Thursday, June 30, 2011

Restoration: Jesus' death and resurrection

When God brings us to new life, it is the word of God that is the seed growing in us; yet that is closely related to Jesus in his death and resurrection (some would say it is the same thing). Consider first that the apostles speak of Jesus as actually being the Word of God:
In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God. (John 1:1)
Jesus is the living word of God, being made man to live among us.

Jesus also speaks of himself as a seed that is planted, as he speaks about his upcoming death:
The hour has come that the Son of Man should be glorified. Truly, truly I say to you: Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains but a single seed. But if it dies, it brings forth much fruit. (John 12:24)
So the renewal of the world began with Jesus. Our rebirth, our renewal, is tied to Jesus' death and resurrection.

The apostles taught that we participate in Jesus' death and resurrection -- particularly in our baptism:
So we are buried with him by baptism into death ... (Romans 6:4)

Can you drink the cup that I drink, and be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized? (Mark 10:38) (which Jesus spoken in reference to his upcoming execution.)

Likewise baptism does also now save us -- not by removing dirt from the body but the answer of a good conscience toward God by the resurrection of Christ. (1 Peter 3:21)

The Scriptures speak of new life as part of what it means to be Christ's people. We are taught that we must be "born again" (or "born anew", for those who would rather avoid the connotations of the American "born again" movement). The theme of new birth runs steadily throughout Scripture: "flesh gives birth to flesh, spirit gives birth to spirit", or (with ties to baptism again) "the washing of regeneration" (where "regeneration" means new birth). Peter and Paul both refer to new Christians as "spiritual infants", having started the new life but needing to grow into maturity.

The idea of growing to maturity and bearing fruit is also a steady theme running through the pages of Scripture, with teachings that "By their fruit you will know them", "Does a good tree bear bad fruit?", and "The fruit of the spirit is love, peace, patience, kindness" (etc).

We are even said to be "branches that were grafted into the tree" (Paul, to the Romans), drawing on the ancient theme of the Tree of Life -- and of the shoot springing forth from the stump of Jesse.

The point? Our atonement involves more than just the canceling of a debt. It is a transformation, the beginning of a literally new life. Throughout Scripture, we are given pictures of a new life that is lush and thriving.

One reason that some avoid talking about the new life is that this subject has often been used the wrong way. It is too easy to lose the focus on the lush and thriving new life given by God. Too often we look away from God's overflowing generosity towards us. We want to measure our progress -- or, worse, someone volunteers to measure it for us. There comes a temptation of faking spirituality by trying to perform our way into the favor of God. Some are tempted to do "good" works for public show, to earn praise and recognition -- or, worse, the right to boast. And some who volunteer to judge other peoples' spirituality are possessed by cold, narrow, or arrogant natures.

Here St Paul set a great example of spiritual leadership by boasting about how awful he had been, to put the best light on the mercy of God rather than on himself. We are most Christlike when we join him in accepting humility (or worse) for ourselves, for the sake of proclaiming God's goodness to others.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

A mother's prayer for teenagers: Love of God and neighbor

Lord, thank you for (names). Let them love the Lord their God with all their heart, mind, soul, and strength. May they desire that love and fan the flames. May they diligently tend it and encourage it to grow, along with love for their neighbors. May they seek and follow you all of their lives.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

What Bible verse are you?

"I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat ..." - Mother Theresa of Calcutta.

"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied." - MLK

"Consider the lilies of the field." - Francis of Assissi

"Sing to the LORD a new song." - Charles Wesley, Amy Grant ...

I suspect that everybody has a verse, or a collection of verses, that really speak to them. The saints among us are those who follow that call of the Word of God.

If you think that being "born of again of the Word of God" is just a figure of speech, ask yourself this: Was Mother Theresa just an unusually good person, or was she an incarnation of the parable of the sheep and the goats? I believe that her spirit was born again when she heard the verses that called to her, and the word of God took root in her and lived.

I think most of us know the call of those verses that speak to us.

So I'm not kidding when I ask, "What Bible verse are you?"

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

God restores us: Atonement and new birth (part 3)

Salvation runs far deeper than settling accounts with God. In addition to God's forgiveness, we are given new life. If our problem were only a debt, that could be settled by accounting. But our hearts and minds become corrupted and need to be re-created. God gives us new life that is a re-creation as the persons God intended us to be.

Some speak as if the "new life" comes mainly through the Holy Spirit. But Jesus is also part of how we receive new life.
I have come that they might have life, and have it abundantly. (John 10:10)

This idea of new life is part of Jesus' teaching to us about the kingdom of God. Over and over as he explained what the kingdom of God is like, he often started by speaking of a seed, a new life that grows:
The kingdom of heaven is like a man who cast seed on the ground. (Mark 4:26)

It is like a grain of mustard seed. (Mark 4:31)

A sower went out to sow his seed (Luke 8:5)

Christ gives us the picture of growing things -- things started by seed and maturing to bring fruit -- as a way to understand how the new life leads to growth and maturity:
Other seed fell into good ground and brought forth fruit. (Matthew 13:8)

Every good tree brings forth good fruit. (Matthew 7:17)

Jesus and his followers speak of the last judgment using the same "seed" theme, speaking of a harvest of the good that the earth has grown:
When the fruit comes forth, then he gathers with the sickle because the harvest has come. (Mark 4:29)

Thrust in your sickle and reap, for the harvest time has come; the harvest of the earth is ripe. (Revelation 14:14)

If Jesus says new life comes as a seed, where does it start? What is the seed?
Now the parable is this: the seed is the word of God. (Luke 8:11)

Being born again, not of perishable seed but imperishable, by the Word of God, which lives and remains forever. (1 Peter 1:23)

Peter's proof that our new life is imperishable is this: the new life comes from the Word of God, and the Word of God is imperishable, therefore the new life is imperishable. It is more than a figure of speech to Peter when he says that we have new life by being born again from the seed of the Word of God. He pictures the word of God as living and active -- able to bring us to new life and cause us to be born again.

To be continued ...

Friday, June 17, 2011

A mother's prayer for teenagers: Choosing right

Lord, thank you for (name). Give him an understanding of the right, so that he sees the goodness of what is right and desires what is right. May he understand the wisdom of the right path, and see the blessing of the right path. May he love and pursue what is right, and reject what is wrong. May he willingly and deliberately set out to build his life on a strong foundation of what is good. And may he follow you all his days.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The image of God and Losing face

In some Eastern cultures, a more natural way to speak of ideas like sin and guilt and shame is with the language of "losing face." The moral character, dignity, or integrity of a person, their image, is one way to speak about how a person's good character is related to their acceptance.

We use similar ideas here when someone loses their reputation: we say their image is tarnished. "Image" and "face" are closely related in meaning. The Bible speaks in terms of "image" fairly often; I expect the better Bible translations into Chinese may take some of these passages about "image" and speak of "losing face" and related ideas about it being granted, saved, or restored.

There is a work that Jesus does particularly for those who have lost face. The prophet Isaiah speaks of Jesus himself becoming like a person who is avoided, where people hide their faces from him -- someone considered evil and immoral. The prophecy spoke of Jesus as "disfigured", his face marred (Isaiah 52:13), being despised and rejected (Isaiah 53:3), a man of sorrows who was acquainted with grief. But it was our sorrow, our grief, our shame that he carried, so that he might reach out to those who had lost acceptance, even through their own fault.

Here again we see how Paul explained what Jesus has done for us, for all the times when we have lost that character which God had intended for us:
You have taken off the old man with his acts and have put on the new, being renewed in knowledge after the image of him who created him. (Col 3:10)

Paul explains that this image of God comes to us, first of all, through Christ, whom he calls
the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him were all things created, whether in heaven or on earth, visible and invisible. (Col 1:15)

Paul speaks of our renewal as a kind of reprise of creation, comparing Christ, the "heavenly man", to the first man or "earthly man":
As we have borne the image of the earthly man, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly man. (I Cor 15:49)

God is all about restoration, making things whole, and pure, and new again. No loss is beyond his power to restore.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

God restores us: Atonement and new birth (part 2)

If we see our main problem as our guilt before God, then we look to Christ first of all for forgiveness. If we see our main problem as our defeat by sin and death, then the good news of Christ is that he conquers sin and death. But we have other problems that Christ addresses, and other needs that Christ fulfills. If our problem is that our souls have been vandalized by sin -- sometimes with our own willing help in destroying our own heart, mind, and soul -- then the good news of Christ is that he restores our souls.

Often when we speak about atonement, we separate the work of God so that the work of Christ is said to be limited to paying our debt and suffering our punishment -- that, and being a great teacher. We often speak as though the work of restoration and new life belongs to the Holy Spirit apart from Christ.

But in the writings of the apostles we see that Christ does more than fix a balance sheet between us and God; he also makes us new creations and draws us into fellowship with God. He renews the original work of creation, what we were originally designed to be. He works to make our souls whole again and restores us to the image of God.

This is not a exactly a new perspective on our redemption. The writers of the Bible spoke this way, focusing on our renewal as part of our redemption. Here, in this post, I'd like to show how the earliest Christians saw Christ as being a vital part of our renewal. I will not set out to make a complete catalog of something that a reader could search out easily enough in a Bible; this is meant more as a survey of the kinds of things the writers of the Bible said on the topic:

That our redemption involves our being restored in the image of God:
You have taken off the old man with his acts and have put on the new, being renewed in knowledge after the image of him who created him. (Col 3:10)

That this image of God comes to us, first of all, through Christ:
Who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him were all things created, whether in heaven or on earth, visible and invisible. (Col 1:15)

That our renewal is a kind of reprise of creation, as Paul compares Christ, the "heavenly man", to the first man or "earthly man":
As we have borne the image of the earthly man, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly man. (I Cor 15:49)

(Next in this series: how speaking in terms of the image of God can help us explain Christ's work to people from other cultures.)

Friday, June 10, 2011

A mother's prayer for teenagers: Following Jesus

Lord, thank you for (name). May he look at Jesus and see with his own eyes: may he recognize the good and desire to follow you. May he set out willingly and deliberately to live his life following you for the love of the good that is in you.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

God restores us: Atonement and new birth (Part 1)

There are different ways to understand what Christ has done for us. Among those who teach in the seminaries and train our pastors, there are theories to explain what Jesus did and how it relates to us. They often wonder why the people in the pews show so little interest in what they have to say. On the other hand, there are those who sit in the pews in church and go out into our daily lives to follow Jesus as best we can. We sometimes wonder how the other group gets so far removed from daily life.

So among the academics, a long-running debate just keeps on going: What is the right way to understand what Jesus has done for us? What is the best way to think about it and explain it? Some favor the "penal substitution" theory of atonement, focusing on how Jesus takes our place as sinner to receive punishment and fulfill justice. Others favor the "Christus Victor" theory of atonement, exalting Jesus for having won the victory over sin, death, and hell. There has been debate -- sometimes heated argument -- about how it all works, about what each theory explains better and what the other leaves out. Some would say there is some distortion of God's character if the wrong understanding is accepted. Others say that these two theories can both be true, and can both explain part of the picture.

But while we're on the subject of things that are left out by these different views of atonement, it bears mentioning that both of them leave out how God restores us, and how we come to lead new lives. These are seen as a different topic. Some questions aren't really addressed, questions like:
  • What does baptism have to do with the forgiveness of sins?
  • How do we come to new life?
  • What does it mean to be children of God?
These questions are on the sideline, not part of the main discussion when we focus on Christ as our substitute or Christ as our champion.

If one or the other of these theories -- or even the pair together -- is taken as the whole of what the Bible says about our being reconciled to God, then certain parts of the Bible do not fit comfortably. If the whole picture of judgment is that Christ is our substitute, then there is not really much point to Jesus having told the parable of the sheep and the goats as a picture of the last judgment. If the whole picture of forgiveness is a matter of trading places, then how best can we explain the apostles' call, "Repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins"?

Many are drawn to speak of Christ as victor and Christ as substitute because these keep the focus on Christ. Help comes from God, not from ourselves. Goodness comes from him, and we depend on his mercy. The risk of focusing only on God is that we can lose sight of what it has to do with us; but the risk goes both ways. As soon as we look at ourselves and how we fit into the picture, we start sounding as though it depended on us, our efforts, our goodness. We easily lose sight of God. Some people, focusing on the human side, have entirely lost sight of God's forgiveness.

At this point I hope I've explained why I think there's room for more to be said about atonement, about the questions left open or left on the sidelines. There are topics that are treated as if they don't belong in a discussion of the atonement, when clearly they're part of the picture of forgiveness and reconciliation with God. And the Bible as a whole has some prominent "leftover parts" when viewed only through those lenses. In my next post (not counting the "prayer" series) I hope to introduce a "restoration" perspective on atonement.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

A mother's prayers for teenagers

As the mother of two teenagers, I do a lot of praying. They're good kids. Those teenage years are so decisive in forming who these young people are going to be as adults, and I want to have prayed through all of it.

As we get into my busy season at work, I intend for one of my posts each week to be various prayers that I hope people may find helpful if they want to pray for their own children or grandchildren. Sometimes I have really struggled to know what to pray, and I hope that these prayers may help others too.

Since this post is mainly introducing the subject, I'll include a prayer here that is particularly short:
Lord, thank you for (name of child). May he grow in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man. May he love you and and follow you throughout his life.