The Ties that Bind

“Blood is thicker than water,” we say to indicate that family ties are deeper than any other human bond. This is often true even against our best efforts. In a time in which many people have conflicted relationships with their family, family obligations still manage to pull harder than any other.

But what is thicker than blood? A repeated theme in the NT is that bonds within the body of Christ supersede those of our families. Indeed, the image of the body—disparate parts held together in one whole—recalls Scripture’s affirmation that husbands and wives become “one flesh.” But what is it that binds us to one another as believers?

This is an important question in our current environment. Our society is increasingly described as “fragmented.” With the decline of community and the failure of family, people are desperately in search of collectives to be a part of. They turn to gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, or some other identity to find community. But these new collectives often fragment as quickly as they form, riven by yet more internal differences.

Like so many other areas of our lives, for many people today, what binds them to a church is nothing other than their choice. If they like the product being offered, accept the beliefs of the church, and have some affinity for a few others in the congregation, they will likely stay. For a while. With so little linking them with others, it is not surprising that people so easily separate from a congregation in search of a new one.

But what if something deeper is binding us? In Ephesians 4:1-6, Paul urges the church to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Notice the two words regarding our connection: unity and bond. He goes on to specify wherein their unity was found: There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all (4-6).

The series of “ones” that we read here should give us pause in our casual attitude toward church affiliation. We are members of the one (body of) Christ. We are united in the one Holy Spirit. We are united by looking forward to one hope—the completion of God’s plan for humanity. We bow before the throne of one King. We all have faith in the same thing. We have been baptized into a single reality—the death and resurrection of Christ. We share a Father and so are one family.

One might claim that this is just talking about some hidden spiritual connection to the universal body of Christ. There is no doubt that this is true. But what use is something that we don’t feel or see and that has no material effect whatsoever? How should that “mystical, spiritual” reality manifest itself in our lives?

This deep, multi-faceted connectedness with the body of Christ should manifest itself in our relationship to our congregation and to individuals within it. It should be characterized by deep commitment to one another, shared joy and sorrow, generosity, and a great reluctance to quickly separate from one another.

What’s thicker than blood? Your “choice?” Or Gospel glue?

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The Morality of Manners

“Chivalry is dead,” it is often said and, apparently, civility was right behind it. The savagery that hid behind anonymity in the online comment sections in the early history of the internet, has metastasized first to public posts on platforms like Twitter, and then to the public square as seen in the recent disruptions in the Senate confirmation hearings. People are angry, vicious. The word ‘incivility’ doesn’t begin to capture it.

“Whatever happened to the Golden Rule?” we might ask. The Golden Rule was stated by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them” (Matt. 7:12). That much is frequently quoted, often in the simpler, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

But have you heard the rest of the verse? The verse concludes, “For this is the Law and the Prophets.” For Jesus, the Golden Rule was not a stand-alone principle but, rather, rooted in the rich soil of God’s revelation of his covenant relationship with humanity. You may recall that Jesus summarized the Law and the Prophets in a different way elsewhere: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:37-40). Love for neighbor is dependent upon love for God. And love for neighbor is based upon seeing ourselves and our neighbors as made in the image of God and therefore deserving of dignity (James 3:9). The roots of the Golden Rule are in all of God’s instructions on how to live in harmony with Him and others.

Common civility is a fragile flower that cannot survive on its own. Cut from the root of a deeper system of morality and nourished by little more than the water of cultural sentiment, it was destined to fade in time. You cannot cut the summary of the Law and Prophets off from the Law and the Prophets and hope that it will still bloom. If the prevailing philosophy is of self-advancement, self-preservation, self-creation, the Golden Rule and civility more broadly can only function self-servingly. It will be about me rather than about you.

Manners manifest morality in miniature. Courtesy, civility, gratitude, patience, and deference are the fragrant bouquet gathered from plants rooted in a right understanding of our relationship to God, a deep appreciation of the value of others, and an honest assessment of our own frailty. That is to say, these virtues find their most natural root in the message of the Gospel. The glory of God, the brokenness of humanity, the elevation of human worth implied by Christ’s sacrifice, and the invitation to live out the unmerited “civility” of God.

Rebel Territory

One of the disagreements between the North and South during the American Civil War was the status of the Southern states. Southern politicians believed themselves to have completely severed themselves from the Union and proceeded accordingly, establishing their own government. For his part, President Lincoln did not believe that the Constitution granted states the right to secede and so, treated with the Confederacy not as a free-standing political entity but rather as an insurrection. He even went so far as to approve the formation of a “Unionist Government-in-exile” in Virginia and installed “military governors” in several Confederate states to carry on government business as if secession had never occurred. And, of course, when he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, he exercised the authority he believed he had to free slaves throughout the Union, not just in the North. This distinction in the South’s status was no mere political quibbling. Southern ambassadors pressed their case for official state recognition before European governments even as Northern dignitaries urged foreign powers to regard the South as in rebellion.

We might see in this situation an image of the relationship between the Kingdom of God and his enemies. Though God has apparently ceded a certain amount of authority and power to “The Prince of the Power of the Air”, and though the Enemy thought highly enough of his power to offer Christ “all the kingdoms of the world” (Mt. 4:8), the absolute affirmation of Scripture is that “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein” (Ps. 24:1).

Like Lincoln, God does not actually believe that any created reality—human or spiritual—has the authority or right to secede from under his authority. Each exorcism in the ministry of Jesus reclaimed human territory from the enemy that belonged to God.

Continuing the analogy, we might see the church as those “military governors” or as a “government-in-exile”, living in compromised territory but under orders from the true Lord of the land, to carry out his business. In Jesus Christ he has announced an Emancipation Proclamation that applies to all those enslaved in sin throughout his many territories, a proclamation he calls the church to promulgate. This seems to be the imagery at work in Ephesians as Paul exhorts the church to clothe herself in the armor of the Lord and to stand.

The earth is the Lord’s. He has no intention of giving it up. Though the advances and retreats of the Kingdom of God on earth are at times as disconcerting for the faithful as were the defeats and losses of the North during the Civil War, we should take great comfort in the fact that though we reside in rebel territory, no defeat is final, and victory has been secured through Jesus Christ.

Back to School

In Psalm 27:11 the psalmist asks God, “Teach me your way, O LORD.” We may not often think of God as teacher, but it is a frequent them in the Psalms. Nearby Psalm 25:8 says that God instructs sinners in “the way” because He is “good and upright.” In Psalm 119, the psalm so focused on God’s word, God is repeatedly depicted as teacher, perhaps most directly in v. 68: “You are good and do good; teach me your statutes” (see also 12, 33, 66, 124, and 135).

While perhaps not common to us, this view of God is not surprising when one considers that the word “Torah”, the textual heart of Israel’s relationship with God, means “instruction” as well as “law.” We tend to regard the Torah as Law in a legal sense and therefore see God as Lawgiver and Judge. But the Hebrews saw the law as God’s divine gift of instruction for peaceful living (Deut. 4:7-8) and God as its ultimate teacher. The teaching of the Law held an important place in the life of Israel and was one of the key responsibilities of the Levites.

The view of God as teacher makes further sense when one considers the NT. One of the most frequent designations for Jesus in the Gospels is “Teacher.” This described what Jesus did—and he did a lot of teaching—but also defined his relationship to his followers. They were his students, his disciples. “It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher” (Matt. 10:25). Not only was Jesus an authoritative teacher, one of the main roles that he indicated that the Holy Spirit would fill was that of teacher: “He will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13). Interestingly, Jesus warned his Disciples against vaunting themselves over others by calling themselves teachers (as the Pharisees did) precisely because there is only one True Teacher: “But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers” (Matt. 23:8).

As God’s Word himself, Christ has much to teach us by his Spirit through the written word. God IS both Lawgiver and Judge, but it can be stifling to interact with him primarily in that way, especially in prayer. While the Psalmists certainly related to God in that way, they also presented present an alternative: Engaging with him as Teacher, his word as the instruction, and themselves as his students.

I believe the Psalmists invite us to share this perspective. We should pray with them, “O Lord, teach me your ways.” In fact, all the more so. For in Christ the curriculum has become more clear, and in the Spirit the Teacher more accessible.

Embracing Death, Transcending Death

In a 1973 Pulitzer Prize winning work of psychology, The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker argued that much human effort is spent grappling with the reality of death and attempting to overcome (deny) it. Becker traced this frustration to humanity’s duality: “Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever” (26).

Much of the book is given to Søren Kierkegaard and Sigmund Freud’s differing analysis of this duality and its effects. Becker discusses the ways that humans push back against this fear of death—sexuality, relationships, heroic accomplishments, etc.—and chronicles the psychological effects of most people’s recognition of their failure to cheat death. Principally, he notes, we deny death by producing various shields to block or distract ourselves from really reckoning with it, often to damaging psychological and spiritual effect.

Kierkegaard concluded that the way through this impasse is to confront directly our dependence upon the Ultimate Power, and our fundamental inability to transcend death or make our lives eternally meaningful. Becker summarizes: “One goes through it all to arrive at faith, the faith that one’s very creatureliness has some meaning to a Creator; that despite one’s true insignificance, weakness, death, one’s existence has meaning in some ultimate sense because it exists within an eternal and infinite scheme of things brought about and maintained to some kind of design by some creative force” (90).

The psalmists’ model just such a response. Living lives far less buffered against the reality of death than we, they confront death directly. They speak of the “cords of death”, the pit, and Sheol. “What man can live and never see death? Who can deliver his soul from the power of Sheol?” (89:48). Their confrontation with death and the meaninglessness of life is raw and honest. Yet they do not confront death alone. Nearly as frequent are affirmations such as, “Bless the Lord, O my soul…who redeems your life from the pit” (103:4).

That said, the psalmists rarely seem to have a clear picture of how God will redeem them, nor how their lives will be made meaningful in the larger scope of God’s dealings. This confidence can be seen in the final verses of Psalm 102 where the psalmist both stands in awe of God’s utter vastness and unchangeability and yet also affirms “the children of your offspring shall dwell secure.”

“Full humanness,” Becker asserts, “means full fear and trembling, at least some of the waking day” (59), a daunting prospect no doubt. But denial, distraction, or defiance provide no way forward. Rather, we can be schooled by the psalmists in embodying a humble embrace of our frailty trusting our transcendence of death to God’s mysterious grace.

Textual Tourism

Though most people think of him as a writer of children’s fantasy, for his familiar Chronicles of Narnia, C. S. Lewis’s true area of expertise was Medieval literature. In one of his studies on the topic, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature, he makes some comments that are equally applicable to the study of the Bible. He mentions the reader’s tendency to consult expert literature only when the reading is forbiddingly hard. “But,” he warns, “there are treacherous passages which will not send us to the notes. They look easy and aren’t.” Part of the reason for this difficulty is the vast difference between the reader’s world and the world of Medieval literature, and by the same token, the world of the Bible. We all know about passages in literature or Scripture that are difficult because of the concepts or strange vocabulary that is used (Agh! High school Shakespeare!). When the vocabulary is familiar we can easily be lulled into thinking that we know what the writer is talking about. But medieval and biblical authors alike lived in very different worlds than we do and speak of common things—nature, souls, love—from perspectives very different than ours. We cannot merely read their writing through the lens of our world.

Lewis cleverly depicts the difference between readers that, recognizing the difference between worlds, seek to enter the world of the author, from those who take their world along with them in their reading: “There are, I know, those who prefer not to go beyond the impression, however, accidental, which an old work makes on a mind that brings to it a purely modern sensibility and modern conceptions; just as there are travellers who carry their resolute Englishry with them all over the Continent, mix only with other English tourists, enjoy all they see for its ‘quaintness’, and have no wish to realise what those ways of life, those churches, those vineyards, mean to the natives.”

Just as readers could take their “modern sensibility and modern conceptions” to the works of medieval which are the focus of Lewis’s book, so too readers of Scripture can come to it with their contemporary ideas. Rather than trying to enter the world of Scripture on its terms, marveling at the strange and at times incomprehensible features that we find there, we come to it with our ideas and expectations. The result is that we manage to find exactly what we expected to find in the literature. It is not Scripture and its authors that are speaking to us, but our own ideas.

There is no doubt that there can be some pleasure from reading literature this way. Lewis concludes of these readers, “They have their reward.” But when it comes to Scripture, we should wonder whether the reader, reading in this fashion, heedless of the world from which the text has come, has truly read the word the author has written. And if he has not really read the word that was written, will he really encounter the voice of God in that word? Let us not take our “resolute American Christianry” with us on our journeys on the Continent of Scripture. Let us enter that world eager to engage with its strange culture rather than settling for quaint postcards.

If it walks like a duck…

A friend recently expressed frustration at feeling unprepared in a conversation with a Jehovah’s Witness concerning the deity of Jesus Christ. Under discussion was Colossians 1:15 which describes Christ as “the firstborn of all creation.” This is a convenient verse for Jehovah’s Witness doctrine, which denies the full deity of Christ. It is therefore a discomfiting verse for the Christian defending Christ’s full divinity. More to the point, many Christians can be disarmed in discussions like this because they are not as readily equipped, as many Witnesses are, to cite specific references supporting orthodox positions.

In the case of Col. 1:15 the defense is pretty simple; reading verses 16-20 makes clear that someone more than a mere human is being described. But the deeper problem is the very use of Scripture. Sadly, Witnesses use our own proof-texting methods against us, and often more effectively. But there is another approach to this question that is not only truer to Scripture but also easier to remember.

It begins with this question: What does Scripture depict God doing because He is God? So much of our focus on who God is centers on the divine attributes of omniscience, omnipotence, and so on. But Scripture is far more taken up with divine action than divine essence. In fact, God frequently refers to himself as “the God who brought you out of Egypt.” This is true of the way that we think of ourselves as well. We don’t usually trot out adjectives to describe ourselves or others; we describe who we are by what we do.

So, what does God do as God? While God does many things in Scripture, there are several key actions that are uniquely ascribed to Him. God creates. God reveals himself. God gives the law. God establishes covenants. God redeems. God forgives sin. God gives life. God judges. God reigns. These things are definitive of who God is as God and set him apart from humanity and the gods of the nations.

Can you see where this is going? That’s right. Scripture depicts Christ engaging in each of the God-defining activities. It is arguably the whole goal of Scripture to make precisely this point. Christ is the Word of the Father at creation (John 1:1-3). He reveals the Father (John 1:18). He gives a “new commandment” (John 13:34). He institutes a “new covenant” (Luke 22:20). He saves (Matt. 1:20-21). He forgives sin (Luke 5:20-24). He raises the dead (John 5:21). He will judge (Acts 17:31). He reigns (Eph. 1:20-22). He is, in short, Emmanuel – “God with us” (Matt. 1:23). Christ is God because he does those things that only God can do.

Perhaps the greatest power in this approach is the fact that it focuses less on what texts say about God and Christ and more on who they are by what they have done. And ultimately, we want people to know Christ himself, not just the texts about him.