21 February 2010

Something to Cry About

Yesterday, during the Dean's Hour at St. Luke's Cathedral, Kenneth Bailey taught about the woman in the house of Simon. Two works of his that have impacted my studies are Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes and Poet and Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes: A Literary Cultural Approach to the Parables in Luke.

The strength of Dr. Bailey's teaching finds expression most notably when he begins walking through a text with his saturated Middle-Eastern mind (he spent forty years teaching in seminaries and institutes in Egypt, Lebnon, Beirut, and Cyprus), filling in all the overlooked blanks that we Westerners typically miss. He reminds me of a New Testament version of Bruce Waltke, whom I had the privilege of sitting under at Reformed Theological Seminary about ten years ago.

I only want to mention here something he said while teaching that jumped out at me; something that I've not quite heard put in this way. Remember when Jesus is at Simon the Pharisee's house and this "sinner," this woman of the street, hangs all over him from the moment he's welcomed inside? From what I remember, her tears that wet the Messiah's feet were assumed to be tears shed over her many sins. Not quite, says Bailey. Those tears were shed as a result of Jesus' public humiliation (in light, of course, of her new-found freedom of forgiveness of sins), that is, those signs of honor that were withheld from him upon entering Simon's house: the kiss, the anointing, the washing of the feet, and so on.

Jesus had been asked there by his elders to get schooled. But instead he does the schooling ("Simon, I have something to say to you," v. 40). Simon had foregone the respect due to the one who, above all others, deserved it: "I entered your house! You [Simon] gave no water for my feet, gave no kiss, no anointing"; "but she wet my feet with her tears, and wiped them with her hair [which exposing of hair was a scandal in those days]; she has not ceased to kiss my feet; she has anointed my head with perfume" (vv. 44–46). Thus, her "faith has saved" her (v. 50). What faith? She didn't say a word! Her faith, her faithfulness, was evidenced in her actions that day. She entered into Jesus' messianic sufferings, the way of the cross, of costly grace, and so enters into his peace.

To paraphrase Bailey (and his handy handout that he handed out): Jesus is saying, "I have forgiven/mediated the forgiveness of this woman's sins. She has offered much love to me. This is appropriate becomes I am like the creditor in the parable" (see vv. 41–42). In the beginning of the parable the creditor is clearly God (YHWH, Israel's covenant Lord); but by verse 42, Jesus is clearly the creditor ("Your sins have been forgiven," he tells the woman in v. 48b). So of course, the Pharisees respond in wonder, "Who is this, who even forgives sins?" (v. 49). And thus, at the very least, Jesus presents himself as the mediator of the forgiveness of God. Jesus also clearly assumes the role of creditor in the last portion of the parable (v. 42b: "Which of [the debtors] will love [the creditor] more?"). He accepts the grateful love of the woman (vv. 47ff.) and blames Simon because he has failed to serve as she served. Thus Jesus is (again, at the very least) saying, "I am the unique representative of God to whom thanks for forgiveness received is appropriately offered."

So, yet again in the gospels, we see Jesus identifying himself with Israel's creator God, YHWH, the almighty Lord of heaven and earth. There is no middle ground: either accept that the divine presence of God (the shekinah) is indeed in Jesus and tabernacled among his people or be offended by the mere thought and reject it.

15 February 2010

The Best Valentine's Day Card Ever

What better way to celebrate Valentine's Day than with baptism? That's what the Donato family did this year with the baptism of Zachary Dylan, our second boy born 30 November 2009. Nor can I think of a better lens through which to view Valentine's Day than the waters of baptism: Along with the Word and the Word made visible in Holy Communion, nothing says "I love you" more than those precious waters.

Why not, then, reflect a bit further on this most gracious work of God through Christ by his Spirit, and why not do so through another (though lesser) means of grace—poetry?

George Herbert, seventeenth-century Anglican poet, will show us the way:

"H. Baptism (I)"

As he that sees a dark and shady grove,
Stays not, but looks beyond it on the sky
So when I view my sins, mine eyes remove
More backward still, and to that water fly,

Which is above the heav'ns, whose spring and vent
Is in my dear Redeemer's pierced side.
O blessed streams! either ye do prevent
And stop our sins from growing thick and wide,

Or else give tears to drown them, as they grow.
In you Redemption measures all my time,
And spreads the plaster equal to the crime:
You taught the Book of Life my name, that so,

Whatever future sins should me miscall,
Your first acquaintance might discredit all.

So, then, Holy Baptism is the best Valentine's Day card ever, because it's from the triune God who says, "I love you," as he washes, sanctifies (sets apart for holy use), and declares that all the blessings of his holy covenant are the recipient's in Christ. For both infants and adults, it is the public declaration of that person's membership in this "better" covenant (Heb. 8:6) and thus identifies that person with Christ (see, e.g., Rom 6:1–12).

It is for this reason that whenever the baptized finds himself walking in shadow—cold, hollow, distant—in a "dark and shady grove" (l. 1), he must needs look "beyond it on the sky" (just as any traveler does who finds himself in a gloomy wood). Faced with the depths of our continuing struggle with sin, our condition as simul iustus et peccator (simultaneously put right with God and yet sinful, or, put differently, at one and the same time declared not guilty and yet still dabbling in criminal activities), Herbert suggests he (and thus we, the baptized) look backward and "to that water fly" (l. 4). In other words, remembering our baptism helps us in times of doubt, providing assurance of God's favor. How? Because baptism (and Holy Communion) are graceful signs (not mere witnesses or memorials) of the objective promises of the gospel. That is to say, baptism and the Lord's Supper, as the visible Word, convey the finished work of Christ. This is why Martin Luther could answer, "I am baptized," when faced with doubt; he understood that through the sign of baptism the objective, completed faithfulness of Jesus was promised to him (no doubt individually authenticated by God's Spirit).

The water of baptism points to and has as its very source our "dear Redeemer's pierced side" (l. 6), precisely because the rite of baptism itself could never effect—apart from faith—the blessings of which Herbert speaks. Possibly, the poet has in mind the now less popular interpretation of 1 John 5:6–8, where the testimony of the "water and the blood" is deemed a thinly veiled reference to the waters of baptism and the blood (wine) of the Eucharist, which finds its source in the blood and water that flowed from Jesus' side on the cross (John 19:33–35). In this view, the very energizing moment of the Christian life by God's Spirit is found in the outpouring of those "blessed streams" (l. 7) pouring out of Christ's side while hanging dead on the cross. Thus, our resurrected Lord either graciously restrains the baptized (i.e., baptism serves as a deterrent to sin as we contemplate what it means), from constant and unrepentant sins (ll. 7–8), or else he gives repentant "tears to drown them, as they grow" (l. 9)—which suggests, properly, that the benefits of baptism do not serve those who sin "with a high hand." Herein lies the mystery of salvation—the "one-way love of God" (to borrow a phrase from Paul Zahl), that is, the love of God for human beings who have done nothing to deserve it.

And this love isn't a one-shot deal, which is part of the point of looking back to our baptisms when we face doubt, struggle, detachment, and brokenness. It's not finally dependent on us; it's not conditional. Such redemptive love is a free gift that covers the entire life of the baptized—it "measures all my time and spreads the plaster equal to the crime" (ll. 10–11). That is to say, our continuing sinfulness no longer defines us; it cannot remove us from the love of God in Christ, precisely because God has promised, and he's the only person able to keep it (by ever-faithfully applying to us the "[medicinal] plaster," the waters by which our sins are sent away, Acts 2:38).

The goal of eternal life in Christ—for all of creation, not least God's people—rests on the utter faithfulness of our covenant Lord. Baptism (along with communion and the Word) is God's way of showing that faithfulness. He is the one who writes the names of his elect on the heavenly register (the "Book of Life," l. 12), so that all "future sins" (l. 13), our post-baptismal sins, cannot enslave us once again to that evil taskmaster, or life under that old man, Adam (see again Rom 6). Our identification lies with the second Adam, even Jesus the Messiah (Col 3:3), and so in baptism, which "discredits all" those sins (l. 14, for babies, it's their "first acquaintance" with divine grace), God actually sets apart a people who are thus called to start living like humans once again. Therefore, to live in accordance with our baptisms is to fulfill the destiny for which we were created—the theocentric (God-centered) life that participates in the very mystery of God (becoming "partakers of the divine nature," see 2 Pet 1:3–4).

On each Valentine's Day, and indeed every day, let us strive to embody our destiny as lovers who love because the God who is love first loved us and poured love for him into our hearts (1 Jn 4:8, 19; Rom 5:5). Let us strive to remember, and not diminish, God's Valentine's Day card to us—our baptisms—and thus live now, as best we can in this present darkness (this "dark and shady grove"), like it's the future we've inherited—the very future of our triune God, the blessed Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

11 February 2010

A Lost Material World?

While I'm preparing the last few posts of my walkthrough of John Walton's Lost World of Genesis One, some of you folks might be interested in this exchange between Vern Poythress and Walton (I pointed to Poythress' review back here).

The argument, unsuprisingly, focuses on the heart of the matter—Walton's use of the term functional (as opposed to material) origins.

I'll update this post should the discussion continue.

02 February 2010

The Face of God

Lumen ad revelationem gentium, et gloriam plebis tuae Israel.

AS THE AUTHOR of 1 John repeatedly remarks, there were certain folks within his community who claimed a secret knowledge, one that set them apart from the rest of the crowd, setting them free from the physical limits of the world, enabling them (so they claimed) to reach new spiritual heights and salvation to the kingdom of light. The elder responded simply: Matter is not evil, for Jesus himself came in the flesh “to be the Savior of the world” (1 Jn 4:14b). Such a grand sweep with respect to God’s redemptive activity did nothing less than undermine the Gnostic elitists’ claim that they alone were of a special elected status. Seeing such love from God, we are to confess that Jesus is his Son. Moreover, our lives are to manifest this truth by leading pure lives and by loving each other with the love of God.

Grasping one of these “tests” entails grasping the other two. For example, to know the truth that God sent his Son (the truth test), which is the result of God’s own love, leads us to love (the love test) and live in obedience to God and for his glory (the moral test). This all begins with a confession of the gospel of Jesus Christ, which is itself a response to the work of the Holy Spirit (see 1 Cor 12:3). It is he who stands behind all this activity on our part: “Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God” (v. 15). This simple response is little different than Saint Paul’s in Romans 10:9: “For if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” And while simple, it is nonetheless an ancient faith: “But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it” (Deut 30:14). How near? Both apostles answer the same: When we are changed inwardly, having had a love for God poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit (Rom 5:5; 1 Jn 4:13), our mouths confess what our hearts believe. But what is this crucial belief about Jesus as the Son of God?

The short answer finds its summation in the Nicene Creed: Jesus is “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father by whom all things were made ….” Yet the Scriptures never state it so plainly. Is this what it means to “confess that Jesus is the Son of God” (1 Jn 4:15)? Without a doubt. The apostles, being devout monotheists, would not have allowed for a Jesus who was some kind of semi-divine intermediary. God alone is to be worshiped (Deut 6:4), yet Jesus was also worshiped (Matt 14:33). How, then, could the apostles (and we along with them) confess Jesus as Lord, the Son of God?

To answer this question the apostles resolved the question of God’s identity, that is, who God is. The Nicene fathers resolved to answer yet another question: What is the substance of divinity, or, what is the divine nature of the one, true and saving God? (I'm borrowing from Richard Bauckham here and his framing of the situation.)

Along with Nicea we confess that Jesus is of one substance with the Father precisely because the apostles themselves confessed that Jesus could be completely identified with the one God of Israel. In other words, Jesus kept and fulfilled the promises that God made to Israel in the old covenant. What was expected of Yahweh by the old covenant Israelite, Jesus did in the new covenant.

In Exodus 34:6ff, God reveals his character and proclaims his name. This was of great importance to the Israelites, for it was this unique God and his unique relationship with his people that set them apart. He was the one who established covenant with them. He was the one who redeemed them from Egypt’s dreadful grasp. Equally important was his sovereignty as creator, sustainer, and ruler over all life. Whatever everything else in the universe is, it is not God. God is he who created everything else. Thus everything else is subject to him. But how could Jesus be identified with so magnanimous a being?

Probably the best example we have is the early Christian identification of Jesus’ exaltation in terms of Psalm 110:
The LORD said unto my Lord,
Sit thou at my right hand,
until I make thine enemies thy footstool. (v. 1)
Consider for a moment all the direct quotations and allusions in the New Testament that identify Jesus as the one who, seated on the cosmic throne of God, achieves supreme lordship over heaven and earth (Mark 12:35–36 [and its synoptic counterparts]; Acts 2:34–35; Eph 1:20, 22; Col 3:1; Heb 1:13; 10:13; 1 Pet 3:22, etc.). Now, either the apostles were not monotheists or they understood Jesus to be included in the identity of the one God as sovereign ruler over all creation (and thus not a creature). Jesus is, therefore, just as Yahweh revealed himself in Exodus 34:6 and Deuteronomy 6:4, the second person of the one, triune God of Israel who alone is worthy of worship. It is this confession, that Jesus is Lord and that he was raised from the dead, that exhibits the necessary inward change of hearts by the Spirit and the subsequent union with God (“God abides in him, and he in us” 1 Jn 3:24), which union serves as the catalyst for both our assurance and our love for one another.

{This originally appeared in Tabletalk 29.11 (November 2005): 24–25}

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