The Hermeneutical Implications of Scripture’s Theological Location

INTRODUCTION

Theological hermeneutics – human understanding and interpretation in light of the identity and acts of the triune God – faces two problematic questions that, I believe, every biblical and/or theological scholar must be prepared to address. First, should the Bible be read in some special sense as divine revelation, or should we read the Bible like any other text? And second, should biblical and theological studies be one discipline, or two?

In what follows, I propose that we can best account for both (1) the relationship between general and special hermeneutics and (2) the relationship between biblical and theological studies by first attending to Scripture’s theological location regarding its subject matter – the all-encompassing story, to which it bears witness, of how the triune God creates and redeems a people unto fellowship with himself.

In the first section, I will argue that the Scripture plays an authoritative role in the all-encompassing story to which it bears witness. After briefly summarizing the subject matter of Scripture, I will explain Scripture’s role by explaining the relationships between Scripture and (1) God, (2) creation, and (3) God’s people. With respect to God, Scripture is the authoritative and inspired word of the triune God, which God uses to reveal himself and redeem his creatures. With respect to creation, because Scripture’s subject matter is all-encompassing, there is no domain outside of its purview. And with respect to God’s people, Scripture is unavoidably and irreducibly ecclesiological.

Once we clarify the relationship between Scripture and its subject matter, if the story to which Scripture bears witness is true, then the relationships between (1) special and general hermeneutics and (2) biblical and theological studies become much less problematic.

In the second section, therefore, I maintain that, because Scripture plays a uniquely authoritative role within its all-encompassing subject matter, theological hermeneutics encompasses both special and general hermeneutics. This has implications for two related hermeneutical triads: the general hermeneutical triad of author, text, and reader, and the special hermeneutical triad of historical, literary, and theological analysis. My approach calls for giving theology pride of place in both triads. That is, the divine author, the Christ-centered text, and the Spirit-led interpretive community of the Church are of primary importance. Nevertheless, due to the historically particular way(s) in which the triune God has revealed himself and redeemed his people, a theological hermeneutic requires attending to the historical and literary particularities of all authors, texts, and readers – especially to those involved in the interpretation of Holy Scripture.

Finally, in the third section, I offer an account of biblical and theological studies as a single multifaceted discipline, one that includes both biblical studies and the various theological sub-disciplines of historical, systematic, and pastoral theology. Because Scripture’s subject matter is complex, unified, and irreducibly ecclesiological, biblical and theological studies need each other. This has, I believe, implications for how the contested and contentious fields of biblical theology and the theological interpretation of Scripture ought to relate to each other.  Furthermore, because the Church’s understanding of and participation in Scripture’s subject matter is historically, conceptually, and practically complex, the theological subdisciplines need each other. Continue reading “The Hermeneutical Implications of Scripture’s Theological Location”

Principles: 10 Imperatives for the Good Life

Why write out a list of principles?

For one thing, it’s my birthday. And, although I’m only in my twenties, I’m feeling a bit reflective.

For another, I’ve just been given a copy of Principles: Life and Work by Ray Dalio (affiliate link).

According to Dalio (ix),

Principles are fundamental truths that serve as the foundations for behavior that gets you what you want out of life. They can be aplied again and again in similar situations to help you achieve your goals.

With that in mind, here are 10 principles I’ve developed so far. I’ve followed Dalio’s lead in casting my principles as imperatives. No, I don’t always do an excellent job at these. But they’re worth striving for.

No, this is not an exhaustive list. And no, I don’t always do an excellent job at these. But they’re worth striving for.


1. Go to Church: Word & Sacraments

This principle, and the following one, are purposefully at the top of the list. Why? Because they will place you in a context where your desires, your view of reality, and therefore your principles will be formed in the right direction.

So, go to a church where you can hear the Word of God preached and where you can partake of the Sacraments.

Further Reading:

2. Do the Daily Office: Morning and Evening Prayer

NOTE: I realize that a WHOLE LOT MORE could be said with/underneath these first two “principles.” As an overarching principle, “Become More Like Jesus Christ in All I Think, Feel, Say, and Do,” is quite good. In fact, I’d consider most of the rest of this blog to be relevant in that respect.

However, I’m going to devote the next eight principles to various pragmatic concerns, such as productivity, physical fitness, and financial well-being.

3. Think on Paper: Keep a Journal and To-Do Lists

4. Read More & Take Notes

5. Ask More/Better Questions

6. Sit Less & Move Heavier Objects

7. Eat Less Sugar & More Vegetables

8. Turn off the TV and the Notifications on Your Phone

9. Get/Stay out of Debt

10. Invest a 401K and IRA in Index Funds or Lifecycle Funds


What principles would you add to this list? Let us know in the comments!

Podcasts You Should Listen To

Podcasts: An Introduction

Although podcasts (think “iPod” + “broadcast”) have been around for over a decade, we’re living in a bit of a golden age – or a least a Rennaissance – of the medium. For the uninitiated, here’s a nice video about what podcasts are:

Currently, podcasts are one of my very favorite ways to consume information about a wide variety of topics. Sure, gun to my head, I’ll choose books over podcasts as a way to learn. However, unlike books (or videos), you can easily listen to podcasts while doing other things – whether folding laundry, washing dishes, or going for a run/walk.

(Note: as I mentioned in my list of favorite tools and apps, Overcast is my current favorite podcast player. Although, there are plenty of other worthy podcast players/managers to check out!)

There are no shortage of podcasts, or lists of best podcasts, for that matter. However, here are my current favorites.

My Favorite Podcasts:

Up First (NPR)

This is the first podcast I listen to every weekday while making coffee. I love that it’s short (˜10 minutes) and that it provides some snapshots of important news stories that day. In addition to Up First, I frequently listen to NPR newscasts via their NPR One app, which is worth checking out!

The Art of Manliness

Sure, the egalitarian in me wishes there were a show out there called “The Art of Humanity” – about how to be a Mensch. However, in the meantime, Brett McKay has a solid podcast going about “reviving the lost art of manliness.” I enjoy the podcast (and the Art of Manliness website) because it includes so many helpful how-to guides – for everything from weightlifting to men’s fashion.

Word & Table

I created Rookie Anglican as a way of making Anglicanism more accessible. This podcast, Word & Table, has much the same mission, although it’s focus is not just on Anglicanism, but rather on the rich Christian tradition of liturgical worship. As I wrote about the podcast over at Rookie Anglican:

According to their website, Word & Table “is a weekly podcast about liturgy, sacrament, and the great tradition of Christian worship and why it is vital in our world today.”

The podcast was started back in October 2016, and it’s hosted by Alex Wilgus and Fr. Stephen Gauthier, the Canon Theologian for the Anglican Church in North America’s Diocese of the Upper Midwest.

You can subscribe to the podcast via iTunes, listen to episodes via the Word & Table website, or simply search for “Word and Table” in your podcast player/manager of choice.

If you’ve got questions about anything related to the Christian tradition, check out the Word & Table podcast to see if they have an episode on the topic!

The Tim Ferriss Show

I’ve become somewhat of a Tim Ferriss junkie in the past two years. In addition to this podcast – which features long-form interviews with “top performers,” in which Tim distils tips, tricks, habits, and practices for the common person – Ferriss’ books are well worth checking out (Affiliate LInks: The 4-Hour Workweek; The 4-Hour Body; The 4-Hour Chef; Tools of Titans) . He’s great at teaching metalearning – how to learn how to learn!

(Note: Tim Ferriss is how I found out about kettlebells – one of my favorite tools for personal fitness.)

Coffee Break German

Sure, Coffee Break German hasn’t taught me the kind of German that I’ll need for my Ph.D. German translation exam. However, it is a very informative introduction to basic/conversational German. It makes a wonderful companion to Duolingo for language learning! Radio Lingua Network offers a whole suite of “Coffee Break” languages, including French, Spanish, Italian, German, and Chinese!

This American Life

In my opinion, no podcast beats This American Life in terms of the quality and variety of storytelling. It’s well worth your time, in addition to the “spinoff” shows Serial and S-Town.

Honorable Mentions:

So tell me, what are your favorite podcasts?

Tools You Should Use

Who doesn’t love great tools?

These are my current (2017) favorite tools, some electronic, some digital. Please note that all Amazon links are affiliate links. Also, please note that these are not ranked in order of importance!

BEST PEN: Zebra F-701 Stainless Steel Ballpoint Retractable Pen

Zebra stainless steel pen photo

This is my “desert island” pen. It may not be the very best pen in the whole wide world, but I’m quite sure it’s the pen at the intersection of durability, versatility, and affordability. If you really want to, you can “hack” the F701 by putting in a better ink cartridge. But I’ve been perfectly happy with the standard Zebra refills.

BEST NOTEBOOK: Leuchtturm1917 Medium Size Hardcover A5 Notebook – Dotted Pages

Leuchtturm 1917 Notebook photoI use this notebook for a personal combination of the Bullet Journal method, Morning Pages journaling, and the 5-Minute Journal. It’s a step up, paper-wise from a Moleskine, yet still affordable – and I love the Medium/A5 size. Currently, I’m on my third one, which is “anthracite gray.” The first two were black, then navy blue. I prefer dotted pages, but they also have ruled and blank page options.

BEST PASSWORD MANAGER: LastPass

Lastpass logo

In case you don’t already have and use a password manager, you should really really get one. But don’t just take my word for it, here’s an informative piece from Wired about why you need a password manager.

I started using LastPass a couple years back, and I haven’t looked back. My wife and I both share a premium account – installed on our internet browsers and phones.

BEST SECOND BRAIN: Evernote

Evernote logo

I use Evernote primarily as my all-in-one digital file-cabinet – my “second brain,” as the company itself calls it. I’ve been paying for a premium subscription for awhile now, but the free version is quite robust and worth checking out. As far as organizing my Evernotes goes, I’m currently using Michael Hyatt’s tag-based system, although I started off just using notebooks and stacks of notebooks.

FAVORITE FITNESS TOOL: CAP Barbell Cast Iron Competition Weight Kettlebell – 35 Lbs.

CAP kettlebell picture

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, one of the best exercises in the entire world is the two-handed kettlebell swing. If you’re short on time, but would still like to improve your strength and overall fitness, I highly recommend starting up a basic kettlebell workout routine. Check out this Art of Manliness article about the kettlebell swing to get started.

BEST TOOL FOR TASK MANAGEMENT: Todoist


Todoist logoAs productivity guru David Allen says, your brain is for having ideas, not storing them! Therefore, in order to keep track of everything I have to get done, I have found an external task management system absolutely indispensable. I’ve tried a TON of different task managers, but Todoist has been my favorite for awhile now.

BEST WATCH: Casio Men’s G-Shock Classic Digital Watch

Casio G-Shock Watch
I prefer having an actual watch on my wrist (and, according to Business Insider, I’m not alone), so that I don’t have to take my phone out of my pocket to check the time. Granted, I don’t have a favorite watch for females. And, granted, there are much nicer, more elaborate, more expensive watches available out there. However, much like my pen choice above, this watch stands at the intersection of functionality, durability, and affordability. If you’re looking for an even cheaper analog option, check out the Casio Men’s MQ24-7B2 (recommended by Kevin Kelly via Cool Tools). 

BEST TOOL FOR PODCASTS: Overcast

Overcast logoI think that – after books – podcasts are one of the best ways out there to learn and stay interesting. Plus, unlike books (and Youtube videos), you can easily listen to a podcast while doing something else, such as washing the dishes or folding laundry. Apple’s native Podcasts app has come a very long way, and is worth checking out. However, my favorite podcast app is currently (the free version of) Overcast. To get all “meta” on you, here’s an excellent podcast episode about podcasting. Check it out if you’re even somewhat confused about what podcasts are.

(If you’re curious, here’s a list of my favorite podcasts.)

BEST POCKET KNIFE: Gordon Drop Point EDC Pocket Knife (Harbor Freight)Harbor Freight pocket knife

Just like the pen and the watch recommended above, this is NOT the nicest knife in the world. However, it is functional, durable, and VERY affordable. Pick one up at/via Harbor Freight Tools.

BEST TOOL FOR LEARNING/MEMORY: Anki (Flashcard Software)

Anki logo

This is the tool I wish I knew about back in high school. Spaced repetition is a key to successful and time-efficient learning. And Anki bakes spaced repetition into flashcard reviews. I started using Anki, on the recommendation of Gabriel Wyner’s Fluent Forever, to learn German for my PhPh.D.rogram. However, the uses of Anki are virtually endless when it comes to learning. Granted, the learning curve is a bit steep, but check out Wyner’s guide to using Anki as a way of getting started.

(Note: as I mention in my list of favorite podcasts, Coffee Break German (and Radio Lingua’s other Coffee Break language courses) are also great language-learning tools!)

Honorable Mentions: Other Tools Worth Trying

I’lll do my best to periodically update this list of recommendations.

Finally, this isn’t a tool, per se, but it IS one of the coolest collections of tool recommendations I know of: Cool Tools. Check the website out, and let me know what you find!

It is Finished! So, Get to Work! – A Sermon on the Ascension

The following is a sermon preached on Ascension Sunday, 2017. You can listen to the sermon here:

GOODBYES SUCK

You know, if there’s one thing I hate, it’s goodbyes. Anyone else here hate goodbyes?

Yeah, and the fact that I hate them so much means I’m not really very good at goodbyes.

Sometimes I get awkward and silent. Sometimes I get awkward and really chatty! Heck, sometimes I get awkward and I make poor choices, like the one time when I was getting ready to say goodbye to my family when they dropped me off at college.

They were looking forward to a final dinner with me, in the school cafeteria, before they left. But I was worried about the awkwardness of saying a tearful goodbye between packed tables and chairs, so I suggested that they just leave.

Let’s just say that my family wasn’t very happy. And me? Neither was I. I ate my first college meal all alone.

Goodbyes suck. And I often suck at goodbyes.

Why am I telling you this?

Well, for one thing, this is my “goodbye” sermon here at St. Peter’s, and I wanted to give an excuse for this sermon, if it sucks!

In all seriousness, I do want to thank this congregation for being such a good place for Rachel and me to serve and grow alongside you. Thank you for loving Rachel and me as our brothers and sisters in Christ. We will miss you all very much as we move to Illinois this week.

Anyways, I don’t want this goodbye to get TOO awkward, so I’d better keep on preaching!

I think that goodbyes are bad because they so often leave our stories unfinished.

And we humans tend to hate unfinished business. It’s so much better when the story has an end! Sometimes, even a bad ending is better than no ending at all!

Think about it, if you’re watching an important game on TV – say, Alabama vs. Auburn – would you rather see the ending, even if your team loses, or have the power go out and completely miss the final minutes?

Stories without endings are frustrating. And that’s why it’s so hard to say goodbye.

That’s why Death – the ultimate goodbye, if you will – is so horrible.

It’s not really an ending, not for those of us who go on living, anyways. Instead, Death leaves our stories hanging, with words left unsaid and promises left unfulfilled.

I think here of parents in Manchester this week who were forced to say goodbye to their children all too soon, thanks to the suicide bombing. Or the Coptic Christians in Egypt forced to say goodbye to their loved ones too soon, thanks to the bus attack.

Goodbyes suck, because they leave our stories unfinished.

(Note: For other sermons, check out my Sermons page.)

WHAT ABOUT THE ASCENSION? DOES IT SUCK?

Is the Ascension of Jesus Christ, then, just another awful goodbye?

Continue reading “It is Finished! So, Get to Work! – A Sermon on the Ascension”

The Lasting Supper – Luke 22:14-30

There is something special about last meals, isn’t there?

I’d like to show you a series of photographs. These photographs, except for the last one – which I added, are from a piece called “No Seconds,” and they were put together by Henry Hargreaves.

I don’t want to belabor the artwork with my commentary, so I’ll give you a few seconds to take each slide in.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Now, I don’t know about you, but those pictures affect me deeply. The whole idea of a criminal’s last meal affects me deeply. Why?

I think it’s because these last meals combine the familiar with the unfamiliar. They combine the expected and the unexpected. I mean, on one hand, you’ve got comfort food. On the other hand, heinous crimes. The stuff of life right next to life’s untimely end.

While Jesus of Nazareth was no common criminal, his so-called “Last Supper” with his disciples was a poignant combination of the expected and the unexpected. And when you take a look at the Last Supper, focusing on its unexpected elements, you find out that it’s really a Lasting Supper.

That is, the Last Supper is not just a one-time event, some two-thousand years ago. Instead, Holy Communion, the Lasting Supper, is an ongoing meal, with profound implications for our past, our future, and our present.

The Meal

First, let’s look at the original meal itself, the “Last Supper,” as described in our Gospel lesson (Luke 22:14-20). Continue reading “The Lasting Supper – Luke 22:14-30”

Is The Well-Equipped Christian Worth It?

Have you ever had a problem finding a reliable resource for recommendations?

I have.

Certain Google searches are a piece of cake, but the “best resources for ______” ones can be hit-or-miss.

And don’t even get me started on the decision fatigue.  As a serial over-thinker, I start to hate myself a little bit after reading through the upteenth list of “5 Best ____s.” It makes it so hard to make a decision! Then, when you pick something, you end up doubting your decision. Not fun.

I’m sure these dynamics apply to a bunch of different things in life. However, while serving as a Youth Minister in seminary, I realized that finding reliable Christian recommendations and resources can be very difficult.

Sure, it’s not for lack of content out there! When it comes to Christianity, everyone has an opinion – and usually an associated reading list!

But how do you know that the book or blog-post that you find isn’t from some crazy yahoo with nothing more than a computer and a Bible?

Furthermore, if you’re a Christian and your looking for recommendations and resources in some other area, how do you know that what you find is worthwhile?

I mean, sure, everything should be read with a critical eye. But is that latest book or blog-post about mindfulness, parenting, self-help, or productivity helpful and useful for Christians? Or will it require quite a bit of theological critique and analysis before it’s helpful without being potentially harmful?

Google is great, and getting better at many things. But – at least for right now – it’s a pretty crappy theologian!

Idea: The Well-Equipped Christian

With all this in mind, I have an idea: The Well-Equipped Christian (or a similar title) – a website that’s a one-stop shop for Christians looking for reliable recommendations and resources.

Now, to be clear, I’m not claiming to BE the well-equipped Christian! I am not the be-all-end-all source of reliable Christian information.

However, I am a Christian with a seminary education. I’m pursuing a PhD in theology, and I have a heart for the Church.

I want to devote my life and ministry to helping to produce as many “well-equipped Christians” as possible. And I absolutely love giving practical recommendations – specifically in the areas of Bible study, theology, productivity, and meta-learning.

There are a lot of great resources out there. Resources that Christians can benefit from to have healthy minds, bodies, and souls as they advance God’s Kingdom in their daily lives.

I want to connect you to those resources.

I Need Your Help

Are you wiling to help me figure out whether or not this is a good idea? If so, great! I’d love to hear your answers to the following questions:

  1. What is the biggest problem that you’ve faced in finding reliable recommendations and resources? Not just for specifically Christian resources (although that’s great if you want to focus on that), but also for resources in general.
  2. When you talk to your friends about finding reliable recommendations and resources, what kinds of things do you say? Any specific feelings or complaints?

Finally, please share this post with anyone you think would be willing to give me their input! Thank you so much!

~Josh

Getting Ahead in God’s Upside-Down Kingdom: An Appeal for a Consistently Pro-Life Ethic

[MP3: Getting Ahead in God’s Upside-Down Kingdom]

[PDF Sermon Manuscript: Getting Ahead in God’s Upside-Down Kingdom]

Opening Prayer

God, our Refuge, I ask that your Holy Spirit would move in our lives, so that we would:

  • promote your justice
  • embody your steadfast faithful love
  • and humbly obey Your will,

even if it costs us our reputations, and even if it costs us our lives.

I ask that this transformation would begin with me. In Jesus’ name. Amen.


Introduction

I’d like to start off with a very basic question: Do you want to get ahead in life?

Do you want things to get better? Do you want your life, and your children’s lives, to improve?

I mean, despite the many things that divide us humans, don’t we all want progress? When it comes right down to it, don’t we all just want to get ahead?

I know I do.

In fact, as the students in our youth group could tell you, this is one of the reasons why I love “life hacks”!

Have you heard of life hacks? They’re these little tips and tricks to get ahead in life while saving time, money, and effort.

Like, one of my favorite life hacks is the “coffee nap.” You drink a cup of coffee, then immediately take a 20-minute nap, so that the caffeine kicks in right as you wake up.

Life hack. Try it sometime. Thank me later.

ANYWAYS, we all want to get ahead in life. Right?

But there’s a problem: How do we know what getting ahead looks like?

I mean, think about it. Getting ahead can look quite different in different contexts. Right?

Perhaps this is too crude of an example for a sermon, but getting ahead in a drinking game looks totally different than getting ahead in Alcoholics Anonymous!

Getting ahead in the NBA Finals hopefully looks different than getting ahead in playing basketball with your kids.

Getting ahead on Wall Street as a day-trader hopefully looks different than getting ahead in running a charity.

In order to get ahead,

  • you have to know the context,
  • you have to know the rules,
  • you have to know the goal.

Otherwise, no matter how hard you try, you’re not really going to get ahead. You’ll just be getting ahead at the wrong thing. Which means you’ll fail.

So here’s the kicker: Getting ahead in God’s eyes looks a whole lot different than getting ahead in the world’s eyes.

The world is a different context. The world follows different rules. And the world has a different goal than God’s Kingdom.

The Main Point

In fact, and here’s my main point if you want to write it down:

Because God’s Kingdom is an “upside-down” Kingdom, getting ahead in the Kingdom of God will frequently look foolish in the eyes of the world.

God’s Upside-Down Kingdom – 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

Now, this is the message of all of our readings for today, but I’d like to start with the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:18. (You can find it on page 952 in your pew Bible.)

1 Corinthians 1:18 says:

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing (that’s what I’m calling “the world,” by the way – those who are perishing), but to us who are being saved (that is, to us who are a part of God’s Kingdom) it is the power of God.

You see, God’s not against getting ahead. In fact, you could even say that God is on a mission to “Make Creation Great Again”!

I’m not kidding! He made it great in the first place – a perfect universe with perfect relationships between God, humanity, and all of creation.

However, ever since we humans rebelled against God – ever since Sin shattered the relationships between God, humanity, and all of creation – God has been on a mission to put everything back together again.

Sounds great, right?

So why is Paul saying that the good news of God’s rescue mission is foolishness to the world?

Because God makes creation great again in a totally unexpected way!

This is what I mean by “God’s upside-down kingdom.”

In order to make the world right again, God shows up and reverses the ways the world has gotten used to working. And the greatest reversal of all in God’s upside-down kingdom is when the eternal Son of God becomes human and gets himself killed for the sins of the entire world.

The world expects

  • power,
  • might,
  • strength,
  • and victory,

and we receive instead a

  • naked,
  • abandoned
  • Middle-Eastern man,
  • brutally executed
  • as a political criminal.

We receive a bloody example for those who would dare challenge the kingdoms of this world.

We receive a Crucified Savior. And the world calls that absolutely RIDICULOUS.

Because, to the world, you don’t get ahead by laying your life down (like Jesus did). You get ahead by taking what’s yours.

You don’t get ahead by hanging out with the wrong crowd (like Jesus did). You’re supposed to rub shoulders with the rich and the famous, not the poor and the homeless.

You’re not supposed to focus on the people at the bottom and at the border (like Jesus did)!

For crying out loud, you’re supposed to get out there and hustle!

  • Climb the ladder!
  • Make deals!
  • Take no prisoners!
  • Make demands!
  • Get ahead!

…And get right back where we need to be saved FROM!

That’s where the world’s ways get us.

Where every human is

  • an egotistical island,
  • competing with God,
  • alienating other humans,
  • and abusing creation.

Thankfully, as Paul tells us in [1 Cor 1:25],

the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God saves us through what looks like foolishness and weakness.

Why? So that we would not boast in our pathetic “wisdom” and “strength.”

Instead, we are to boast only in the true wisdom and strength of God.

Paul continues in [1 Cor. 1:27]:

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wiseGod chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.

This, then, is the upside-down Kingdom of God.

Blessed are the “Losers” – Matthew 5:1-12

And it’s the exact same Kingdom that we find in the Beatitudes of Matthew 5.

(FYI: We call them the “Beatitudes” because of the Latin word for “blessed/happy” – beatus.)

Now, remember: God isn’t against getting ahead. He really does want what’s best for us.

But the danger is that we’ll try to get ahead on our own, in our own way. And if we do that, we’ll miss the point in at least two ways.

  1. First, we won’t realize that we desperately need a Savior, and that we cannot save ourselves.
  2. Second, we will ignore the very people that God wants us to care for in order to really get ahead in his Kingdom!

That is, on our own, we’re going to focus on those at the center and height of power. You know, “The Winners.”

But God focuses on those at the bottom and at the borders, the edges of society. You know, “The Losers.”

These are the people who will experience God’s favor in his Upside-Down Kingdom. Take a look at [Matthew 5:3-12].

Notice how Jesus declares God’s favor, His blessing, to what the world would call the “wrong kind of people.”

  • To the poor in spirit
  • Those who mourn
  • The meek
  • Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness
  • The merciful
  • The pure in heart
  • The peacemakers
  • The persecuted
  • And the reviled

And notice as well, that the blessings frequently involve reversals. The world is giving them one thing, but God is going to give them another.

Now, this is important: these famous words are a mixture of encouragement and instruction.

That is, Jesus isn’t just giving us a TO-DO LIST in order to get as much blessing as possible. He’s not saying “Go out there and try harder to be poor, persecuted, hungry, mourners.”

Now, Jesus IS instructing, more on that in a second. But he is first offering divine encouragement to those who are already in those situations.

The Beatitudes: An Interpretive Translation

Here’s my interpretive translation of the Beatitudes. Follow along with each one if you’ve got a Bible in front of you.

Jesus is saying:

  • (1) “Take heart! Things aren’t what they seem! If you lack resources and realize that God alone can save you, then you might not feel like a part of the Roman kingdom. But you’re a part of God’s Kingdom.”
  • (2) “Be encouraged! If you bear and grieve the sufferings of the world, then the kings of the world probably won’t give you much comfort. But God, your true King, will.
  • (3) Take heart! If you humbly and gently refuse to seek vengeance or power, then you probably won’t inherit much from the world’s kingdoms. But God will give you an inheritance in His Kingdom.
  • (4) Be encouraged! If you pursue God’s will above all else, then you’ll probably go hungry in this world. But you will be satisfied in God’s Kingdom, where His will is obeyed.
  • (5) Take heart! If you show mercy and compassion to a suffering world, you might not receive much mercy back! But you yourselves will be shown mercy by God.
  • (6) Be encouraged! If you single-mindedly pursue God’s will, then you probably won’t experience the world’s glory. But you will experience God’s glory and presence.
  • (7) Take heart! If you pursue reconciliation and reject violence, then you probably won’t reflect the character of this world. But you will reflect the character of God.
  • (8) Take heart! Because when this world rejects you, insults you, lies about you, and persecutes you, then it may not look like it, but you’re in good company! You’re in the company of your Savior, Jesus Christ.

Friends, if you’re here today and you’re at the bottom of this world, then I encourage you to cling to the divine promises of blessing in the Beatitudes.

God is in the process of making all things new – reversing every wrong in this world. Take heart.

However, and perhaps this is uncomfortable to talk about, what if we’re NOT on this list?

What if we’re NOT

  • poor,
  • mourning,
  • meek,
  • hungry,
  • merciful,
  • pure-hearted,
  • peacemakers
  • who are persecuted?

What if we’re

  • reasonably well-educated
  • and wealthy,
  • comfortable,
  • powerful
  • American
  • Christians?

How should we respond to the Beatitudes?

While I DON’T think that the Beatitudes should be read like a TO-DO list,

I DO think that the Beatitudes are an instructive challenge to followers of Jesus.

There is a reason why the Beatitudes are at the beginning of Jesus’ quintessential sermon.

It’s almost like Jesus is saying,

“OK, you want to follow me?

You want to be a part of my coming Kingdom? Then let’s get really clear on what this Kingdom is going to be like.

It’s not going to be the kind of Kingdom you’re used to in this world.

You know, the kind of kingdom where the wealthy, wise, and powerful get rewarded.

Instead, in MY Kingdom, the people who get chewed up and spit out by the kingdoms of this world will be rewarded and honored.

SO,

  • if you want to be a part of my Kingdom,
  • if you want to “get ahead” in my Kingdom,
  • then you better show concrete concern for
    • the oppressed,
    • the marginalized,
    • and the weak!

And, as you do so, you’d better be prepared to end up among the oppressed and the marginalized, because the world is going to think you are out of your minds!”

Fear is NOT a Valid Excuse

Brothers and sisters, remember:

Because God’s Kingdom is an “upside-down” Kingdom, getting ahead in the Kingdom of God will frequently look foolish in the eyes of the world.

But there is no escape clause from the rules of God’s Kingdom!

That is, you can’t just ignore Jesus and the Bible because you’re SCARED.

  • Because you’re scared of how a congregation is going to respond to your sermon,
  • Because you’re scared of looking foolish,
  • Because you’re scared of losing your job,
  • Because you’re scared of a terrorist attack.

It’s not that Jesus doesn’t care about your fears. He does.

But let’s not kid ourselves!

FEAR is not a valid excuse for ignoring the Bible’s repeated commands for God’s people to show faithful concern for the kinds of people the world ignores and mistreats!

Want to read more about what the Bible has to say about these kinds of issues? Read this book! (Affiliate Link)


Application: Consistently Pro-Life, for the Unborn AND the Refugees

So, let’s get practical here. How should we respond to these passages about God’s Upside-Down Kingdom?

We must show concrete concern for the powerless. And two recent issues come to mind, that I would be a coward not to mention.

Abortion

First, in light of the 44th March for Life held this past weekend, I’d be remiss if I didn’t remind you that we must continue to stand up for the unborn.

Abortion is a gruesome evil. And like other forms of evil, it is complex – not easily eradicated.

As Christians, we must wage war against this evil. And that will involve caring not only for the unborn child, but also the mother, and the child after it is born, and the entire family.

Repealing Roe v. Wade isn’t going to completely solve the problem.

Christians will have to step up to the plate and be consistently pro-life in order to fix things.

If you’re passionate about this issue, I encourage you to check out the organization Anglicans for Life at AnglicansForLife.Org.

So, first, we must stand up for the unborn.

Refugees

Second, given President Trump’s recent executive actions to halt the acceptance of all refugees to the USA, including a temporary moratorium on seven predominantly Muslim countries,

I’d be remiss if I didn’t remind you that, if we are to be consistently pro-life, we must also stand up for the refugees.

Next to the unborn, refugees around the world – but especially from Syria – are among the most vulnerable and powerless people in the world.

Christians should be standing up for and supporting these people. And, to their credit, many Christians are doing so.

I’d encourage you to check out the great work being done by organizations like World Relief and We Welcome Refugees. Talk to me after the service if you’d like more ideas and reading recommendations, by the way.

However, many Christians in this country are falling prey to the fear excuse.

We’re being tempted to turn away these vulnerable people because of the supposed risk of a terrorist attack.

I’m here this morning to plead with you: Do not fall prey to this nonsense.

Even if the fear were legitimate, it is no excuse for Christians not to show concrete love to the powerless.

Whoever said that following Jesus would not involve any risks?

We dare not worship the American gods of comfort and security while neglecting to follow the True God’s commands.

However, these fears of refugees are VASTLY overblown.

According to a September 2016 Policy Analysis from the CATO institute,

  • “the chance of an American being murdered in a terrorist attack caused by a refugee is 1 in 3.64 billion per year.”
  • The chance of being murdered in a terrorist attack committed by an asylum-seeker is 1 in 2.73 billion per year.
  • And “the chance of being murdered in an attack committed by an illegal immigrant is an astronomical 1 in 10.9 billion per year.”

For comparison: according to the National Safety Council, your chance of dying from a lightning strike is 1 in 174,426.

That means it’s about 20,868 times more likely that you will get killed by lightning than by a refugee terrorist attack.

While we’re worried about astronomical odds, these people are dying. The death toll from the Syrian conflict is approaching half a million, including 50 thousand children.

Brothers and sisters, please don’t mishear me. I’m not saying that the USA shouldn’t change anything about its policies. Surely there are many problems which need fixed.

However, I beg you: please do not fall prey to the fear-mongering. Please think and reason as Christians first.

After all, you can only give your “total allegiance” to one thing.

Jesus Christ will not settle for second place to the United States.

So, stand up for the unborn and the refugees, not to mention the countless other marginalized, oppressed, and powerless people around us.

And I don’t even have time to get into how Christians should be concerned for religious liberties for all faiths. That’s a whole other sermon…

Because God’s Kingdom is an “upside-down” Kingdom, getting ahead in the Kingdom of God will frequently look foolish in the eyes of the world.

But, if our Gospel is true, then we of all people should be willing to put our lives and our reputations at risk for the sake of others – especially for the poor and the needy.

Closing Prayer

So, again, God, our Refuge, I ask that your Holy Spirit would transform us from the inside out

  • So that we would promote your justice
  • So that we would embody your steadfast faithful love
  • and so that we would humbly obey Your will,
  • even if it costs us our reputations,
  • and even if it costs us our lives.

I ask that this transformation would begin with me, and that it would extend to the ends of the earth. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

To Be or Not To Be Religious: A Clarification of Karl Barth’s and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Divergence and Convergence Regarding Religion

Christian theologians Karl Barth (1886-1968) and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) inherited a particular understanding of religion. In the broadly post-Kantian milieu, nineteenth-century thinkers such as Friedrich Schleiermacher, Albrecht Ritschl, and Adolf von Harnack defined religion essentially, anthropologically, and subjectively. That is, religion has a particular essence, and is in some manner inalienable from our humanity. The emphasis of this conception is on the experience of the religious subject, instead of the knowledge of religion’s object (let alone its reality).[1] It is this notion of religion that both Barth and Bonhoeffer challenged.

(For a[n attempted] summary of the Christian faith, see my essay: “Theology in Outline: What do I Believe?“)

However, despite the challenge they issued to their shared intellectual heritage, Barth and Bonhoeffer appear to diverge on both the definition and, therefore, the critique of religion – at least during the stage of Bonhoeffer’s 1943-45 imprisonment. While Barth unleashed a thoroughgoing theological critique of religion as faithlessness [Unglaube], he also insisted that humans were always and unavoidably religious.[2] Barth maintained that, despite the liabilities of religion, we cannot and should not be religionless because we are not truly godless.[3] Bonhoeffer, however, spoke in 1944-45 of a desirably “religionless Christianity.”[4] This, despite the fact that he ostensibly intended to carry forward Barth’s theological critique of religion – which was, in Bonhoeffer’s opinion, Barth’s “greatest merit” as a theologian.[5]

Whether Barth and Bonhoeffer share a common theological critique of religion has been subject to intense scholarly debate. To answer this question, we need first to ask another: What did Barth and Bonhoeffer mean by the term “religion”?  I propose that, although Barth’s and Bonhoeffer’s definitions of religion diverge, their critiques of religion converge. Barth developed a systematic/dialectical concept of religion as self-justification, which the early Bonhoeffer inherited. However, in prison, Bonhoeffer developed a historical/psychological definition of religion as an inward and partial approach to human life. We must realize that these are two different definitions of religion, lest we compare apples to oranges, as it were, and conclude that Barth’s and Bonhoeffer’s critiques of religion also diverged.

Once we realize the divergent definitions, we can see the convergent critiques of a particular essence of religion: the self-justifying projection of a deity – a projection which calls for theological analysis. That is, for both Barth and Bonhoeffer, at the heart of “religion” is the impulse to posit and make room for a “God,” in order to secure our own identities by means of and over against this deity. Although religion, thus understood, is inescapable, it is not constitutive of our humanity.

[[To continue reading, download the PDF: To Be or Not To Be Religious.]]

—Notes—

[1] See Christine Axt-Piscalar, “Liberal Theology in Germany,” in The Blackwell Companion to Nineteenth-Century Theology, ed. David Fergusson (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 468–85; Ernst Feil et al., “Religion,” in Religion Past and Present: Encyclopedia of Theology and Religion, vol. 11 (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 31–55; James C. Livingston, Modern Christian Thought: The Enlightenment and the Nineteenth Century, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006).

[2] See Karl Barth, On Religion: The Revelation of God as the Sublimation of Religion, trans. Garrett Green (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2006). This is a new translation of §17 in Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. I/2 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1956), 280–361. Henceforth, all references to the Church Dogmatics will appear in the following form: CD I/1, 1.

[3] CD IV/1, 483.

[4] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. John W. de Gruchy, trans. Isabel Best et al., DBWE 8 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009), 361–67.

[5] Ibid., 429.