Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Centrality of Christ

There are some very simple reasons why we have come to put Christ at the center of our theology - He's the one who came to us in the flesh, looking and living and loving like us and He's the one who seems to have done the most for us. I mean, that whole salvation/redemption thing is pretty cool, especially if you happen to be a fallen, broken, sinful human.

But to buy into these ideas and to give them the primacy that we have requires wearing some pretty hefty theological blinders. It's our self-centered/human-centered interpretations that have led us here, not the objective testimony of the Scriptures. 

Take the first claim: Jesus is central because He's the one who walks with us. This is true - Jesus does walk with us. He lives with us. He loves with us. He's in this world just like we are, trying to wind His way through it. 

Go back to the Old Testament for a bit, though. Start at the beginning. In the beginning, there was a Garden, and God walked in it with His people. Adam. Eve. God, the Creator. (God, the Father.) Enoch walked with God. Abraham walked with God. Moses met with God on the mountain, and not just once. God came to Elijah, and we have a recorded conversation between God and Jonah. God, the Father, is very present throughout the Old Testament. He may not (or maybe He did) have had a physical body in the same way that Christ embodied the flesh, but He walked with His people nonetheless.

And after Jesus's ascension, the Holy Spirit came down upon the people. The rest of the New Testament, although it continues to recount the Jesus story in the same way that the Old Testament continues to look forward to it, tells of the Holy Spirit's very real presence among the people. The Holy Spirit provides interpretation and inspiration. The Holy Spirit brings the gift of language. The Holy Spirit is counselor, comforter, just as Jesus promised He would be. The Holy Spirit, who may not (or maybe He does) have a physical body in the same way that Christ embodied the flesh, is present among God's people in the same way that God, the Father and Christ, the Son have been. 

So it takes quite a leap to say that Christ is central because He is the one who walked among us; the whole of the Trinity walks among us. We just happen to recognize Christ's flesh a bit more easily.

Or take the second claim: Jesus is central because He's the one who did the most for us. He came, lived, died, and was raised again that we might have eternal life with Him. He's the one who made atonement for our sins. He's the one who made righteousness possible.

But God, the Father, is the one who made this whole thing possible in the first place. In the beginning, there was nothing. Then, God, the Father, made this entire cosmosphere in order to put His special creation - human beings - into it. God, the Father, formed Adam from the dust, bent over, and breathed the breath of life into Him. God, the Father, led His people from captivity in Egypt through the barren, broken wilderness in a column of fire and smoke. 

And let's not forget that God, the Father, sent His Son in the first place, and it was God, the Father, who accepted His sacrifice.

The Holy Spirit is the one who gives us the ability to understand any of this. He's the one who lets us understand what Christ truly means. He's the one who puts it all in perspective and lets us live in truth even in this place of shadows. The Holy Spirit came to keep alive the Spirit of Jesus among the people. If it were not for the work of the Holy Spirit, the story of Jesus would be long gone by now. Nobody would be remembering it because nobody would be living it; it would be a historical event, over and done with. But by the Spirit, we live the grace of God through Jesus Christ - and only by the Spirit - and thus keep the story alive. Without the Spirit, not one word of the Bible would have been preserved for us, but that wouldn't have mattered because without the Spirit, we could never have understood it anyway. 

So tell me again how Christ is the only member of the Godhead who ever did anything super-important for you.... That's just not the testimony of the Trinity. We need all three persons, just as much as we need Christ, for it is through the Three-In-One that we have being, atonement, and understanding. It takes all three.

Again, I'm not saying that what Christ accomplished or what Christ did - His life, His love, His sacrifice - was not important; I'm saying that we cannot let the Son obscure for us the Father or the Spirit. We cannot let our theology rest in some false centrality of Christ when the testimony of the Scriptures, and of Christ Himself, is that there is a Triune God who cares for us. (That's a bit more simplistic than I'd like to leave it, but I'm building on something here, so it will have to do.) 

We'll look more at what Jesus had to say about this tomorrow. 

Monday, April 24, 2017

On Christ

One of the most popular theologies of contemporary Christianity is the theology that declares that Christ is the central revelation of the Scriptures and that all of God's Word (the Bible) must be read as leading to and from God's Word (Jesus, as John refers to Him).

I have a problem with this "all roads lead to Christ" theology. And in full recognition of the fact that I might be wrong on this, I present it here anyway, primarily because I believe that the discussion is a valuable one.

Really, I think there are numerous problems with this theology, but I don't think it's helpful to get into laundry lists. So let's start with this one: Jesus Himself did not draw everything (or almost anything) back to Himself.

Jesus was always pointing to the Father and to the Spirit, to the other two persons of the Trinity, to the One who sent Him and to the One He was sending. 

Who are we to argue?

The Trinity is one of those theologies that we've largely lost track of in modern Christianity. We affirm the three persons of the Godhead. We pray in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We are baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We understand that this is what Christianity has asked of us, that we know that there is a Father, a Son, and a Holy Spirit.

But we spend overwhelmingly the bulk of our time getting to know the Son and forgetting, or perhaps even neglecting, that the Son was sent to reveal the Triune nature of God, to show Himself but also the Father and the Spirit. 

There's just no way around it. As faithful as we think we are being to the Scriptures when we center them on the Christ event, we must be as faithful to Christ by listening to what He says, and what He says is that it's not all about Him. 

It's not all about Him

That is not in any way to diminish the Christ event or the person of Jesus. Not by any means! No, no. That's not at all what I'm saying. What I'm saying is that we cannot limit our understanding to Jesus, nor should we. To do so is to both miss and misinterpret what God has given us in the Scriptures.

So where did we get this notion of a Christ-centered theology? To what does it open our eyes and to what does it blind us? How do we work a Trinitarian theology back into the web of what is, without argument, the central event of the Scripture, given that Christ Himself took every chance to point our hearts toward both the Father and the Spirit? All good questions. Stay tuned.  

Friday, April 21, 2017

Hello, My Name Is

This week, Christian singer/songwriter Matthew West released a book based on his well-known song, Hello, My Name Is. I have been blessed over the weeks leading up to this release to be reading a sneak peek preview copy of the book, and I think there are some things that are definitely worth saying about the book.

First, by now you know me well enough to know I'm not a fangirl. Of anybody. My passion runs deep for the Gospel, but that's about it. So what follows is not some crazy, "OMG, Matthew West is so awesome!" enthusaism. Sorry. Celebrity just doesn't impress me. (I don't think Matthew would mind my saying that, either.)

When I first started hearing about this book, I downloaded a free sample chapter that showed up in my email, and it told the story of this guy who showed up to one of Matthew's concerts and was forever changed by the experience. And I thought, alright, this is going to be a collection of the stories that Matthew's heard over the years. Real people's stories. The ones he's written his songs about. The ones who have taken the time to share their heart with him.

And you know I love good stories about real persons. You know, persons like you and me. 

Imagine my surprise when I opened the full book to discover that it wasn't a collection of stories about real persons; it was a collection of personal stories from Matthew. 

Imagine my greater surprise when I discovered through these stories that Matthew also happens to be a real person. 

I know, right? But you start reading these stories about traveling through the airport with a guitar en route to the next big concert, and it's easy to think, "That's not my life." Or you read about that one time backstage at a concert...nope. I'm not living that either. These are the kinds of things that celebrities like to write about, the things that seem so normal to them but are so foreign to the rest of us that quietly, and without saying as much, they're telling you that there is a fundamental difference between you and them. 

That's not this book. There are a couple of scenes like that, but by the time you get there, you're so overwhelmed with all of the completely normal things that Matthew has experienced that you're just connected to the guy on a person-to-person level, and when something about his profession happens to sneak in, that's okay. It feels just as normal to you as the rest of it, even if you've never been there. 

Matthew talks about the mundane things, the sorts of things that happen to all of us, but what I love most about this book is that as your drawn through the threads that wind through the pages, you discover this guy who hears the same whispers that you do. You discover this guy who knows all the quiet things that get whispered into our hearts, the things we start to believe about ourselves just because we hear them echo in our empty places so much. 

And then you can't help but think about the paradox of this guy who understands so intimately these whispers but who stands on the stage night after night blaring out anthems against them. It creates this incredible, beautiful tension between a loud public faith and a quiet spiritual struggle, and in doing so, you discover that faith need not be blind and heart must not be complacent. This life we live takes the full dynamism of both. 

We must be willing to stand and shout, not because we don't hear the whispers but precisely because we do. 

We must declare the truth precisely because we have heard the lies (and, we might add, because sometimes, we are haunted by them). 

Then all of a sudden, you hear this song, this so-popular song, come across the radio, Hello, My Name Is, and you think about all the whispers that Matthew knows, all the quiet words he's heard - the same quiet words that all of us have heard - and you truly understand that this isn't really an anthem; this is a fight song. 

And we're all just warriors with tears streaming down our faces, blood dripping down the Cross, and voices raised high over the whispers - that to whosoever it may concern (myself included because so often, I need the reminder), that....that is not my name.  

Hello, my name is....

--- 

Matthew West's book, Hello, My Name Is released on Tuesday, April 18, 2017. Although I was blessed to read an advanced copy of the book, I cannot be bought and the words above are my own honest reflections and nothing more. If you're interested in the book, you can check it out at Amazon or wherever fine books are sold. (Don't go where not-fine books are sold. You won't find it there.)

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Spirit for All

So, then, when we're talking about tongues, we're not talking about the same thing that the charismatic movement of the church is talking about - we're talking about something much simpler, straight from the book of Acts, and a gift that is given to every one of us.

See, the gift of tongues is not reserved for just a certain segment of God's people; it's not a gift for the elite. It's a gift for all of us. And that's the testimony of the Bible not just from Acts, but from the Old Testament, as well.

In Acts, as we saw yesterday, when the Spirit came upon the people, they all began speaking in languages that were foreign to them. The Scriptures don't tell us that some of them began to speak in new tongues, but that all of them began to speak of the miracles of God in languages they had never known before. 

In Numbers 11, the Lord takes some of the Spirit that He had given to Moses and puts it onto the 70 men he had chosen to help him in the work of judging Israel. And all 70 of them began to prophesy - to speak the truth of God in a Spirit-led tongue. Interestingly, even the two of them that decided not to come to the ceremony and instead stayed home started to prophesy right where they were. When the Spirit came upon them, they couldn't help themselves. They were given a new tongue to speak God's truth.

There's another passage where Saul (Old Testament Saul, the first king of Israel) goes out to meet the prophets, and they are all prophesying. When he comes into their midst, the Spirit falls on him, too, and he starts prophesying right along with them. 

Everywhere the Spirit is, there are persons speaking the truth and the miracles of God in language that used to be foreign to them. 

For most of us, that means we're given a theological tongue. That doesn't always mean that we start speaking in systematics or using the lofty language of historical Christianity and the church questions that have always been thrown around in the church for one reason or another. We aren't all going to start talking about transubstantiation or atonement or sanctification; it's not about the kind of word that we're using, but about what it is that we're saying. 

We're given the gift of speaking the truth and the miracles of God. 

That's it. That's all it is. And it's because this world needs as many persons speaking that truth and those miracles as it can have. It's because there's something about knowing who a person is, knowing their story, knowing where they come from and hearing them speak these things in a tongue that you can understand that's just incredibly powerful. 

Think about your story. Think about all of the broken things that you know about this world. Think about all the things that your friends know about your life, all the things they've seen you go through, all the question they've heard you asking. Maybe all the nights they know you've been awake. Maybe all the tears they know you've cried. Now think about what it means for you to be able to speak something beautiful of God even out of that life. Even out of that brokenness. Even out of that story, to be able to speak God's story. 

Like the onlookers in Acts, this world looks on and says, "How can this be?" How can it be that we are hearing the truth of God in a way that we understand...and it's coming from you

By the power of the Spirit, that's how. By the power of the Spirit that's given us all a theological tongue, that we may speak the truth and the miracles of God in a way that this world will hear it, maybe for the very first time. 

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Jibberish

When we talk about speaking in tongues, a lot of Christians get scared (despite the fact, I must say, that in the past couple of decades, Pentecostalism has been among the world's fastest-growing denominations). They think we're talking about unintelligible gobbledy-gook, weird utterances that nobody anywhere can understand.

That's not the kind of tongues that I'm talking about, and it's not the kind of tongue in which I am speaking. 

The whole concept goes back to a scene in Acts 2, and it is in this context that we have to understand the phenomenon. A group of believers had gathered together for Pentecost, and the Holy Spirit came upon them all. All the believers were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit gave them the ability to speak. This is about as far as most of our discussion goes. It's...weird. So weird that we quit reading. 

But keep reading with me. Check this out: Devout Jewish men from every nation were living in Jerusalem. ...Each person was startled to recognize his own dialect when the disciples spoke. Stunned and amazed, the people in the crowd said, "...Why do we hear them speaking in our native dialects? ...We hear these men in our own languages as they tell about the miracles that God has done."

Then someone accused them all of being drunk. (Yes, really.)

See, it's not jibberish that starts coming out of these men's mouths; it's real language, a real tongue. It's just one that they didn't happen to speak before this moment that the Holy Spirit came upon them. Even Paul is going to affirm this later, when he says, essentially - don't speak jibberish. If you're speaking in a tongue, there better be at least one other person present who speaks it. Otherwise, you're a distraction and nothing more. 

So it's not that all of a sudden, nobody knows what we're saying any more. Rather, when the Holy Spirit gives us the ability to speak in another tongue, it's for the sake of those who need to hear about the miracles of God in their native language. 

For me, that means, I think, that I speak theology because there are persons around me who have never heard it spoken in their own language. I speak theology from brokenness for the broken who have never heard the miracles of God. I speak theology from poverty for the poor who need to hear. I speak theology from the questions for those who are questioning. 

God has taken my story and put a theological tongue to it so that when I speak, those in their own stories of brokenness, poverty, questions can hear the miracles of God in their own native language. From the darkness, I speak light so that others in darkness may see.

And it is only by the power of the Spirit that I am able, at all, to do so. 

It's not jibberish, I don't think (I hope!) coming out of my mouth. It's not nonsense that I speak out into the world. It's not some unintelligible utterance, some meaningless drivel. These are the miracles of God of which I speak, and in that beautifully paradoxical way that God has about Him, it is yet another miracle in and of itself that I speak them at all.