Friday, September 29, 2023

Boast in the Lord

 Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not —to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus,  who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”

-1 Corinthians 1:26-31 (NIV)

So last week we learned the most likely subject of Taylor Swift’s next breakup song.

     Last Sunday’s football game between the Bears and the Kansas City Chiefs was, predictably, a blowout. (The Bears are bad.) The TV crew had to do something to keep whoever was still watching entertained, so they kept showing us a shot of one of the boxes at Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium, where Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce’s mom was sitting with a special guest. Kelce had been very public about his interest in Swift, going so far as to try to give her bracelets he had made for her with his phone number on them at her show at Arrowhead in July. He had resorted to publicly suggesting that, since he had watched her play at Arrowhead, she should return the favor.

     Apparently, she took him up on it. She watched the game with his family and friends and celebrated with him as Kelce scored — while running the wrong route on the play — to put the Chiefs up 40-0. 

     Next time Taylor Swift comes to Chicago, real Bears fans should just stay home.

     After the game, Kelce and Swift went out to dinner with family and friends. 

     “Who cares?” you ask. Well, that’s just “Mean,” as Taylor might say. 

     In the 24 hours after cameras started showing Swift at the game, Travis Kelce gained 100,000 more Instagram followers. Sales of his jersey and other merchandise soared 400 percent. Whatever may happen romantically with Taylor, Kelce’s already benefitting from the Power of Swift and her influence over her fans, the Swifties. He and his brother Jason, a lineman with the Eagles, even hosted an online forum in which they answered football questions from Swifties. 

     Travis Kelce, by the way, is not exactly anonymous. He’s the second best-known player and leading receiver on the defending Super Bowl champs. He’s one of the best-known faces of the multi-billion-dollar industry that is the National Football League.

     But now he has a taste of what it means to really be a star. You could say that Everything Has Changed for him. Wonder if he’s Ready for It? His teammates are probably telling him, “Travis, You Need to Calm Down.” He’s bigger than his Wildest Dreams.

      OK, I’ll stop.

     But notice this: Sometimes being associated with someone else makes it possible for us to rise higher than we ever imagined we could.

     Swift and Kelce (I’m going on record now as saying they should be known as Tayvis if they become a thing…) actually makes a really convenient parable for the gospel. What we are, we are because of Jesus.

      Paul wrote to the church in Corinth because they didn’t really understand that. They argued about whose  spiritual gifts were more important. They fought over who had the deepest knowledge. They favored eloquent, convincing preachers and teachers. They were proud of themselves in ways they shouldn’t have been.

     Paul intends with his letters to shut a lot of that down. He reminds them that, when they came to Christ, most of them weren’t all that impressive. That the gospel message itself can sound like foolishness and weakness, with its focus on Jesus’ suffering and death and the impossible hope of resurrection — against the usual expectations that a savior should be known for his wisdom and power. He reminds them that they aren’t saved by their knowledge, or power, or goodness. They’re saved by God, “in Christ.”

      It would be good for us to remember that sometimes.

     When we’re too proud of our accomplishments we should remember.

     When we’re feeling really good about our morality and righteousness, we should remember.

     When we’re puffed up by how much we know — of God, or the Bible, or our jobs, or what have you — we should remember. It’s because of God’s love and grace and compassion and faithfulness that we’re “in Christ” at all. And whatever we need to know, whatever righteousness and holiness we have, and whatever hope for redemption there is — all of it is in Christ, in the work he undertook and finished for us, because of his love.

     So, if we’re going to “boast,” then it shouldn’t be about anything we’ve done. It should be entirely about what Jesus has done and is doing in us and in his church. 

     And when we fail, we should remember that our failures don’t cancel out God’s love for us and what he has done in Christ to make us righteous and give us life and free us from sin and death and despair.

     In his next letter to the church in Corinth, which we conveniently know as Second Corinthians, Paul wants to make sure they got the point of the first letter. His job, he tells them, is simply to encourage them to be reconciled to God. God himself has made that possible:  

“God made him who had no sin to be sin  for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)

He says the same in his letter to the church at Rome: 

“I am not ashamed of the gospel,  because it is the power of God  that brings salvation to everyone who believes…For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed —a righteousness that is by faith  from first to last….” (Romans 1:16-17)

    This is our hope. Christ receives our sin, and we receive God’s righteousness. Our role begins and ends with faith in that reality. It’s an illusion that anything we might do nudges us into righteousness. Whatever we do — and there are things we should do — is in response to what God has already done in Jesus. Where we fall short, God’s grace is there already, was there long before when he sent Jesus to make us righteous.

     It is because of Jesus that we are made righteous. It’s because of our association with him that our sins are taken away. We don’t just believe in Jesus, and it’s more than having a relationship with him. Christians are baptized “into Christ.” We find ourselves “in him,” and in him is the righteousness and forgiveness and life that God wants us to have.

     In him, you’ll rise higher than you ever imagined you would. If you’re having trouble believing that, well….

     Shake it off. 

Friday, September 22, 2023


 I ordered a chair this week. It came in a big, heavy box, as you might expect. The box had gotten pretty battered during shipping, and when I opened it and got the chair out, I saw that it had been damaged too. A noticeable rip in the upholstery, right where a similar-sized hole in the box was. 

      I looked online to see about how to return the chair, and I immediately saw a problem. The company would send me a shipping label, they assured me. They were really sorry for the damage to my chair, and of course they’d issue a complete refund. Just box the chair back up, take it to the shipper of my choice, and, oh yes….pay for shipping. 

     I have no idea, and I don’t want to know, what shipping that chair back to the manufacturer would have cost!

     So I called their customer service number, and thankfully, this was one of those rare times that “customer service number” wasn’t an oxymoron. The woman I talked to was very friendly and helpful. She asked me to email her a photo of the damage, then within a few minutes assured me that they would send me a replacement chair and that I didn’t need to ship the ripped one back at all. 

     So I got a free — if slightly damaged — chair out of the deal.

     I mentioned all this to a few people this week, and got interesting responses. Almost every one kind of shook their heads and tsk-tsk’ed the wastefulness of the company. I guess, since it directly benefitted me, I didn't consider that. I suppose there is a bit of wastefulness in it. Wouldn’t it make sense for the company to want the chair back? I mean, they could re-cover it and sell it as new, right? Who would know? Knock off a few bucks and they might even be able to sell it as-is. At the very least, wouldn’t it make sense for them to want the parts from that damaged chair, the frame and motors and actuators and whatever else? More sense, at least, than giving me a buy-one-get-one-free deal on a chair?

     But, of course, no. They buy all the parts in bulk. Those few parts, or whatever they could make by repairing or selling that chair as damaged, isn’t worth the price of shipping it back and the labor of fixing or stripping it. In their estimation, the cost to them is too high to justify. It's a lost cause. That damaged chair is just not worth it.

     In Chicago, we’re dealing with an influx of asylum-seekers from Central and South America sent to us from other states. Obviously, there’s a cost involved with trying to house around 13,000 people without homes, jobs, and basic necessities. I don’t know all the right answers, except to say that the lives of these human beings, created by God and trying to make a way for themselves and their families, shouldn’t be manipulated for the sake of political theater. I also know that there are people in our city, just like in those states from which our asylum-seekers came, who would basically regard them in the same way that company regarded its chair. 

     Not worth it. Not worth the trouble and expense. 

     In the part of the Bible most Christians refer to as the Old Testament, there’s a series of laws that are pretty interesting. They all revolve around the role of family and next of kin. You might summarize these laws by saying that the next of kin had certain responsibilities. If someone intended to sell a field, the next of kin had the right of first refusal to buy it so that it would stay in the family. If someone was murdered, the next of kin had the obligation to avenge that death. If a person was facing the economic necessity of selling themselves into indentured servitude, his next of kin could purchase his freedom. If someone died, his next of kin was responsible for marrying the widow and bearing children in the name of his deceased relative. When parents had their first child, they were responsible for making an offering to God as a replacement for God’s requirement that every firstborn was consecrated to him.

     This next-of-kin was called a ga’al in Hebrew. It’s often translated “redeemer” in English Bibles.

     I love that God created laws for Israel to help make sure that human beings aren’t forgotten or ignored when they become expensive, when they tax our resources of patience, time, energy, money, and attention. What I take from those laws is that I need to find ways to make God’s concern for redemption a big part of the way I live. We all at times need a redeemer, someone who in our worst moments will speak up for us, come looking for us, defend us, invest in us, and help us to be free. We’ve all had someone like that in our lives, whether we admit it or not. And we all need to be a redeemer to the people in our lives sometimes. 

     Of course, God’s concern for redemption comes from who he is. At least 17 times in the Bible, God is called Israel’s ga’al — their Redeemer. God is the next of kin for his people, their Father who vindicates them, protects them, avenges them, and frees them from slavery. Embedded deep in the concept of redemption is family. God expects his people to be family for each other because he is our family. And family doesn’t give up on each other when we become too expensive. 

     You probably already know that redemption isn’t just an “Old Testament thing,” though.

     Paul writes this to Titus, the young servant he left to help the church in Crete:  

“For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people.. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.” (Titus 2:11-14)

To Paul, one of the ways that Jesus embodied the glory of God was in his role as Redeemer. Which actually answers a question about God as Israel’s Redeemer. The Law was explicit, more or less, about what the redemption price of a field or servant or firstborn child was. But how can God be a Redeemer? What cost can redemption have for him? 

     You already know, don’t you? 

     “Jesus Christ…gave himself for us to redeem us….” 

     That’s what it took for God to Redeem us — the life of Jesus, the life of his Son. “For God so loved the world,” John wrote in his Gospel, “that he gave his only Son.” God refused to give us up, even when according to every metric we weren’t worth the expense. By most measurements we weren’t worth the cost of repair, not even of stripping for parts. 

     But our Maker thinks differently. His metrics are not most metrics. We aren’t a commodity to him, we are his family. And family doesn’t give up on each other.

     So if anyone wants to tell you that you’re like my chair, too damaged to matter to anyone, tell them your Maker feels otherwise. He’s your Redeemer, and the cost he paid was the life of Jesus. He did that so you could finally get free of all the things that cheapen you and make you his — and eager to do good.

     And one of the ways he most wants us to do good is to treat other people in the very same way. As people who matter to their Maker, who could be set free to be good-doing people of God as well. 

     We’ve been redeemed. Let’s be redeemers. 

     To God, we’re all worth a second chance. 

Friday, September 8, 2023

On Prophets Outside the Camp

 I was reading this week about a church in my fellowship, the Churches of Christ, that has been dwindling in membership, shrinking by about 7/8ths over the last few decades. They’ve had hard decisions to make recently, most specifically what to do with a building that was bigger than they needed and could support. The church, like many churches of all stripes, had gotten considerably older and had largely become a “commuter congregation,” with fewer members who live in the neighborhood in which they’re located. They were weighing options: merge with another church? Sell their building and find something smaller?

     What they decided, however, was neither of those things.

     Recently, the church announced plans to become a new neighborhood campus for a multi-campus church.

     Maybe you’re not familiar with that concept. It’s been made possible in the last few years with the advent of technology, but what it boils down to is a church with multiple locations in a city or a metropolitan area. One church, but with worshipers attending in more than one building, usually hearing the same sermon simulcast from the live location through live streaming.

     The interesting — and somewhat controversial — thing about this particular case is that the Church of Christ is becoming a campus of a community church from a different denomination.  

     Churches of Christ have had for most of our history a somewhat antagonistic relationship with other tribes of Christianity, to the degree that some of us wouldn’t even consider people in many other denominations Christians in any real sense. (In my experience that’s not the majority view, but it’s not unheard-of.) For many of us, our understanding and practice of baptism is the dividing line. An even more practical issue is the use of instruments in worship; most of “us” still prefer vocal music only, and for some it’s much more than a preference.

     There are varied reasons behind all these things, but a large part of it is our conviction that we are to be “New Testament Christians” who reject denominational divisions and unite around what the Bible says. Suffice to say that it makes the idea of one of “our” churches becoming a campus for another denomination hard to imagine for many of us. (Some of us will even object to my use of the phrase “other denominations.” For them, “the denominations” refer to everyone but us, who are “the Lord’s church.”)

     Most of us, I suppose, are on some part of the spectrum of these views. While I think most of us appreciate the faith of people who aren’t “us,” and affirm their desire to please the Lord and be shaped by the Bible, at heart some of us — maybe even most of us — would see the decision of this church as a compromise of some sort. Even if we might understand the reasons for it.

     I was struck by the diversity in the comments section of the post. Some praised God that the work of his kingdom would continue in that place. Some, with kindness and compassion, expressed sentiments that they would struggle with the decision of whether or not to remain a member of that congregation. Both, I think, reasonable responses. Some attacked the publication of the article — not so reasonable, and a classic case of shooting the messenger! 

     But one sentiment — repeated more than once — has stuck with me. Some said that they’d rather that church had closed than make the decision they made. 

     Don’t get me wrong: there are valid reasons for churches to close. Most every local expression of the church has a starting date and ending date, and it’s important for churches to make good decisions about their life cycle. I know of churches that have sold too-large buildings to provide affordable housing, and I think that’s amazing. Some churches at the end of their life cycle are able to give their resources to other churches and ministries to help them grow.

     But, with love, I struggle to understand an outlook that says it would be better for that church to have closed, for the site to have become a shopping center or what have you, than for the work of the kingdom to continue in that place with a new sign on the side of the building. 

     I see it as similar to the attitude of Jesus’ disciples when they met up with a guy who was using Jesus’ name to drive out demons. If there’s anything that looked like what Jesus was already doing it was that, right? It was what those disciples were told and empowered to do as well. But when they see this guy, doing Jesus’ work in Jesus’ name, they shut him down. He wasn’t one of them, see. 

     I wonder if they stopped to think of Eldad and Medad, who didn’t make it to a meeting with Moses where 70 “elders” were filled with the Holy Spirit to help Moses. When the Spirit came, though, it also fell on them, even though they didn’t get to the official meeting. Someone told Moses, and Joshua advised him to stop their unsanctioned prophecy.

     Moses, though, disagreed. “Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!”

     And Jesus said the same thing about the non-sanctioned exorcist his disciples were so worried about. “Do not stop him….For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us.”

     This squeamishness about people “prophesying outside the camp” is an aspect of my heritage that I reject. It doesn’t make me love and appreciate the good any less. But I don’t understand how we can so readily embrace an attitude that neither Jesus nor Moses seemed to have. Neither of them, apparently, felt the need to dictate to God how he does his work. Both recognized that he could give varied gifts in varied circumstances to different people and raise up servants who operate in different circles and in different ways to do the work of his kingdom in the world.

     Paul talked about how the very Jewish Jerusalem church gave his work among Gentiles “the right hand of fellowship.” He refused, over and over, the tyranny of those who wanted to shackle his churches with their expectations. He welcomed the preaching of the gospel even when he had doubts about the preachers’ motives!

     If Jesus, Moses, and Paul were comfortable with the idea that God can work where and with whom he pleases, I think it’s safe for us to be as well. That doesn’t require compromising anything we feel strongly about. It’s just recognizing that God doesn’t use anyone because we get every doctrinal “i” dotted and “t” crossed. He just might place his Spirit on folks outside our camp too, and that’s all right. Someone working in the name of Jesus is more likely to be an ally than an antagonist.

      To think that if it’s not “us” following Jesus, then the doors might as well shut, is to give in to the same sectarian, divisive impulse that we claim to believe has been a shame to Christianity. 

     How about this, instead? Let’s be faithful to the tasks God gives us. Let’s preach the gospel to the best of our ability, every chance we get. Let’s serve with love to roll back the darkness in our world. And let’s pray for and encourage other servants of Jesus to do the same.

      And when our time is done, let’s bequeath our efforts to those who will follow us, with all confidence in God.

Friday, September 1, 2023

Biblical but Not Christlike

I ran across a quote this week that is so good, I really might get it tattooed backwards on my forehead so I can see it every time I look in the mirror. It’s from Stephen Mattison, who I don’t know and couldn’t find in a quick online search. But I love his quote; it’s one of those that I wish I’d come up with:

Of all the things Satan could’ve used to destroy Christ, he decided to tempt Jesus with the Bible. In the same way, Satan will attack Christianity by tricking people into believing they’re “being biblical” without being Christlike at all.

     To be Christlike is to love your neighbor as yourself.

     To be “biblical” is to quote verses that align with your personal agendas and contextualize scripture according to your own opinions. 

     Too many people are being “biblical” without being Christlike. May God help us sacrificially love others to the best of our ability.

On second thought, I guess it’s a little too long to tattoo on my forehead. 

     But it is something I need to remember. How about you?

     What Mattison’s definition of “biblical” assumes is that we tend to use Scripture to backstop our own opinions and preconceptions. I do think that there’s a way of interacting with Scripture that minimizes this tendency, and to that degree gives us a chance to let the Bible shape us and change us. After all, one of the chief ways we know what it is to be Christlike is through what we see of Jesus in the Bible. 

     As someone who cares about being “biblical,” though, I’m not ready to say that it’s necessarily antithetical to being “Christlike.”

     Mattison hints at a synthesis of the two: let Jesus’ ethic of loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and loving our neighbors at least as much as we love ourselves also guide and order our reading of the Bible. Sometimes, I think, people who want to be “biblical,” like I do, accidentally end up prioritizing the Bible over Jesus. 

     For instance: In my fellowship of churches, the Churches of Christ, we have historically emphasized the epistles of the New Testament and Acts over every other part of the Bible. I think that’s changed somewhat, but it hasn’t been long that you would be far more likely to hear a sermon in our churches that quoted Paul than one  that quoted Isaiah or Leviticus — or even Jesus.

     This is because the epistles and Acts are where we’ve gotten much of our theology and practice. It’s easier. There seems to be more in those parts of the Bible that’s directly relevant and familiar. We’ve tended to regard the Bible as a collection of data points about particular topics, collated and synthesized all this data, and come to our conclusions. And a disproportionately large set of that data has come from those parts of the Bible.

     And so, when we look at Jesus, we tend to look at him through the epistles and Acts. 

     We dismiss the scriptures of Israel, and sometimes even the Gospels, as having to do with the “old covenant” or “old dispensation,” and therefore not authoritative for us. Which is odd, since Paul himself told Timothy that the scriptures made him “wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.” It’s odd, since the Gospels were written for the church every bit as much as Acts was. (Luke himself wrote Acts and a Gospel.)

     Of course, Luke and Paul and the other epistle-writers intended for their works to be understood in relation to Jesus. Paul’s letters, the book of Acts, the Gospels, Revelation — none of them mean anything at all without  Jesus, and their authors knew that. 

     Of course, Jesus understood what he was doing as a fulfillment of (not an undoing of) what we refer to as “the Old Testament.” 

     Jesus’ opponents claimed that they were being “biblical” in their concern for Sabbath-keeping. After all, their “Bibles clearly said” that no work was to be done on the Sabbath.

     But, somehow, they found themselves on the wrong side of an argument with Jesus over whether he should heal someone on the Sabbath. Not once. Not twice. Not three times. At least four times they had this exact debate. No wonder Jesus was frustrated with them. No wonder he said about a woman he healed in the synagogue, “Should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?” They weren’t so “biblical” that they didn't care for their animals on the Sabbath. What in the world should keep them from caring about a woman who needed to be healed? 

     What kept them from caring — or at least from seeing the need of that woman and the other people Jesus “violated Scripture” to heal — was the way they read the Bible. I hope that bothers us, at least a little. 

     “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ,” Paul wrote to the church in Corinth. Paul knew his Scriptures and could have told the church to follow him in that. But he didn’t. What qualified him as a paradigm for living as a Christian was that he followed Jesus. Because of an inconvenient chapter break, the specific way that he followed Jesus gets lost: “For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.”

     May that always be our intent — not to do what’s good for ourselves, but for others. That’s biblical, but more importantly it’s what we learn from Jesus. 

     Using Mattison’s terms, being “Christlike” must come before being “biblical.” Jesus is the rubric by which we should be checking our interpretations of the Bible. Any conclusion we draw from Scripture that doesn’t lead us to prioritize devotion to God and the well-being of our neighbors is not likely to be correct. Any reading of the Bible that obstructs people from entering God’s kingdom is just wrong. Any interpretation that demands sacrifice without offering mercy is mistaken. Any exegesis that values religious observance over spirituality, gratitude for God’s love, and human flourishing is wrong-headed. Any application of Scripture that would limit God’s work in the world to what we can categorize, understand, and give our stamp of approval to is far too narrow. If our reading of the Bible is primarily about proving a point, winning an argument, or finding support for a position instead of learning to give ourselves up for God and the people around us, perhaps we need to go back for a new reading. One shaped more by what we know of Jesus and guided by the Holy Spirit.

     Being Christlike is to be shaped by our relationship with Jesus, to learn from him as a disciple. To let him  teach us everything — even how to read our Bibles.