More Human than Human

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I’m a big sci-fi nerd. I love a good story, but I particularly love a good sci-fi story. What I’ve seen about any good story is that is says something fundamentally important about humanity. About being human.

We see this question frequently in good sci-fi. What would the first Star Trek series be without the question of Spock’s humanity? (Spoiler alert!) His death in The Wrath of Khan (1982) serves as the climax to this question. “I have been and always will be your friend” the uber-logical Spock says to his impulsively uber-human friend, Captain Kirk.

We have plenty of other examples of this. Commander Data’s quest to be human is central to his role in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Darth Vader serves this capacity at the end of Episode VI: his humanity is demonstrated in his final rejection of Darth Sidious and his embrace of fatherhood. For Vader, “The power of the Dark Side” is overcome when he embraces something more powerful, and Vader sacrifices himself to save his son.

What does it mean to be human? This important question is central for a vast portion of good literature. What does it mean to be human in the context of a story taking place in the English Navy of 1800? Or in the context of a fantastic future world? The characters we most identify with are those characters who show us something about ourselves.

Getting the Story Right from the Start

I sometimes take part in conversations where one of the Christian conversation partners makes an off-handed comment: “that’s human nature!” And of course, it’s understood that by “human nature” they mean the evil inclination of our heart. But it this right? Should we call human nature to account when we discuss issues like sin and sinfulness?

The Bible itself has something important to say about “being human”. We learn from the Bible that our basic nature is actually “very good”. God creates everything with a word. Then God steps down and molds human beings with His very hands. And from the very start, God calls it all “very good” (Gen. 1:31). So whatever we have to say about the most basic nature of humanity, God calls it, along with everything else He made, “very good”. Whatever else it means to be human? It does not mean “evil inclination” or “sinfulness”. Those are intruders in the story.

And doesn’t this touch on the Christmas story itself? When we talk about Christmas, we’re talking about the second Member of the Trinity becoming flesh and dwelling among us. When we talk about the Christmas story, we’re talking about God being “with us” in the very real sense that God has become one among us. Whatever else Jesus was, Jesus was a very human being.

Jesus Christ: More Human than Human

It’s been my observation that, in our circles at least, when we discuss the person of Jesus Christ we tend toward understanding Him as the Divine One, the fullness of God. He is the one whom we worship on Sundays. He is the one in whose name we pray. It’s rather easy for us to see Him as “fully God”. It’s also rather easy for us to forget that He is “fully human”.

It’s easy in our circles to remember Jesus, the second Member of the Trinity. And we have a hard time seeing him as the second Adam. We have a hard time identifying with Him because, well, Jesus was and is God-in-flesh. God, yes. But weak? Frail? “With us” in the sense that this Person is, really and truly, a human being with human emotions and human desires? Did Jesus laugh with his friends? Did He think hummus tasted better than lamb? Did he think girls were pretty? Did He ever hit his thumb with a hammer? And did he jump up and down in pain, if he ever made such a human gaffe? We have a hard time entertaining such questions because we dare not touch his humanity for the sake of His Divinity.

But here is precisely where the story informs us about ourselves. We can and should identify with Jesus in His humanity because He is what humanity was meant to be. Jesus exemplifies for us what Adam should have been. What does it mean to be human? We need look no further than a general contract worker living on the edges of Empire and the fringes of Ethnic Identity. Whatever we ought to be is provided for us in the the story of a very real human being, in a man who calls us to that same humanity.

In looking for our true humanity, we have become the “Spocks,” looking in on the real human. We have become the “Commander Datas",” wanting to touch, taste, and smell humanity as Jesus tasted it for us. We have become the Darth Vaders, seeing that the power of our dark hearts, enslaved as we once were to our darkness, is weak and lifeless compared with the life we find in the true King, whose slave we have gladly become.

Sin is an intruder on this human story. But sinfulness is not what it means to be truly human. Not because Jesus is God (which is true) but because Jesus was born of a woman, born of a promise. His sinlessness doesn’t make Jesus less human. His sinlessness makes him more human. And He calls us out of our own sin toward this true humanity by the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus frees us from our sinfulness, not from our humanity.

So Merry Christmas, everyone! The Incarnate God was born in flesh 2,000 years ago. And most amazingly, this Incarnate God—Immanuel—has taught us our humanity best.

Repentance: What’s in a Word?

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We talk a good deal about repentance. It’s in our songs and our Scriptures. It’s the very beginning of our faith: “Repent and believe in the gospel!” Jesus tells us (Mark 1:15). Still, repentance is such a terrible word.

Jesus’s first words in his ministry were likely: “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Matthew 4:17). God through the Prophets calls His people to repent (Ezekiel 14:6). Peter calls for repentance in his first sermon in Jerusalem (Acts 2:38). There’s apparently a great deal of celebration involved in the heavenly places when even one person repents, over the righteous habits of 99 others:

“There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” (Luke 15:7)

The glory is in repentance; the tragedy is in the word. Roses may smell sweet by any other name, but we must get words and their meaning right when we speak of God and His Word. We think repentance means “to be sorry” or “to have regret.” And while sorrow is certainly involved, sorrow is not repentance: “for godly sorrow produces repentance that leads to salvation without regret whereas worldly sorrow produces death.” (2 Corinthians 7:10) In other words, we have a sorrow that leads to life, and another sorrow that leads to death. If you miss that point, death is in the error. The rose of true repentance smells of death to some and life to others (2 Corinthians 2:15-16).

When you’re called to repent, you’re not being called to simply grieve about your sin; grief by itself is fruitless and dead. Like Judas, we can be sorry for our sin and never repent. And like Judas, our sorrow, our regret, can lead to our death without true repentance (Matthew 27:3-5). So as Jesus commands us, let’s repent, whatever that means…

What’s in a Word?

The English word “repentance” carries its own problems. We borrow the word from Latin and French, but the English use can be heard in “doing penance.” The Douay-Rheims (1609) shows the translation: “Do penance, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Of course, doing penance is not quite what Jesus had in mind, so long as “doing penance” means performing a Catholic Sacrament. But so also do we have a problem with “being penitent,” so long as by “penitence” we mean “grief” or “sorrow.”

Okay, so we’ve seen just how NOT to understand this word. But what does the word mean? It depends on how we understand the original Greek word: meta-noia (repentance). The word sometimes means “having a change of mind” as we clearly see in places like Jeremiah 8:6 (LXX): “I have paid attention and listened, but they have not spoken rightly; no man relents (metanoeo) of his evil, saying, ‘What have I done?’…”

So in the case above, to “repent” means to “have a change of mind.” The question, “What have I done?” would suggest that one has, indeed, had a change in mind or attitude. But rather than changing their attitudes (that is to say, rather than turning from their sin) God charges that Israel is following their own course. Israel’s hasn’t changed her mind about her sin.

But in other instances, “repent” clearly means “to turn from an action or activity” such as in Hebrews 6:1: “let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God.” Clearly, “repentance” must mean “turning from” in this case “turning from dead works” and “turning to God” in faith.

Rightly Dividing a Word

But there’s another problem with our word, namely that we don’t have any good alternative. No word in the English language suggests a change of mind resulting in a change of action. But we must get this right, friends: repentance is a complete change of position from thinking one way, to thinking another way. “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” means more than sorrow for your sin, but it certainly doesn’t mean less.

It means a reorientation of our minds. It changes our attitudes about our sin and about our God. And perhaps more fundamentally, repentance moves us to agree with God about our sin. And experientially, repentance moves us from enjoying our sin to enjoying our God, who desires that we find our joy in Him alone. Our hands and feet follow our heart in our repentance.

So repent, dear friend. And take great joy in your deep repentance, knowing the rose of repentance is the fragrance of God’s good pleasure.

A Bit of Poetic Theology

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I know many of us don’t like poetry, much less care to read it. And others of us think of the word “theology” and thank God we’re not called to read such large tomes as Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology or Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics. We’ll leave the former to the romantics among us, and the latter we’ll leave to the brains. The food of those tables is often foreign to our palate.

But I imagine God has called us, if not to feast, at least to taste from those plates from time to time. We’re called to think rightly. And we’re called to adore Him with all our affections.

But it’s a rare thing to see theology and poetry in one place (at least, on its own apart from our putting it to music). Have we parsed out these things too cleanly? Like separating home life and work like, or separating faith and reason, have we separated our intellect from our emotions? Can we imagine God desires reasoning romantics, who want to think clearly so our religious affections are oriented rightly? Or do we keep our compartments clean between our reasoning and our romantic selves, and never the ‘twain shall meet?

So here, friends, is an invitation, where our reason is invited to sit with our romance at the feast of worship, where the ‘twain between Biblical Theology and Poetry are invited to fellowship. It’s a brief story that moves from God’s good creation, to fall, to redemption and restoration. We’ll call it:

The King’s Return: His Story in Ours

Morning dew and evening breeze,
The sigh of wind—sweet zephyr song
As trees in harmony sway ‘long
And He has given us the keys.
Sunrise caught in water drop,
Puts dimples in the perfect pond.
Sweet summer drizzle here and gone,
And we, from dirt to honored top.
His promise rings still in our heads:
“This golden plot is yours—partake!
Save one tree, all is for your sake!”
Sly snake assays his smarts and says:
“Is His promise life, indeed?
Take and eat! Know and see!”
The spotted fruit once spotted shines,
We took to live, now know we die.

Garden to desert; figs to thorns,
Now broken, now twisted, now torn.
His promise faintly dims our eyes:
“Death is one day doomed to die.”
A bit of fruit and nothing less,
We sold our souls for a pound of flesh.

Birthright turned from crown to pence;
Cheap, our prize had cost too much!
Our brothers fierce in anger turned
To put red hands to violence.
Echoes of former Tov M’od
Was strangled by some crouching sin,
Was twisted by our own device,
Still whispered our Creator’s ode.
And He, our Sovereign, enthroned
Great Hesed gave the promised seed,
This theme had stretched the centuries:
“Deliver them who are your own!”

So Israel’s tutor, Pedagogue,
Might lead the nation to the prize.
The laud was ringing loud and long:
“Here His Christ, your Lord, your God!”
But she in blind self-righteousness
Had sold her soul for so much less.

Crown of thorns and garden tomb
Now broken corpse, deserted soul
His promise faintly dims our eyes:
“I am resurrection-life!”
The Son of Man and nothing less,
Redeemed our souls in righteousness.

The Cross: the unexpected means;
The Son of God and promised Christ
Upon the tree he sways and dies;
Once dead now risen owns the keys.
The sunrise on the tomb would bring:
The stone, the cloth, the empty bed,
Proclaims the truth of what he said,
And he, from slave to sovereign King!
His words, they ring still in our head:
“This bread, this cup is mine—partake
Save one race, all is for His sake!
Body, blood, given instead:
This is promised life, indeed
Take and eat! Know and see!”
Spotless bread and spotless wine,
We took to live, and with Him died.

And so our teacher, man-divine
Now leads His people to the prize,
Whose promise resonates our lives:
We, the branch, and He, the Vine.
The Son of God and nothing less,
Now owns our lives for righteousness.

Birthright turned from cross to crown;
Rich, this lavished grace to grace!
Now sends His Spirit, seals His prize,
And makes His name through us renowned.
Hope of future sinless days
Still wrestles with our crouching sin
But promises far better still,
And trumpets our Creator’s praise
So He, our Sovereign, enthroned
Anticipated promise known,
His theme now trumpets through the age:
“Christ our King; I am His own!”

It Takes a Village

  —Les Plymale

—Les Plymale

  

I believe in God, the Father almighty,

creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, God's only Son, our Lord,

who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,

born of the Virgin Mary,

suffered under Pontius Pilate,

was crucified, died, and was buried;

he descended to the dead.

On the third day he rose again;

he ascended into heaven,

he is seated at the right hand of the Father,

and he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,

the holy catholic Church,

the communion of saints,

the forgiveness of sins,

the resurrection of the body,

and the life everlasting. Amen.

 

In our Sunday Morning Men’s Bible Study, we will spend the year looking at other belief systems, specifically to see what the problems are in light of Scripture  Before launching into this, we spent several Sundays reviewing what we believe. We looked at this, the Nicene Creed, and other creeds, and spent some time discussing them and other published confessions. 

The Apostles’ Creed above is fairly brief and is structured for both congregational reading and recitation, and for personal memorisation.  Whatever your thoughts on including this in our Sunday morning liturgy, I think the repetition and memorisation ultimately can only be a good thing. Rather like a condensing of the catechism… or like a company mission statement and values!

Knowing what we believe is fundamental to all aspects of life.

 

We sing a hymn here at Grace, The Master Has Come.  It is a Welsh hymn written by Sarah Doudney sung to the Ash Grove tune.  The last verse includes these lines:

“We turn from the world
With its smiles and its scorning
To cast in our lot with the people of God.”

Knowing what we believe is fundamental.  Working out what we believe… well, that takes a village. One such village would definitely be our church family.

 

Last summer after a week of intensive church-wide ministry, our Wholehearted event, my mind was filled with a lot of thoughts about my church family.  I figured I should write them down. So, I did. And shared my list on my Facebook page.  I include it here:

1) Grown men run across the lawn or any gathering place inside to give each other hugs, often bear hugs preceded with jarring chest bumps.

2) Folks with gardens bring the overflow of their produce to share with anyone, leaving boxes out on the breezeway.

3) We have worship services with some regularity in which the time of testimony sharing ends up replacing the message.

4) Sometimes we laugh during communion.

5) You can see readily how the members use their gifts and abilities for the benefit of the church body.

6) How many folks can say they play Euchre often with their pastor?

7) We have our own rather skilled interior designers who do wonders with paint and accessories! The sanctuary looks great! And the hallway!

8) Folks with chickens bring their surplus eggs to share… It’s been a few months since I have bought eggs.

9) I hear, or read, “I love you” (both directed to me and from one person to another) more than I ever have in my life… as people are departing or during testimony time, at the end of phone calls, and often punctuating a text message.

10) Clearly there is a great level of comfort and support, such that all the introverts feel like they can share with the church body. The extroverts, well, we’re glad you’re a part, too!

11) What’s not to love about having breakfast together every Sunday through the summer? Thanks to all those who labour early in the kitchen to make this happen.

12) Often the process of saying good-bye after a full day takes about an hour.

13) There’s just something about singing together and reading Scripture together.

14) Discipleship and mentoring relationships are such that great friendships develop between people of all ages. I have folks who have taken me on as their son, if you will, and my closest friend is half my age. To me, that is rather a big deal.

15) Often it is quarter to 12 when Dave gets up and asks us if he should go ahead and preach, and we say yes.

16) We take the time to celebrate the significant events in our member's lives.

17) It takes a village... and I think our young folks benefit from ours!

18) People actually want to take the time to build relationships... and that could be through having lunch together, playing Scrabble, playing tennis, serving in some way, etc.

19) A two-year-old expresses to her mother that she misses "my people" and then lists members of another church family... well, that is something.

20) Couples who have been married longer develop relationships with younger married couples... marriage mentoring, I suppose you could call it.

21) We make each other cry... in a good way.

I imagine I could go on for quite some time, but these things were top of mind.  Living in community involves risk, but it is how God works redemption, sanctification in us--and, these things and many others are why being vulnerable, taking that risk, is worth it.

 

I share this with you here to get you thinking about why you have “cast in [your] lot with the people of God” here at Grace, or in whatever setting that may be--your church family being the obvious first such setting.

The majority of my 21 thoughts about my church family capture a relational aspect.  As you read the Apostles’ Creed, did you notice the relational aspects? If not, read it again!

You are part of other circles than our church, undoubtedly.  Maybe you are part of a sports team, choir, orchestra, reading group… I would encourage you to take some time and reflect on why you are a part.  And, really, it’s worth taking the time to write down your thoughts--in your journal, if you do that. If it is a circle, organization, group with a spiritual purpose, you really should have some strong relational reasons for being a part of it--how else will God work out redemption and sanctification in you?


Slaves of Christ?

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Servant or Slave?

I was asked the other day about the translation of the word doulos in our Greek New Testament. The word is variously translated “slave,” or “servant,” or “bondservant” in our English Bibles. I think this is an important issue to consider, as we so often find it throughout our New Testament. It’s particularly interesting how often and in what ways Paul employs the term. Consider with me how Paul uses it in his letters:

  • “Paul, a doulos of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, and separated unto the gospel of God…” (Romans 1:1)

  • “…having been set free from sin, you have become enslaved to righteousness.” (Romans 6:18)

  • “for when you were doulos of sin, you were free from righteousness…. But now, having been set free from sin you are enslaved to God…” (Romans 6:20, 22)

  • “For the one who is called as a doulos is the Lord’s freedman. Similarly, the one who is called as a freedman is Christ’s doulos.” (1 Corinthians 7:22)

  • “If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a doulos of Christ.” (Galatians 1:10)

And in a world where we’re mildly embarrassed by the slavery in our American past, now 150 years removed, in Paul’s world it was a ready and vivid metaphor for our relationship to God and His Son. If we’d stumble over it to refer to ourselves as “slaves of Christ,” it was a mark of Paul’s self-identity in a world where two types existed: Romans (or Jews) and everyone else. We know the tragedy of slavery in our history, black-and-white pictures in a book. Paul knew the tragedy of slavery in vivid technicolor. And remarkably, to a people whom he had never even met, to a people who lived in Rome where slaves were the dirt of the world, Paul introduced himself as a “slave of Jesus Christ” before any other moniker. (Romans 1:1)

You see, in our American experience we’re ready to call ourselves “children,” and “sons and daughters,” and “beloved” of God. Perhaps we’ll say we're God’s people, heirs of God’s promises. We might even say we’re servants.

But are we ready to call ourselves slaves of Christ?

And really, what’s the difference and why does it matter? I suggest at least two important issues that our understanding of “slavery to Christ” affects. (1) What does my freedom amount to? And (2) How does this relate to “redemption”?

Freedom from or Freedom to?

In our American Christian experience, we frequently regard our freedom from sin and death. We celebrate our freedom in our songs. We think on it when we receive baptism. We remember it in our Lord’s death at the Lord’s Table. And it’s enculturated in America: if we celebrate nothing else in our country, we certainly celebrate what we call “freedom”.

But for us, we tend to think of freedom in terms of “freedom from.” We’re free from the Law, and thank God. We’re free from sin and death. We’re free from the penalty for our sin. Sometimes this makes us think we’re free from any law, free from anything that smacks of service to another, free from anything other than our heart’s desire. What we call “freedom” in America so often amounts to nothing more than license to apathy.

But that is not the way you learned Christ, assuming that you heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs (is enslaved?) to your former manner of life . . . and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4:20-24)

Yes, Christ did set us free from sin. But all of us, believer and unbeliever, belong to a master. Our “freedom from” one master must mean a service to another:

Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? (Romans 6:16)

We might be comfortable with being Christ’s servant, but are we privileged to be Christ’s slave? One amounts to keeping some rights for myself. The other amounts to giving all my rights up because someone else has a prior right to my life.

To Whom Do we Belong, Really?

We use the word “redemption” in Christian lingo. We say things like “you were bought with a price” or “Jesus paid it all.” We don’t like hearing things like “you are not your own.” (1 Corinthians 6:20)

Paul begins and ends his letter to the Ephesians with references to this slavery, references to the purchase price of a slave:

“In Him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight” (Ephesians 1:7) … “Slaves, obey your earthly masters . . . as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart.” (Ephesians 6:6)

We’ve been purchased from slavery. And in one sense, amazingly, God has made this slave a son and heir of His promises (Galatians 4:1-4). But in another sense, we must carefully note that Paul tells us the purchase price of a slave was given for me, the high price of His blood. So this redemption has purchased me, not from slavery to being a freedman, but to give me a Master whose good purposes I can trust, whose discipline isn’t always welcome, but is always wise, and gracious.

Our Lord and Master has truly lavished His grace upon me, a purchased slave of Christ.

I'm indebted to Murray J. Harris, whose book influenced me on this subject years ago, and surely still influences me today. And while I did not consult that work today in this article, the reader certainly hears echoes of his work throughout. I highly commend reading this excellent book.