Christ and Caesar

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“Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21, KJ V)

Brenda Colijn photo smallRich talked about citizenship in this week’s sermon. He explored our responsibility as American Christians and challenged us to think about whether we ever give more allegiance to the American part of our identity than to the Christian part of our identity. As American Christians, we sometimes have a hard time distinguishing between the two.

The quotation at the top is about citizenship and allegiance. I quoted it in the King James Version translation because the “Render…unto Caesar” version is the famous one. People ask Jesus a trick question to try to trap him in a no-win situation. They ask if they should pay taxes to Caesar or not. If Jesus says yes, he looks like a traitor to Israel. If he says no, he’s a rebel against the Roman authorities.

Instead of answering yes or no, Jesus tells them to look at a coin and tell him whose picture is on it. When they answer “Caesar’s,” he tells them to give to Caesar what belongs to him and to God what belongs to God.

This passage has been understood differently by different Christian traditions. Martin Luther taught that this passage showed that Christians are citizens of two kingdoms: Christ’s kingdom and the earthly kingdom they live in. Luther interpreted Jesus’ statement as counsel to divide our allegiance between Caesar and God. We should obey both God and the state, even though some of our responsibilities to the state conflict with our commitments as Christians. We can’t escape this conflict as long as we live.

The Anabaptists (forebears of the Brethren) had a different perspective. They believed that we are citizens of only one kingdom—the kingdom of Christ. In this world we are “resident aliens.” Although we live here, we are members of a different kingdom and should act like it. As Paul says in Philippians 3:20, our citizenship is in heaven—that is, we’re subjects of a heavenly king, and we’re waiting for that king to return to complete God’s kingdom on earth. We express our hope for this every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer (“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”).

Jesus wasn’t trying to split our allegiance. We have only one Lord—Jesus himself. In fact, we’re “ambassadors for Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:20), representatives of our Lord and king to the people in the countries where we live. Jesus’ question about the image on the coin reminds us that we belong to the one whose image we bear. Just as the coin bears the image of Caesar, we bear the image of God. So while we pay taxes to earthly kings, we give ourselves to our heavenly king. That allegiance trumps any other allegiance.

That doesn’t mean we can’t love the country in which we live. We certainly should. If we love something, we want it to be the best it can be. We do what we can to support it, and we hold it accountable. But our ultimate allegiance is always to our own Lord. If a conflict arises between the will of the state and the will of God, “we must obey God rather than any human authority” (Acts 5:29 NRSV).

Keeping our priorities straight is actually the best thing we can do for our country. Only then can we be “salt” and “light” (Matthew 5:13-16) that can preserve our society and challenge it to live up to its ideals. Perhaps also we will hasten the day when “the kingdom of the world [will] become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever” (Revelation 11:15, NRSV).

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Failure and Forgiveness

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In discussing friendship and play in his sermon this week, Rich observed that developing skill in either requires failing a lot. So in learning how to play well or make friends well, we have to learn how to fail well. That idea has been in my mind this week. What would it mean to fail well?

Brenda Account PictureFor some of us perfectionists, putting “fail” and “well” in the same sentence doesn’t make sense. I know that I have a hard time coming to terms with failure. I’m much more tolerant of other people’s failures than I am of my own. Once when I was confiding to my husband that I thought I had failed in relating to a friend, he said, “Sometimes you find out where the boundaries are by crossing them. You’ll know next time.” Learn from your mistakes…what a concept!

I’d say that learning from your mistakes is the second principle of failing well.

The first principle, I think, is letting yourself fail in the first place. For some of us, failure feels so terminal that we do all we can to avoid it—including refusing to take risks, avoiding close relationships, or lying to ourselves and others.

As Rich said, friendships in Jesus’ day meant mutual obligation. I’d make this a general rule: there is no intimacy without obligation. The kind of obligation depends on the kind of relationship. But if you take the risk of really knowing someone and letting them know you, you take on some responsibility for the trust that they’ve placed in you. And wherever there are responsibilities or obligations, there’s the possibility of failure.

If we want to have friendships that are more than superficial and disposable, we need to deal with our failures. So here are a few more thoughts on how to fail well.

Create a “culture” in which it’s okay to fail. If we don’t start off by trying to impress a new friend or pretending we’ve got it all together, it will be easier to deal with the failures when they happen. The church really ought to be a “friend network” where it’s okay to fail, and where we can teach one another how to do it well.

Own up. We should be willing to admit when we’ve screwed up. This is hard, but it’s the only way to have authentic friendships. Once we’ve done it a time or two, maybe failure won’t feel so terminal.

Be willing to apologize. Once we’ve figured out which failures are ours, we should apologize for them. We don’t necessarily need to shoulder all the blame, but we also can’t hide behind the fact that our friend hasn’t apologized. The only actions we can control are our own. It’s amazing how an apology can create space for a conversation that seemed impossible.

Fix what can be fixed.  Sometimes we need to do more than apologize.  Maybe we need to repair or replace something we damaged.  Maybe we need to repair some damaged trust.  If something can be put right, we should do it.

Keep short accounts. We shouldn’t let failures build up to the point that both sides are approaching the nuclear option. It’s a lot easier to sort out a small issue than it is to defuse a much bigger one later on. It’s also a lot easier to arrange to deal with a small issue. The big issues have a tendency to explode when we’re not ready.

Learn how to give and receive forgiveness. As forgiven people, we Christians ought to have this down, but we don’t. Some of us have trouble forgiving, and some of us have trouble accepting forgiveness. Or maybe all of us have trouble with both. Forgiving someone means letting them off the hook for the hurt they’ve inflicted. We don’t pretend it never happened, or that it wasn’t that bad, but we deliberately choose to bear the pain ourselves and not to make the other person suffer for what they’ve done. This is what Jesus did for us, after all. To receive forgiveness, we have to admit that we did wrong and commit to doing better. This is what we do when we repent of our sins. Neither side is easy, but both are necessary for true reconciliation to take place. When this happens, a friendship can come out stronger than it was before.

So that’s where this week’s reflections have led me. What do you think? How can we fail well?

The Good or Faithful Life?

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The current sermon series at Smoky Row Brethren Church is about how to live well as a Christian in lots of different situations. One of the things Rich asked us to think about is what makes a good life. What does it mean to live well? Do you answer this differently depending on whether you’re a Christian or not? I think some of the answers are likely to be the same for everybody: good health, long life, meaningful work, strong relationships. In some ways, though, a Christian’s answers might stand out from the crowd.

For many people today, the good life is spelled success. To live the good life, you need to be young, rich, sexy, and famous. Living well means having it all. The New Testament writers aren’t impressed by these values: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches—comes not from the Father but from the world. And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever” (1 John 2:15-17 NRSV). Jesus says not even to worry about basic things like food and clothing: “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matt. 6:33). This sounds too impractical to be a roadmap to success.

Brenda Account PictureThe Christian “good life,” though, seems to be less about success and more about faithfulness. That’s how Paul sums up his own life as it nears its end: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7). In Jesus’ Parable of the Talents, faithfulness is what the master (God) rewards: “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master” (Matt. 25:21). Faithfulness isn’t about how much we get, but what we do with what we have.

From what we see in the Bible, the faithful life is a mixed bag. Hebrews 11 talks about some pretty great things: people conquered kingdoms, escaped death, administered justice, saw loved ones raised from the dead. Unfortunately, faithful people also experienced poverty, persecution, imprisonment, and death in many gruesome forms. The faithful life is often less glamorous—and sometimes shorter—than the successful life. On the plus side, anybody can be faithful—anybody, that is, who follows Jesus and relies on the help of the Holy Spirit. You don’t have to be young, rich, sexy, or famous!

We could always sum this up by saying that for a Christian, the good life looks like Jesus. But what does that look like, given that Jesus never went to college, raised kids, worked at a corporation, played sports, retired from a job, or did many of the other things we do all the time? We’ll have a chance to flesh this out as we think about “the good life” in more detail in coming weeks. Stay tuned!

Learning from 1 Corinthians

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In his sermon this week, Rich invited us to look back over 1 Corinthians and reflect on what we’ll take away from the book. He asked us what we would say if someone asked us what the book was about. What has struck me is that 1 Corinthians is a master class by the apostle Paul on how to apply the gospel to life. Here are some examples.

ImageUnity (chapters 1-4): Christians are one in Christ, and the one Holy Spirit dwells in them. Thus there is no excuse for cliques or celebrity leaders in the church. Those of us who think we know stuff need to be especially careful to keep the focus on Jesus and follow the Spirit’s lead. We are all members of one body, and that body has only one Head.

Unity and diversity (chapter 12): But unity doesn’t mean uniformity. The church, as the body of Christ, needs both unity and diversity to function. All gifts are necessary, and all people are important. This means that our value doesn’t come from how we compare with other people. It comes from the unique dignity and gifts that God has granted to each of us.

Bodies (chapters 5, 15): God cares about our bodies. What we do with them is important. We’re whole people, not souls riding around in disposable shells. Our spiritual lives have physical expressions, and our physical lives have spiritual expressions. We belong to God, body and soul, and God plans to make us truly whole in the resurrection.

Sex (chapters 5-7): Sex is good: it’s meant to be a joyful part of marriage, experienced with mutual sensitivity. Not all sexual expressions are good, though. Our sexuality, like every other part of our lives, must be submitted to Christ. Marriage is good. Singleness is good. Whatever our marital status, we need to be following Jesus.

Separation (chapter 5): Some Christian groups think the church is called to be separate from the world so that it won’t be tainted by the world’s immorality. But Paul is more practical: there’s no way to completely avoid contact with immoral people as long as we’re in the world. What concerns Paul is that we keep our own house in order. That is, we can’t afford to overlook unrepentant immorality in the church. We may have to have some hard conversations and do some hard things to get a fellow believer to wake up–and we may have to do some waking up ourselves–but if we care about one another, we need to take this responsibility seriously.

Freedom (chapters 8-11): Freedom is wonderful, and as Christians we’re free to do a lot of things. However, most of all we’re free to love. This may mean freely choosing not to exercise some of our freedoms out of love for someone else. This isn’t a license to start criticizing the behavior of others; it’s an opportunity to put the wellbeing of other people ahead of our own enjoyment.

Love (chapter 13): Anything we do has to be guided by love. Paul isn’t talking about romantic bliss; he’s talking about the hard work of getting along with people we may not even like very much. We don’t get to pick who our relatives are, even in the church family.

Hope (chapter 15): Whenever we’re tempted to get annoyed with one another, we need to remember the big picture. Our differences will shrink in light of the glorious future God has planned for us. Because of the resurrection, we know that our work for the Lord is not in vain.

What have you learned from 1 Corinthians?

Everyday Faithfulness

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“On the first day of every week, each of you is to put aside and save whatever extra you earn, so that collections need not be taken when I come. . . . If Timothy comes, see that he has nothing to fear among you, for he is doing the work of the Lord just as I am.”  (1 Cor 16:2, 10 NRSV)

Brenda Account PictureThe thing that strikes me about this section of the book of 1 Corinthians is how ordinary it is.  Following a rather exalted discussion of the resurrection, Paul deals with some items of everyday faithfulness.  The church in Corinth isn’t the only one that has needed reminding to fulfill their financial obligations and not to be too hard on a young pastor.  This is the “stuff of life,” as Rich said in his sermon this week.  It reminds me that this stuff was all real—real people dealing with real challenges and opportunities in a gifted but rambunctious congregation.

We sometimes have exalted ideas about the sacredness of Scripture that removes it from everyday life.  But evidently God cares about everyday things.  Much of the everyday life of a congregation happens behind the scenes by the people who pay the bills, make the phone calls, clean the church, and show up for property care days.  Without all these acts of everyday faithfulness, the more noticeable work of Smoky Row Brethren Church—the worship service, the food pantry, the community garden—wouldn’t be possible.

The Corinthians were addicted to showy stuff—exceptional knowledge, eloquent rhetoric, flashy gifts.  Some of them were disappointed in Paul because he wasn’t showy enough.  We’re not a particularly showy congregation.  Although gifted, we tend to be understated rather than flashy.  But even we can forget to value the everyday things and honor the people who do them.

Brother Lawrence, a 17th century monk, is known for his little book, The Practice of the Presence of God.  He hated washing dishes at his monastery but found that he kept being assigned to that task.  His boring and frustrating experience was transformed when he decided to wash dishes with the Lord, recognizing the Lord’s presence and blessing even in such a menial task.

Let’s remind ourselves of the Lord’s presence as we go about our everyday tasks this week.  Leave some comments about what you experience!

Mind Over Matter?

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“If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.’” (1 Cor 15:32 NRSV)

In this chapter of 1 Corinthians, Paul is responding to members of the church who are denying the resurrection.  That is, they’re rejecting the idea that believers in Christ will be raised from the dead and given perfected bodies when he returns.  Paul notes that if resurrection doesn’t happen, then Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead, either; and if Jesus wasn’t raised, then he can’t save us.  He’s just a good man who died.  As Rich observed in his sermon, there is no salvation without resurrection.

Brenda Colijn photo smallThe Corinthians were probably rejecting the idea of resurrection because they’d been influenced by the Greek philosophical idea that spirit is good and matter is evil.  Greek philosophers thought that the best possible afterlife would be to leave our bodies to rot in the ground and live forever as disembodied spirits.  To a Greek mind, the idea of people walking around in resurrected bodies would be as appealing as a zombie apocalypse!

A preference for spirit over body has infiltrated the church, too.  We talk a lot about going to heaven when we die, but when was the last time you heard a sermon or sang a hymn or chorus about the resurrection of believers?

If there is no resurrection, then there’s no point in making sacrifices in this life, because this life is all we have.  Like the old beer commercial said, “You only go around once in life; grab all the gusto you can!”  And if there’s no resurrection, what we do with our bodies doesn’t matter.  This can go in two directions:  either we overindulge our bodies or we despise them.  Sometimes we alternate these, and sometimes we do both at once.

Rich talked mostly about the issue of overeating, which is an increasing problem for Americans.  If someone watched what and how we eat, would they think that we believed in the resurrection?  Or do we eat as if there’s no tomorrow?  But overeating isn’t the only way to disrespect our bodies.  Eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia show the same obsession with what we put in our mouths, and they’re at least as dangerous as obesity.  Multi-billion-dollar industries exist to make women dislike their bodies so the companies can sell them things, and these industries are targeting more and more men, as well.  Food is one of the main ways that people self-medicate to cope with the trials of life.  You don’t need a prescription to buy it, after all.

And that’s just food.  We could also talk about exercise, sleep, addictions, sex, entertainment, stress.  Do we treat our bodies as gifts from God to steward until the day that God will glorify them?  Maybe that means working ourselves a little harder, or maybe that means showing ourselves some compassion and respect.  Whatever our situation is, the resurrection means that what we do with our bodies now is an investment in eternity.

Gag Order or Gospel Opportunity?

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“(As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says.  If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.  Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only ones it has reached?)”  (1 Cor. 14:33b-36, NIV)

Brenda Colijn photo smallAs an ordained woman who preaches in our congregation, I thought I should reflect on these verses.  They’re a weird side comment in Paul’s argument about how prophets should behave in the worship service.  The most recent NIV translation indicates that by putting parentheses around them.  It’s also weird that Paul should base his counsel on the law (“as the law also says”), since he argues forcefully elsewhere (in Romans and Galatians) that Christians are not under the law.

This weirdness has led some scholars to decide that these verses weren’t written by Paul.  Somebody who was copying the manuscript of 1 Corinthians made this comment in the margin, and a later copyist, thinking it was a bit of Paul the earlier copyist had crammed in the margin, copied it into the text.  I like this explanation.  The only problem is that these verses appear in all the manuscripts of 1 Corinthians we have.  So, as Rich said in his sermon, we can’t just cut it out of the Bible and ignore it.

So instead, I’ll point out a couple of things in the passage.  One is that Paul is basing his argument primarily on what’s customary in his churches.  That’s clear from how he starts out (“As in all the churches of the saints”) and how he ends (with pointed questions showing that the Corinthians, by themselves, don’t get to make the rules).  My second point from the passage is that Paul says it’s disgraceful for a woman to speak in church.  Disgrace (shame) is not the same thing as sin.  Sin is something that goes against God’s will.  Disgrace is something that lowers your reputation in the eyes of others.  Nowhere in the New Testament is the speaking or leadership of women called sinful.

I’m not saying this so that we can disregard these verses.  I’m saying it for two reasons:

  • Shame is determined by cultural standards.  Something that’s shameful in one culture isn’t necessarily shameful in another culture.  So if the point is to avoid disgracing the church, we need to consider what would disgrace the church in our own context.
  • Evangelicals on the “restrictive” side of this debate have defended their views with such passion that you’d think it was one of the essentials of the faith.  The heat generated is way out of proportion to the importance Paul gives it.  The reasons for this, I think, are not biblical or theological.  Anything to do with gender or sexuality creates enormous anxiety for many Christians.  Anything that threatens gender roles in the church or the “traditional” family (traditional since the industrial revolution in the 19th century) is frightening in a society that is becoming less Christian-friendly.  Evangelicals regard the nuclear family (another modern invention) with enormous reverence, so change is threatening.  Finally, I’m afraid that some people who currently have power don‘t want to share it.  Interpreting the Bible isn’t going to make these fears go away.  All we can do is to live into what we believe is the intention behind these verses and pray that the Spirit will someday bring unity.

So back to Paul’s intention.  I talked about a few things in the text; now I’ll mention a couple of things in the context.  Paul has been telling the Corinthians to get their worship service in order.  If women are “babbling” or calling out questions to their husbands during worship, it isn’t likely to add to the experience for other people.  We’ve seen before in 1 Corinthians that Paul is urging them to give up some of their freedom in Christ for the sake of building up others; this is another example.  Christians should use all their gifts, including their freedom, for edification, and be guided by love.

Also, Paul has been pretty definite that the Corinthians should act in ways that will honor the gospel instead of dishonoring it.  His discussion of head coverings in chapter 11 was framed in terms of honor and shame, too.  By the way, in that chapter he says that women should cover their heads when they pray and prophesy in worship—another clue that he may have something more specific in mind in chapter 14 than forbidding all women to say anything in worship, or forbidding women to prophesy.

So I’d say that the take-away from these verses is that we should act in worship in ways that would advance the gospel rather than hinder it.  We should respect cultural norms, even in worship, for this reason.  We should be willing to give up some of our freedoms if it will build up someone else.  We shouldn’t do things that will bring shame to the gospel in our context.  On the last point, I have often wondered how many modern American women will not be in the kingdom because they find more respect in secular culture than they do in the church.

I’m very grateful to be part of a congregation that welcomes my gifts and affirms me in my calling.  I was taught the restrictive view of women’s roles in college, and it took the encouragement of a number of men, including the man who became my husband, to convince me to use more of my gifts for the Lord.  I didn’t have any female mentors, because there weren’t any female leaders in my context at that time.  I’m delighted that our congregation has a number of gifted women leading in different areas, from more “traditional” areas to more “nontraditional” ones.  I’m also grateful to the men in our congregation, who affirm women as partners with them in leadership.  I’m not saying that all women have to be leaders.  I just wish that all women could be allowed to follow God’s call on their lives, whatever it might be.

For the younger members of our congregation, this may be a non-issue.  I hope it is!  Unfortunately, that isn’t the case in a lot of churches.  What has been your experience?