Wednesday, August 14, 2013

When Our Ideas of Repentance Need to Repent

“Repent” is a word that I can’t help but hear in my head with an angry southern accent.  This no doubt goes back to a few brief months I spent attending a fundamentalists Baptist school in Midland Texas during my sixth grade year.  I had begged my parents to let me go to a Christian school thinking that it would help me in my growing faith, because at that time I had felt the call of God to become a preacher when I grew up.  Those few months at that school proved otherwise.  Rather than help me into a deeper relationship with God they exposed me to a rigid fundamentalist religion that had me in detention nearly every day of the week for the smallest of offenses (one time I got detention for mentioning the band The Beatles in a conversation).  One of the regularly scheduled gatherings at that school was a chapel service that frequently featured preachers who would describe in morbid detail the horrors of hell that awaited anyone who did not say the sinner’s prayer.  So week after week I would hear “repent!”  As a sixth grader I didn’t have a very big list of sins of which to repent but I got “saved” every week because wanted to make sure I didn’t end up in hell.  Looking back I see that my initial understanding of repentance was not very conducive to following Jesus or spiritual growth because it was entirely rooted in fear.  

I suspect that many in our world share a similar aversion to this popular idea of repentance.  But what if repentance was actually something different.  I have come to believe that it is and that in fact our ideas of repentance need to repent and come to Jesus.

In the parable of the Prodigal Son we see the classical picture of repentance:
17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father. (Luke 15:17-20).

The younger son had squandered everything that the father had given him.  He had followed the path of sinful living to its destructive conclusion.  Destitute, hungry and tired he came to his senses and remembered his father.  The Greek word for repentance – metanoia means to rethink or reconsider.  The younger son began to reconsider his life as contrasted to life in the father’s house and began the long journey of returning home no doubt wondering how he was going to get back in his father’s good graces.  "I’m not worthy to be called his son, maybe he will let me have a job where I can work to pay my debts off.  Maybe I can at least survive better there than I am now."

I think most of us turn to the Lord in this way.  We see where our choices have led us.  We see how we have hurt ourselves and let others down.  Yet this first stage of repentance isn’t based on our love for the Father but rather the mess we’ve made of our lives.  While this is an important part of rethinking our lives it is certainly not the end of repentance because what we read next in the story dismantles all of our preconceived ideas of God as being punitive, angry, or even willing to let us work for his blessings.

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate. (Luke 15:21-24)

This father was not interested in the son’s idea of hiring him as a servant and doesn’t even seem interested in acknowledging his remorse over how he had wasted everything the father gave him.  The father showed a scandalous mercy towards the wayward son.  He reconciled him instantly with all of the privileges of being a son, and not only that but with a party, barbecue and a band.  And this is precisely where a whole other type of rethinking (repentance) is going to be required of the son. 

After the reconciliation to the father and the community, after the long night of celebration, when the music has faded and the last scraps of smoked meat have been cleaned from the tables this son will now have to learn a new way of life based on the father’s love.  Thus begins the life-long journey of repentance, the continued rethinking of everything based on the new reality of being reconciled and in relationship with the father.  This second stage of repentance is not about self-preservation or objectifying the father to get his blessings but rather being ruthless with every thought and action within that stands against the truth of God’s reconciling love.    

The book of Acts recounts the apostle Paul’s conversion.  He was riding on the road to Damascus to persecute followers of Jesus when he actually bumped into the risen Lord.  The Jesus he met on that road was not vindictive or punitive but rather the God of grace and truth.  Jesus lets him in on the fact that while Paul had been thinking that he was fighting for God all of those years he was actually fighting God himself.  Like the younger son, Paul re-though the path that he was on and embraced Christ.  What we see in the writings of Paul throughout the New Testament is the continual rethinking of everything in the world in the light of Jesus and the kingdom of God: relationships, culture, social order, government, etc.

Why is it that we so often limit repentance to a one time act, a prayer, or an altar call at the end of a service.  True repentance must involved rethinking everything in our lives from politics to sex to business to how we see others and ourselves in the light of the resurrected king.  It won’t do to get back in the father’s house if we just go on trying to earn his love because then we will just take up the ways of the older brother who was in the house and every bit as alienated from the father as the younger son had been yet all dressed up in performance, religion, and objectification.  Better to get on believing the outrageously good news of the gospel and let it free us from everything that has kept us from that reality.

I spent most of my teenage years running, like the prodigal son, from the father's house.  When I surrendered to Christ 20 years ago it was much like the young son of that parable.  I tried for a few years to work for God, to gain his approval with my discipline and service but as the years went on began to experience a different kind of repentance of which I will never finish 'til I meet Jesus face to face.  This repentance has meant that I have had to rethink the way I read the Bible, the way I view justice, the way I treat others, as well as my doctrine, culture and how I engage with the world.  This rethinking is scary as I see how attached I am to certain ideas that oppose the ways of Jesus, yet I am held in the midst of it by the ruthless love of Christ in which there is no fear.  I know not where all of this rethinking life in the light of Christ will take me, but I suspect I am in good company, because who of those original followers of Christ would have imagined where the master would take them.  So here's to rethinking, to repenting, to wrestling through muck and mire with the love and truth of Jesus.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Her Gates Will Never Be Shut Pt. 1

Her Gates Will Never Be Shut – A Review
Pt. 1. Presumptions and Possibilities

In the coming weeks I will be reviewing Her Gates Will Never Be Shut: Hope, Hell and the New Jerusalem by Brad Jersak.   While the book was published back in 2009, I find that many of the questions that it raises are just beginning to make their way into the public conversations of Christians.  Questions about eternal destiny—heaven and hell are important because the way we answer them says much about how we see God and his purposes as well as our place in the story. 

Jersak sees several factors that contribute to a person’s idea.  The first and most obvious is the particular scriptures that a person wishes to use.  Beyond that he cites 4 other contributing factors:

1.    Our View of God: Is God primarily a God of love, justice, and mercy or righteous anger.
2.    Our View of the Atonement: Was the atonement about final payment for sin-debts or final forgiveness of sin debts?  Does the cross save us from God, the devil, sin, death, or ourselves?
3.    Our Approach to Scripture: Do we tend to interpret  the images of the Bible literally or metaphorically?  Do we feel we are more faithful to the text when we take it as literally as the language allow or when we are most sensitive to the author’s use of symbols?
4.    Our Personal Need: Do we feel the need to ignore, minimize, or do away with hell because we cannot allow that a loving God could conceive, create, or implement such a monstrosity?  Or do we desperately need hell, because in this world of atrocities, God could not be considered holy, righteous, and just without it?

Brad Jersak writes as a former infernalist (believer in conscious eternal torment of hell) who has come to be biased towards hope.  He writes in the opening chapter:

We all have a bias.  The important thing is to recognize your bias and be able to defend or explain it.  As a “critical realist,” I spend a good deal of time and energy studying my biases—how they emerged, and how they influence my thinking.  Rather than pretending to be perfectly objective, I confess that since my early days as a terrified infernalist, I have developed a strong preference for hope.  I hope in the Good News that God’s love rectifies every injustice through forgiveness and reconciliation.  The Gospel of hope that I can preach boldly is this:

God is not angry with you and never has been.  He loves you with and everlasting love.  Salvation is not a question of “Turn or burn.”  We’re burning already, but we don’t have to be!  Redemption!  The life and death of Christ showed us how far God would go to extend forgiveness and invitation.  His resurrection marked the death of death and the evacuation of Hades.  My hope is in Christ, who rightfully earned his judgment seat and whose verdict is restorative justice, that is to say, mercy.

…This book will address the central problem of this “heated” debate: not infernalism versus annihilationism versus universalism, but rather, authentic, biblical Christian hope vis-à-vis the error of dogmatic presumption (of any view).  Hope presumes nothing but is rooted in a deeper confidence: the love and mercy of an openhearted and relentlessly kind God. (P.9-10)

I guess one of the reasons I found this book so interesting was that it starts from a place of wrestling through our own beliefs.  Many years ago I began to realize that so many of the things I believed about Christianity had little or nothing to do with thoughtful and prayerful reflection on the scriptures but were rather the product of my own baggage: a mixture of religious, political and economic ideas filtered through the lens of a middle class American white dude.   Few topics come with as much religious baggage as the topic of hell.  We will get into some of that baggage in later posts but for now I will close with a question.

Think about your own view of hell.  What does your view of hell say about your view of God? 

Monday, April 01, 2013

The Passover-Shaped Ministry of Jesus

For so many of the years that I have been a part of church, communion has seemed to be something tacked on to a service, and then only 4-5 times a year.  For those in Protestant evangelical expressions of the church as myself this is pretty standard.  When communion has been offered, it has usually been either hurried through, or an event of morbid introspection when a Christian remembers how Christ died for his or her personal forgiveness of sin.  And while I don’t disagree with the fact that Jesus died for our sins I can’t help but wonder if Jesus didn’t mean something much, much bigger when he introduced communion to his disciples during that Passover meal just before he went to the cross (Luke 22:13-20 .)

Jesus could have achieved the work of Calvary at any point during the Jewish calendar.  Probably the day that would have made the most sense, at least to Protestant Evangelicals, would have been Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the most Holy day of the Jewish calendar.  Yom Kippur was a national day of atoning for the sins of Israel.  It was a day of repentance, fasting, prayer, and sacrifice.  It seems that the Day of Atonement would have been a better fit for what many Evangelicals have seen as the central reason Jesus came, namely, to forgive us of our sins.  Yet our problem is not simply that we need to be forgiven of our sins but that we need to be set free from sin.

Jesus did not come during Yom Kippur but during Passover because as New Testament Scholar N.T. Wright notes, “Jesus’ ministry had a Passover shape to it.”  Think of the night when Jesus introduced one of the central sacraments of the church – communion.  Jesus does this in the midst of celebrating the Passover meal with his disciples.  In doing this Jesus reconfigured the Passover meal around his Messianic work.  The bread and the cup were tied in with the symbolism of the very feast which was being celebrated that week in Jerusalem, a feast which had been celebrated by the Jews for over a thousand years commemorating how God heard the cries of his people in slavery and rescued them.  Passover speaks of the final decisive miracle God used to break his people out of slavery. 

What then do you think that Jesus might have meant by introducing communion in the midst of a Passover meal just before going to the cross.  I believe the meaning is pretty simple and pretty profound.  In the same way that the blood of a lamb was applied to the doorframes of the Hebrew people so that judgment and death would pass over so the blood of Jesus is being symbolically applied to the hearts of his followers as they take the cup of the New Covenant.  A new Passover is about to take place that will be cosmic in its scope.

Does the cup of communion speak of forgiveness of sins?  You bet, but so much more than that.  See, it is not just a matter that each of us has sinned, but we are also born into a world enslaved by sin.  Like the Hebrew slaves in Egypt we have been born into bondage, born into slavery.  We need only to turn on the news or to see this slavery all around: children growing up in poverty, abuse, addiction, corporate greed, war, murder and so on.  It is everywhere we turn.  Sadly it is even within us.  We are both victims of sin and participants in sin.  But the good news is that Jesus is the Passover Lamb of God who takes away not merely the sin of one group of people… but of the world!  His blood applied on our hearts, like the lambs blood of old in that first Passover is the decisive blow to sin and death.  God has heard our cries in slavery and has answered in mercy and compassion by sending his own son who took the form of a slave (Philippians 2:6-11) to bust us out of prison!

What was the purpose of the first Passover? 
Was it simply so that the Hebrew people could be forgiven of their sins? 
No, it was to set them free so they could begin an Exodus to the Promised Land.  This then sheds light on the cross of Christ.  As Paul wrote in Galatians 5:1 “It was for freedom that Christ has set us free.”  The cross and the resurrection aren’t simply about forgiving us of our sins so that we can one day go to heaven when we die, but rather the beginning of a New Exodus from sin and slavery. 

In the first Passover God got his people out of Egypt in one decisive act but in the Exodus God was getting Egypt out of his people (this part took a whole lot longer).  The Exodus was a time of miraculous provision in which God began to break that old slavery mindset off of his people by humbling them and causing them to come to him daily for provisions (Deuteronomy 8:2-5 ).  In the same way, as people of the New Passover, we have been decisively set free from the slavery of sin, and as people of the New Exodus, we are being renewed by Jesus Christ, our daily bread. 

The New Exodus is about following not a pillar of fire but of following King Jesus.  It is about learning to live by a new kind of life that is native to the promised land which we will one day experience in full.  So yes, in Jesus we are forgiven of our sins but more than that we are set free from the very slavery of sin and we are being formed into a new kind of people that are not identified by race, gender, nationality or even by the Old Testament Law but by Jesus, whose blood is upon our hearts.