Christians in orange jump suits, Christians in shorts, and in dresses, tuxedos, white suits, linen shirts, braided hair, buzz-cuts, leather jackets, polar fleece - oh, I could go on until you just got bored and closed your web-browser. But I won't. In that video - I bet both of those guys and the churches of which they are each members proclaim the Gospel message of Jesus' birth, death, burial, and resurrection. And I bet they both have relationships with Christ and their neighbors. It's time I stopped worrying about what it means to look Christian, and get back to thinking about what it means to be a Christian!

Monday, March 1, 2010

Chapter 19 - Paul Reaches Rome

Salagadoola mechicka boola bibbidi-bobbidi-boo,
Put'em together and what have you got?

Sure enough, Paul had a deep desire to spread the word to the farthest reaches of the Mediterranean world. Drane reminds us that Rome already had a church in place, so Paul would shoot for Spain. I hear the oranges are beautiful in Spain. But Paul's not much different than most of us - he wants to get where the action is. Well, the place to be was Rome, and Paul was going to get there - even if he had to get arrested doing it ;-). Alright, that's a really bad joke-like thing, but you know the story; things don't go well in Jerusalem and Paul exercises his rights as a Roman, instead of being killed as a Jew. Seems like a good plan.

So Paul gets taken to Rome, where he promptly sets up his own apartment, and security team. The way that Drane describes the greetings he received from the time he made land at Puteoli, even on to Rome, Paul must have been a rather well known fellow. Dealing with his own mess in Rome, Paul receives word that things are getting messed up in Colossae. That's where the wise words of Cinderella's Fairy Godmother come in. The Colossian church was falling into a trap that would take them captive away from Christ. They were hearing a new Gospel - one of lies and death: take one part mysticism, another of traditional religious law, and another of intellectual philosophy, "put'em together and what have you got? Bibbidi-bobbidi-boo!" Whatever it was, it wasn't Christ. I betcha with the ascetic gospel that was being peddled in Colossae, people probably did very painful things to themselves and each other.

In his letter to the Colossians, Paul asks the church to swap letters with the Laodicean church - one that seems to be lost ------ or is it?!?!?!?!? Drane examines the details surrounding the letter the modern reader knows to be to the Ephesian church, and says there is good proof that it is the missing letter. Drane points out that the name Ephesus is "not found in the best and oldest manuscripts of the letter." (p. 354) He also notes that Paul uses no personal greetings in the letter - strange, says Drane, for a man who had good ties in Ephesus. The final point Drane uses is that "Marcion referred to Ephesians as 'the letter to the Laodiceans.'" (p. 356) Marcion? Really? On a matter of Biblical authenticity, Drane references Marcion? All in all, the pieces add up that Ephesus may have been a letter Paul intended for a wider audience than the one church family.

As a sucker for the obvious, allow me to hit you up with some "obvious" - we sure can learn a thing or two form Paul's letter to the Philippians. Drane reminds us about the circumstances under which Paul wrote the letter. Great friends sent him financial and emotional help, yet he needed it because he was being held on "death-row." Do we circle our Christian brothers and sisters in their most difficult times? Do we accept support as readily as Paul did, or are we too proud at times? When the going is its roughest, do we turn back to the source of our strength -praising Christ through His Spirit who indwells us? I dunno - but it seems Paul did.

Paul the Missionary, Paul the Pastor was now Paul the captive. He had seen and dealt with much as he had been a part of the earliest seeds of more than one church. His experiences had given tremendous insight into the hearts of the people who would occupy churches until the day Jesus plants His feet back on the earth. You know, with all the material Paul left in his other letters (Romans, Corinthians, Ephesians) sometimes I think we dismiss the wonderful gift Paul left us in the letters he sent to Timothy and Titus. "Watch out for folks that will try to preach a false Gospel - they'll lead people to hell if you just let them. Friends, keep your strength, relying in the one true faith - the one that saves - the Gospel of God among us. And show others what it's all about - maybe not all the time with the talk, but most of the time with your walk. And as your churches grow, your going to need to invest in people to lead others. Be careful - it's important work!"

You know all that aside, for me, the most important pastoral words Paul writes to Timothy are in the second letter. "Do your best to come to me quickly...When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments...Do your best to get here before winter." (2 Tim. 4:9-21) Winter is coming, and with it uncertainty. What do you know - Paul is human and desires the comfort of a dear friend and things he treasures. It's nice to know that when I feel scared about the days ahead, the greatest missionary and pastor for Christ the world has seen, shared my space once upon a time too.

Chapter 18 - Paul the Pastor

The Gospel has the power to change - no, save - lives. Paul knew that (Romans 1:16), and that was why and how he was so determined to see it spread. I think sometimes, we just want to focus on the good news of spreading the good news. In some ways, I think my own imagery of pastoral work was shaped by Rev. Alden here - you remember - from Walnut Grove. People respected him and what he had to say. The Church was a part of people's lives - at least in the frontier days of 70's TV. But the reality is preaching the Gospel sure can take a toll on ya!
When Paul brought the message to Ephesus, things there started to change. Magicians left their wicked practices to turn to Christ, and the demand for mini-idols began to dry up. Glorious news for the Kingdom - bad news for the folks who had been making their living on these two areas of superstition. Someone would have to pay - and it's gonna have to be that guy who's talking folks outta buying what's feeding my family. I bet Paul would have really loved to see Charles Ingalls and Jonathan Garvey loading up the feed wagon instead of a mob coming to beat him up and throw him in jail. Oh well - life moves on, and so did Paul - right on out of Ephesus.
Dane then brings us onto the pastoral challenge Paul seems to have had with the church he planted in Corinth. This fresh, young church family - the face of Christ in their own neighborhood - seemed to having a bit of a challenge. Something had gotten into their corn-flakes and now they didn't like Paul or each other. The people began to separate over "party" lines. Some thought they were better because saw ultimate philosophical and behavioral freedom in the Gospel. Others said, "No Way!!! The rules are the rules, and good and godly people follow the rules." Yet others said that God is a mystical concept - "We should think about that!" And yet others saw themselves as holier-than-thou, because they pledged allegiance to an idea of Jesus (instead of the Savior Himself).
All these differences led to splits within the church, even though it seems they must have stayed "together." It must have been a tough deal for Paul, sitting in jail, writing to a fractious group about theology, church discipline, love and kindness, and many things we take for granted. Even though we know the lessons Paul tried to teach the Corinthians through his multiple letters, sometimes I think we too lose sight of them and end looking (if only just a little bit) like the Corinthian church. Maybe a few weeks / months spending time in the Corinthian letters would do all of us, and the Church, some good. Oh yeah - Rev. Alden never pastored in Corinth either, but some of us will.