Christmas 2020 is one that many of us would like to forget. People are either spending Christmas in COVID lockdown or risking exposure to be with those they love. Either way, the specter of more than 326,000 COVID deaths in America looms large over this happiest time of year. On a personal level, I’m reflecting on the deaths of several friends. There are a lot of empty chairs at a lot of tables this year.
Of course, sadness and tragedy remembered at Christmastime aren’t new. Most people have the experience of living through the first Christmas after the death of a loved one. My wife’s grandma told us that Christmas is always hard, even though her partner has been gone for 20 years.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, writing from the middle of the American Civil War, wrote the poem Christmas Bells. Two years prior, his wife of 18 years was burned to death. His country was falling apart around him. Then, in March, his son left without permission to join the Union Army. This national tragedy had become personal for him, compounding the aching left in his heart from the loss of his wife. In late November, his son was wounded and near death. Two weeks before Christmas, they returned from Washington DC to Cambridge, Mass., where he was tending to the boy’s wounds.
Longfellow sat down to write on Christmas Day. His poem starts with a Christmas Card-perfect rendition of familiar holiday felicitations. Christmas sunrise, in his telling, is especially sweet.
I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
But in the fourth verse tragedy overtakes tradition, and the bells of Christmas are overwhelmed by the peals of cannon-fire. His bitter pain is palpable, jumping from the page and into the hearts of everyone who knows what it’s like to awaken, only to remember the pain that sleep had interrupted.
Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
For Longfellow the cannons weren’t an abstraction. His broken son lay in the other room as a testament to their reality. No matter the seeming rightness of the cause, the cost of war was real and threatened to steal Longfellow’s faith in goodness and justice. Surely, all light would soon be swallowed up.
And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;
"For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"
But somewhere between the 6th and the 7th verse, Longfellow went on a journey toward redemption. I don’t know how long he lay down his pen, nor what passed through his mind while he looked out the window into that wintry New England day. But he found, in his faith, the answer to the pain and injustice that he felt.
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men."
Longfellow found hope in God’s existence. He realized that, though the purposes of Divine Providence be obscured, they still exist. His writing echoes the words of Job from the Biblical book that bears his name: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end He will stand on the earth.” (Job 19:25)
There is a redeemer, and the hope you can have this Christmas is the hope that you place in Him. Wherever redemption you’re needing, I pray that this Christmas, you’re able to make part of Longfellow’s journey.
This morning we tuned into online church and it was a fascinating experience. It was different from the way we normally participate and I wonder how many of these differences will persist into a post-COVID world.
When we decided to attend online church, we had our choice of different churches. Without the strictures of geography, we could attend any church in the world. We actually attended parts of two church services. I wonder if churches will begin competing for viewers/attenders/congregants? With geography irrelevant, what will be the main attractors? Will churches take some of the money that they’ve spent on buildings over the years and pour it into online delivery innovations? How many church attenders will continue attending online instead of going back into the old offline modality?
The activities within a western church service haven’t changed much in my lifetime. There is a time of singing, some announcements, a greeting time, and a sermon or message. None of this format is prescribed by scripture, though there are loose precedents in the book of Acts for singing, praying together, and preaching. When the delivery is different, how will these elements shift or change? Using Facebook live, we were able to leave comments that everyone can see. In the future, will offline church attenders expect a tech conference-style backchannel discussion? How will pastors change their sermons when everyone else has a real-time feedback channel?
While we participated in church we built Legos, journaled, and ate lunch. Far from distracting from what was happening in the church service, this allowed us to take care of needs (especially for the little ones) that would have otherwise distracted us while we were sitting in the pews of a physical church. I found this to be overall a much more family-friendly experience. I wonder: where and how will we attend church when this COVID-19 pandemic is over?
Note: I wrote this in preparation for teaching about the book of Acts in my Sunday School class. I’m not a Bible scholar, but this is my best take at explaining the text. I’ve written a commentary on Acts 1 in a previous post.
1 – 13 When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues (or languages) as the Spirit enabled them. Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?” Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”
The Holy Spirit Arrives
Pentecost was an already-existing Jewish holiday, known as the Feast of Weeks (or the Feast of 50 Days – Pentekoste meant 50th in Greek). It was the 50th day after the Passover, when God released the Hebrews from Egypt and the Angel of Death passed over the people who had smeared lamb’s blood on their doorposts. As Christians, we celebrate this repurposed holiday 49 days (or 7 Sundays) after Easter. If Jesus taught for a literal 40 days after his resurrection (which is not at all clear), then the 120 followers had to wait about 10 days until the arrival of the Holy Spirit. This isn’t important, but it’s interesting.
In Luke 3:21-22, heaven opened and the Holy Spirit appeared in bodily form like a dove. Here the Holy Spirit comes amidst a violent wind and what seemed to be tongues of fire. We don’t know if the wind and the fire were representations of the Holy Spirit, or if they just appeared at the same time. And Luke doesn’t bother clarifying this for us, so it’s not worth spending a lot of time debating it.
Some people emphasize this matter of tongues rather heavily. This is one of those matters where Luke was writing descriptively, but not necessarily prescriptively. Paul, who wasn’t recorded as being here for this event, writes about tongues in his first letter to the church at Corinth (1 Corinthians 14). His writing seems to be addressing a separate matter than the one which shows up at Pentecost. He says in verse 2 that, “…anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people, but to God.” The people speaking in tongues at Pentecost seem to be speaking in other languages to Jews gathered from all over the known world. These people are in town for the Jewish Feast of Weeks.
This gift of language at Pentecost seems to enable people to hear the glories of God in their own languages. It’s an attention-grabber that draws a crowd.
14 – 21 Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:“ ‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
Peter the Scholar
Peter jumps up and grabs the crowd’s attention. For the second time, this uneducated fisherman shows himself a scholar of the law, this time quoting the Prophet Joel (Joel 2:28-32). Joel talks about the great and dreadful day of the Lord. This is at the end of a long, poetic chapter on destruction and God’s great salvation. Peter’s about the show how the Jewish scriptures are going to be fulfilled. He’s powerfully declaring that a new era has come, and he’ll call the Jews back to a salvation that’s familiar from their own scriptures.
22 – 36 “Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, (or of those not having the law (that is, Gentiles)) put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. David said about him: “ ‘I saw the Lord always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken. Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest in hope, because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, you will not let your holy one see decay. You have made known to me the paths of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence.’ Psalm 16:8-11
“Fellow Israelites, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. For David did not ascend to heaven, and yet he said, “ ‘The Lord said to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.” ’ (Psalm 110:1) Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”
Peter introduces Jesus, appeals a bit to their Jewish pride (or racism), and links Jesus to the most admired of all Jewish heroes: King David. It’s clear, whether it’s Peter’s opinion or he just knows his audience, that he is calling Jews to a Jewish repentance.
He bears explicit witness to the resurrection of Jesus, in fulfillment of what he’s said is the role of the apostles. Peter says that Jesus has received the Holy Spirit from the Father. Again, we see an oblique reference to the Trinity and Peter’s understanding of the Holy Spirit.
Psalm 110, which Peter references, is well worth reading and it all seems to apply to Jesus. Luke doesn’t record Peter as reading the full militaristic scene from Psalm 110, though the rest of Peter’s recitation may have been cut for time (as we’ll see in verse 40). Interestingly, this military view of God’s redemption sounds like what Peter and company were waiting for ways back in Acts 1:6. But it’s not the way redemption unfolds, either in Jesus’s promises to the apostles or in the chapters of Acts that follow.
37 – 41 When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.
The People Respond
Peter’s words apparently had quite an effect. 3,000 people believed in Jesus on that day!
The call to action here is worth looking at: Peter asks for repentance and baptism, both of which would have been familiar to the Jews. John the Baptist had been baptizing, and the Jews practiced baptism as something called Tvilah, a purification ritual used when converting to Judaism. Later in Acts (Acts 19:1-6), Paul would make a distinction between John’s baptism for repentance and baptism in the name of Jesus, which seemed to be accompanied by the receiving of the Holy Spirit. Peter doesn’t seem to make that distinction here, which probably means that the understanding of baptism evolved as the church grew. This is one of those head-scratching inconsistencies in Acts, and I’ll remind you again that Luke is writing descriptively, not prescriptively.
Also interesting is that Peter says the promise of redemption is for everyone: Jews, their children, and those who are far off. We know that Peter didn’t quite believe this yet. He still thought of salvation as being only for the Jews, as we’ll see later in Acts. But perhaps this is an example of the Holy Spirit inspiring Peter to say something that would make more sense to him later. Or maybe Luke wanted to be clearer about salvation than Peter had actually been, and hence edited Peter in the recording of this event.
42 – 47 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
The Church Begins
As the camera zooms out after the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, we see an idyllic picture of the early church. All 3,000 of these new believers (3,120, including the earliest believers) devote themselves to study, eating together, and praying. They start acting communally, with shared property and social services. While Christian groups throughout the ages have sought to replicate this model, I’ll point out again that Luke was describing, not prescribing.
Their reputation, for the moment, is sterling. Trouble is waiting just over the horizon. And salvation becomes a daily occurrence, which implies that salvation was either happening organically in the communities around these new believers as they went about their lives and work, or that the church met together daily. Either way, this is a description of an intense time for this community.
Though there’s been much discussion about the Holy Spirit, Luke uses the term ‘praising God’, and not ‘praising the Holy Spirit’. This Holy Spirit isn’t a God-replacement, but a God-addition. This indicates an understanding of the Holy Spirit that consistent with modern Protestant orthodoxy.
Note: I wrote this in preparation for teaching about the book of Acts in my Sunday School class. I’m not a Bible scholar, but this is my best take at explaining the text. I’ve written a commentary on Acts 2, and that follows in a later post.
1 – 3 In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.
Previously, in Luke
Luke is setting the scene here. He’s very efficiently summing up what has happened before and bringing the reader (the now-familiar Theophilus, or “Lover of God”) up to date. He references the people who will be the main characters of the book (the Apostles Jesus had chosen), and drives home the point that Jesus’ friends believed him to be alive. He also gives a timeline, 40 days. The number 40 is often used in Hebrew culture symbolically to mean A Long Time. As in, “Gary, I haven’t seen you in 40 days!” Luke makes clear that the kingdom of God was their main topic of conversation. Watch for that – the 120 disciples (including the 12 apostles) will be primed to think about this matter of the Kingdom of God.
4 – 8 On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with (or in) water, but in a few days you will be baptized with (or in) the Holy Spirit.” Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Jesus outlines Acts
Luke relates the most important teaching that Jesus gave after his resurrection. He’s beginning the hand-off from the leadership of Jesus to the leadership of the Holy Spirit. In doing so, he references all three members of the Godhead. Note that the doctrine of the Trinity is never explicitly taught in the Bible. We infer it from passages like this, and from the co-appearing of the Triune Three at the baptism of Jesus. (Luke 3:21-22) In this way, the co-appearing kicks off both the earthly ministry of Jesus and the earthly ministry of the Holy Spirit.
9 – 11 After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”
Again we see Luke’s economy of words. In two sentences, he gives an entire Christ-ian eschatology (from the Greek meaning “last” and “study of”). This scene is almost humorous in its pithiness. These men, presumably angels or other heavenly messengers, break the apostles’ sacred reverie with a kick in the pants toward Jerusalem and a message about the Second Coming of Christ. This is almost the exact same scenario that played out after Jesus’ death in Luke 24:4-7.
12 – 14 Then the apostles returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day’s walk (That is, about 5/8 mile or about 1 kilometer from the city.) When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying. Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.
For now, the apostles are being tracked minute by minute. The church is being born, and Luke passes us all the details. This includes exactly who was in the room. The eleven apostles were explicitly named. Peter and Andrew were brothers, fishermen from Bethsaida. Philip grew up with them, and was probably also a fisherman. James and John were brothers, also fisherman from Bethsaida. The younger James (son of Alphaeus) and Judas were probably Jesus’s biological brothers. Note that there were two Jameses, two Simons (Simon Peter and Simon the Zealot), and two Judases (one who betrayed Jesus and one who was his brother). Luke doesn’t name the women, but he refers to Jesus’s mother and, presumably, an unspecified number of Jesus’s other brothers.
Interestingly, Luke finishes the book of Luke with Jesus referring to this group as disciples, and starts the book of Acts referring to them as apostles. This is just one of the many shifts we’ll see at the beginning of Acts.
15 – 26 In those days Peter stood up among the believers (a group numbering about a hundred and twenty) and said, “Brothers and sisters (or believers), the Scripture had to be fulfilled in which the Holy Spirit spoke long ago through David concerning Judas, who served as guide for those who arrested Jesus. He was one of our number and shared in our ministry.” (With the payment he received for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out. Everyone in Jerusalem heard about this, so they called that field in their language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) “For,” said Peter, “it is written in the Book of Psalms (Psalm 69:25): “ ‘May his place be deserted; let there be no one to dwell in it,’ and (Psalm 109:8), “ ‘May another take his place of leadership.’ Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus was living among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.” So they nominated two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias. Then they prayed, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen to take over this apostolic ministry, which Judas left to go where he belongs.” Then they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias; so he was added to the eleven apostles.
A new apostle
Peter takes on a new role here. He goes from enthusiastic (if bumbling) to being a serious leader and Biblical scholar. Luke records someone, probably Peter, lopping off a guy’s ear when Jesus was arrested, and claiming that he’ll go to prison and die for Jesus (Luke 22). Later in the same chapter, Peter denies Jesus. What explains the change from denier to leader/scholar? In Luke 24:45, we’re told that Jesus opened the minds of his disciples so they could understand the scriptures.
The believers here are numbered at 120 total. This means that there are about 10 times as many in the community as there were in the inner circle of disciples (who became apostles).
There’s a rather gross section wherein Judas (the betrayer) buys a field. Scholars think that this matter of bursting intestines was because Judas hung himself and everyone left the body alone. In this scenario, his body burst open when it fell down after rotting enough to slip out of the rope.
Peter explicitly mentions the Holy Spirit, indicating that he had some understanding of the Holy Spirit’s role in the church and in history. Peter references two scriptures from the Psalms and seems to cherry-pick two phrases out of their original context. This is the same way that Jesus often quoted scripture.
He says that another person is needed to bear witness to Jesus’s resurrection. This makes clear what Peter and friends understand the role of apostles to be: bearing witness to the resurrection. The Greek word for witness here is martyroi, from which we also get the word for martyr. They pick two men who were apparently around for the entirety of Jesus’s ministry, from his baptism until his death. Then they pray about it and draw straws (or roll dice, or the equivalent).
These apostles will be significant. In Revelation 21:14, John writes that the names of the 12 apostles will be written on the very foundations of the new city of Jerusalem. In Ephesians 2:19-22, Paul says that we as Christians are members of the house of God, which is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.
Interestingly, we’ll add a 13th (or, if you count Judas, a 14th) apostle in the figure of Saul/Paul. He calls himself an Apostle in Romans 1, though he’s the only apostle who didn’t know Jesus before his death. But that’s later in the story of Acts.
Sometimes I think it would be nice to go back: back before things were complicated, before life became what it is today. But there I find a problem: I’m not sure that I’d want to go forward again. And so I press on, trying neither to look backward or forward. For behind me, things are simpler. And before me looms the unknown. Tragedies and complexity are certain to lurk ahead, and I head toward them, blissfully ignorant.
EcclesiastesÂ 6:12Â “For who knows what is good for a man in life, during the few and meaningless days he passes through like a shadow? Who can tell him what will happen under the sun after he is gone?”
I read the story of King David’s anointing in the Bible with the kids this evening. Â It’s amazing how reading in a new format (i.e. a children’s bible) can give you new ways to think about the stories.
I realized something: it was a long time from David’s anointing until the time that he stepped onto the public stage and starting fulfilling his God-given role as King of Israel. Â What did he do during that time? He chased sheep.
David was specifically called by God to do something, and was then placed right back into his everyday life. Â How many times do you think he wondered (while tending those dumb, smelly little animals) whether God had really called him?
Of course, with hindsight, we can see that God was training David. Â He was giving him the chance to learn leadership; to learn how to shepherd God’s people. Â God was training his hands for war: sending bears and lions to teach David to fight, protect and kill. Â But it must have all seemed like drudgery at the time. Â It probably felt as if God had never called him.
Have you ever been called by God to do something, then dropped back into your everyday life? Â Do you ever wonder, “Was God really asking me to do that?” Do you wonder why nothing’s changed? Â Could it be because God is preparing you, making you ready for the day you’ll fulfill your destiny? Might he be using small, everyday tasks to build character, to shape your skills?
If you feel that God spoke to you at some point in your life, sit down and think about it. Â Write down as much as you remember and pray for direction. Â It could be that God’s not finished with that call yet.
After reading Jesus’s words about hell in Mark 9 before bed, Liam told me, “I don’t want to go to hell. ” I told him that there’s only one way to know for sure that you’re going to heaven. I explained our separation from God because of sin, and Jesus’s provision. We prayed the prayer of salvation together, then asked for the gift of the Holy Spirit.
I explained to Liam that he had become a Christian, and told him that he should tell everyone he knows about it. Â He thought it might be fun to have everyone come over to our house for a party.
Liam also had some interesting questions. He wanted to know why I’m not perfect, even though I’m a Christian. I told him that my sinful nature still wars against the Spirit of God in me, and that I won’t be perfect until I die and go to heaven. Â I told him that I’m not perfect, but I am forgiven. Â And God’s now forgiven him because of what Jesus did. Â Liam told me that when we go to heaven, we’ll have perfect bodies, just like Jesus. Â Apparently he’s been listening and putting some of these things together. I feel like he has a very real understanding of what he prayed, and I’m so happy that he’s chosen to follow Jesus!
This 4th of July, I’m (as ever) torn between faith and patriotism. A friend said that freedom can never be won or maintained by any soldier or government, and that our true freedom only comes from Christ. Â I have to agree, but I’m left questioning, “Then why government? And why our government?”
The answer, I believe, is that we were given stewardship of this world in the garden of Eden. Â When God told us to multiply and fill the earth, to care for it and govern all that it contains, I believe that political government is part of that mandate.
The United States Government is not the answer to all things, nor the answer to ultimate freedom. Â All things we have, freedom in its several types included, are ours because God has willed it so. Â In the specific case of freedom, God sent his son, Jesus, to secure that freedom and redeem us for Himself.
But if we’re living out the redeemed lives we’ve been given, we can’t ignore the several mandates that political governance can Â fulfill. Â Far from ignoring the structures that order our communal lives, we’re to pay attention to those structures; to provide for justice and care for the oppressed. Â If we call ourselves Christians, then our government should not be ignored, but attended to carefully. Â We need to enter into dialogue with others, to seek optimal ordering of our communal life, to provide justice and order. Â Even political freedom should be on our list of priorities if follow carefully God’s mandate to govern the earth.
You probably won’t hear me saying that our government is optimal, or that our nation is the only nation on earth with the truth. Â For truth doesn’t reside in our political structures, but those structures should reflect truth if we’re obedient to the governance mandate. Â You won’t hear me say that it’s the American Way to put a boot in anyone’s fundament, though that brand of overblown patriotic pride fascinates me in the same way that a car accident slows down traffic.
But you will hear me say that it’s our responsibility to craft and mold a government that reflects the character of God. Â A nation with such an orientation wisely seeks justice on a national and global scale, and reflects the very good values of freedom and equanimity that we learn from our creator’s nature. Â I seek to join in the crafting of such a government. Â And to the extent that our government reflects this orientation, I will celebrate. Â Indeed, we encourage what we celebrate, so I celebrate the political freedom that so many have worked and died to craft. Â Though it’s only a reflection of true freedom from the tyranny of sin and death, it’s still a worthy reflection.
And as I pray that God’s kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven, I will work in the space and time I occupy to make that prayer a reality. Â Not that I seek to create a theistic government, but a government that reflects the goodness of God.
In slowly reading through the Bible again, I’ve come across the story of Abraham and Sarah (or Abram and Sarai, as they started). Â I’ve always pictured Sarah as a graceful figure, since she’s both the wife of the great Abraham and the mother of a nation. Â But a different picture of her has emerged as I’ve been reading.
Almost every mention of Sarah’s name is coupled with an example of bad judgement. Â First, there’s the Egyptian deception in Genesis 12 (admittedly not her idea, but she was definitely involved). Â Next, in Genesis 16, she brings her servant, Hagar, to Abraham for use as a sex-slave. Â Hagar’s desires are never mentioned or considered. Â Then, when her plan works and Hagar’s expecting a baby, Sarah’s jealousy drives her to cruelty. Â This cruelty is so extreme that pregnant Hagar leaves the community and flees into the desert in an act of near-suicide.
Yet in Genesis 17:15-16, God give Abraham great promises for Sarah. Â He changes her name from Sarai, which means something like ‘my princess’ or possibly ‘quarrelsome’, to Sarah, which means ‘princess’. Â God promises to bless her and give her a son. She also receives the female version of Abraham’s blessing: that she’ll be the mother of many nations. Â God goes even further than he had with Abraham, and promises that kings will descend from her line. Â NoticeablyÂ absent from the text is the reason God is blessing her. Â In Abraham’s case, his faith has already been credited to him as righteousness. Â In Sarah’s case, her account was surely overdrawn. Â God is clearly not blessing her because she’s great, but because God is great. Â He’s showing her unmerited favor, blessings she clearly doesn’t deserve.
So Sarah emerges for me not as an illustration of gracefulness, but as an illustrationÂ of grace. Â If God looks at people like Sarah and decides to bless them, how can I not wish blessings for the undeserving? Â Am I to place myself above God and wish ill of anyone? In the end, God’s blessings, when they’re seen in the light of their undeserved-ness, serve to glorify Him, not Sarah. Â The blessings may have been for her, but they’re still God’s blessings.
This is one of my favorite topics. I’ve been thinking about it and reading about it for some time now. I don’t have it figured out to my satisfaction, but I came to a new thought this morning, so I figured I should share.
I was pondering the nature of religion and the nature of politics, and I realized they have something inverse in common. The reason religion and politics should not mix is partly due to their relationship to compromise.
Religion in general and Protestant Christianity in particular should not compromise. The philosophical game of religion is played on the field of truth claims.Â Negotiating or compromising on truth claims is like kicking field goals for your opponent.Â It’s not a good idea.Â This is the (very good) reason that people have died for their religious convictions throughout the centuries.
Politics, on the other hand, lives with an entirely different relationship to compromise.Â For a politcian, compromise IS the game.Â Legislature and governance is all about negotiating between competing interests.Â If different interests didn’t exist, governments wouldn’t need to exist, either.Â That’s why politics is so easy to criticize, fun to talk about (e.g. ‘Those idiots in [Washington, Sacramento, Madison, Dakar, etc.] wouldn’t know the right thing to do if it bit them on the hand!”), and so demanding of wisdom.Â Compromise IS the task of government, and it’s not an easy one.
So every time a pastor asks his congregation to vote a particular way, he is speaking from one realm into another: he is speaking from a position that’s used to wielding divine authority to make absolute truth claims into a realm where issues always have different sides and a single voice bearing the best idea is not guaranteed to make headway.Â In politics, strength of conviction falls subservient to the power of coalition.Â That’s not a fault of politics; it’s just the nature of politics.Â But this pastor is likely to create an unproductive voting bloc.Â He’s likely to create or encourage a group of people to take a position they can’t back down from.Â In the end, it makes for bad politics and bad blood.
And every time a governmental leader speaks toward the realm of religion, it’s natural (but altogether inappropritate) that he should ask for compromise and ecumenism.Â He, who is used to compromise as a way of doing business, naturally expects this from the realm of religion.Â And he’s dead wrong.Â Religion thrives on truth claims, and asking religious people to deny what they know as truth for some greater good is like asking religion to drink poison.
There are many outworkings of this continued tension between church and state, and they’re likely to be messy.Â I can’t claim any kind of special ability to negotiate such perilous waters just because I understand the larger principle.Â But I can offer one guiding question for discussion: what can we do to build up a HEALTHY wall of separation ‘twixt the two very important areas?