It is Finished! So, Get to Work! – An Ascension Sermon

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.

WHAT ABOUT THE ASCENSION?

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

I mean, think about the emotional rollercoaster Christ’s followers must have ridden in those days. Rising hopes of God’s coming kingdom dashed to the ground at the Crucifixion – only to rise once more at the Resurrection!

“Jesus, you’re alive! Surely, surely now’s the time when you’re going to restore the kingdom to Israel, right?!

“I mean, you had us worried there for a minute, what with the whole executed like a common criminal thing… but SURELY now’s the time!

“Seize the day! Take the throne! Kill these Romans, won’t you?! Won’t you?!”

… Now, I’m sure that the Ascension was glorious. After all, Luke tells us that the disciples worshiped and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.

But the Ascension was still a goodbye.

And I’m sure that, eventually, the glory faded as the disciples gazed into heaven. And they needed the angels’ reminder:

“Men of Galilee, who do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” [Acts 1:11].

OK, so maybe it’s fairer to say that the Ascension was a “see-you-later.”

Fine.

But doesn’t the Ascension still leave things hanging?

Doesn’t it still leave our story – and the story of the Gospel – unfinished?

Well, yes…and no.

If I might paraphrase the angels’ message in Acts 1 as the title of my sermon, here it is:

“It’s finished! So, get to work!”

And here’s my main point:

The Ascension completes the Gospel and compels the Church.

HOW DOES THE ASCENSION COMPLETE THE GOSPEL?

How does the Ascension complete the Gospel?

Well, that requires knowing what the Gospel is, so here goes:

THE GOSPEL

In the beginning, God created the entire universe to be his temple, his kingdom – the place where he would dwell and rule.

And he created human beings – his image-bearers, his ambassadors, his “middle-management” – to extend his rule and reign throughout creation.

Instead of doing this, however, human beings rebelled against God.

Instead of bowing the knee to the King, they tried to steal his throne.

And this rebellion brought Sin and Death into the kingdom – breaking the relationships

  • between God and humanity,
  • between humanity and itself,
  • and between humanity and the rest of creation.

Where once there was perfect fellowship and communion, there was now distance and Exile.

And the story would have ended there, a tragedy, were it not for the goodness of our great God.

Because, you see, God was not going to let Sin, Death, and Exile have the final word! No!

He would pursue his people, he would buy them back from their slavery to Sin and Death, he would cleanse them from the inside out, and he would – one day – bring them back home.

The story of God’s rescue mission, then, is the Good News – it’s the Gospel.

In the Old Testament, the story of Israel is the beginning of this rescue mission.

In the Old Testament, God draws a people back into covenant relationship with himself.

And yet, the story of the Old Testament is left hanging on a tragic note.

Despite God’s continuing goodness, faithfulness, and salvation, his people prove stubbornly faithless.

And, even though they technically dwell in the geographical Promised Land, they are still in Exile.

They are still ruled, in the halls of power, by their political enemies. And they are still ruled, in their hearts, by Sin and Death.

And the story would have ended there, a tragedy, were it not for the goodness of our great God.

Because, you see, in the New Testament, God HIMSELF goes into Exile INSTEAD OF his people, in order to bring them back home.

I’d like you to picture this as a capital letter “V”.

Up here, you’ve got the eternal Son of God – fully divine.

Down here, is us. Drowning, as it were, in a cesspool of Sin and Death.

And instead of abandoning us…

(Heck, even instead of somehow saving us at an arm’s distance, after we start to clean up and get our act together.)

…Christ dives headfirst into the muck – into the cesspool of sin-stained human existence.

We call this the Incarnation.

So, great! God’s with us! In..this…cesspool! …Great?

At the Crucifixion, Jesus goes all the way to the very bottom point of that capital V.

He goes all the way into the furthest, farthest Exile – Death.

So, great! God’s dead.

How is this good news?!

Well, the story would have ended there, a tragedy, were it not for the goodness of our great God.

Because, you see, he went into the farthest Exile, so that we wouldn’t have to.

And he didn’t stay in the grave. No no no!

There’s another side to the capital V!

We can’t forget the Resurrection!

Jesus arose from the grave – he walked out of that tomb on Easter morning AAAAANNNNND…..

Well, we don’t know.

He appeared to some people. And then, well, we’re not really sure what happened to him.

We’re not really sure what it all meant.

The story would have ended there, left hanging between tragedy and triumph, were it not for the Ascension.

HOW THE ASCENSION COMPLETES THE GOSPEL

Brothers and sisters, we can’t forget the Ascension!

The Ascension COMPLETES the Gospel!

The Ascension is the final step in Christ’s return from Exile.

And, if we are united with Christ as a part of his body, the Church, the Ascension is the completion of OUR return from Exile as well!

The Ascension demonstrates that the Crucifixion and Resurrection were the final victory over Sin and Death.

Furthermore, the fact that Christ is not only crucified, and not only risen, but also ascended, and glorified, and seated on his heavenly throne means that he is the LORD.

Jesus Christ, though still fully human, though still fully acquainted with our many griefs, is not your buddy.

He’s not your pal that you can ignore at your convenience.

No, the Ascension reminds us that Christ is our King.

He is our Lord. And he is to be obeyed.

But, hey, since the capital V is finished, and Christ is on the throne, that means that we can all just sit around and do nothing, right?!

As long as we’re not doing something horrible?

I mean, the story’s OVER! I thought that’s what you just said, Josh.

No, not quite!

The Ascension does complete the Gospel – as its goal and culmination.

We will all one day be with Christ at the Father’s right hand in glory.

But the story’s not over, because the Ascension also compels the Church.

The Ascension completes the Gospel, and it also compels the Church.

HOW DOES THE ASCENSION COMPEL THE CHURCH?

How does the Ascension compel the Church?

Well, the Ascension gives the Church

  • its global mission,
  • its enduring hope,
  • and its enabling power.

Everyone with me so far?

We’ve talked about the Ascension’s theological significance, how the Ascension completes the Gospel.

Now let’s talk about the Ascension’s application to our lives – how the Ascension should both challenge us and encourage us.

THE ASCENSION GIVES THE CHURCH ITS GLOBAL MISSION

Here’s the challenge of the Ascension: it gives the Church its global mission.

As Luke told us twice today – in the book of Acts and the Gospel which bears his name – Jesus commissioned his followers as witnesses who were to proclaim the Good News across cultural and ethnic boundaries.

“to all nations” – that word, “nations,” ethnoi, more properly refers to people groups, to cultural and ethnic groups of people, than to modern nation states.

That is, there are plenty of ethnoi represented right here in the United States – including those that haven’t yet heard the gospel!

You remember what I said a minute ago about Jesus not being our buddy?

He’s our King! He’s to be obeyed!

And he wants us to proclaim the gospel to the entire world.

Which, let’s be honest, is easier said than done.

Why?

Because God’s global gospel runs counter to the nationalistic, tribalistic, and individualistic “gospels” of this earth.

The Good News of God’s global kingdom – won not through self-promotion or military conquest but through self-sacrifice and loving one’s enemies – this gospel runs counter to the false gospels of this world, including the false gospel of the American Dream.

And that cuts right across the grain of the entire political landscape – red state and blue state.

Now to be sure, hear me!, there is a difference between globalism and God’s global gospel.

But there is also a stark difference between the United States of America and the Kingdom of God – between American culture and Kingdom culture.

Let us, then, take heed, lest we American Christians make assimilation to American culture an unofficial prerequisite for the nations of the world.

There is no prerequisite.

There is no response of the world that gives the Church an excuse to abandon its global mission.

In light of the Ascension, the Church’s global mission is to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ across all cultural and ethnic boundaries – obeying its Ascended Lord, who once said:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” [Matt. 5:43-44].

OK, so this transcultural, enemy-loving gospel stuff sounds great hypothetically, but

  • what about when people blow themselves up to kill children at a concert in Manchester?
  • What about when people open fire on a bus full of Coptic Christians on their way to pray?
  • What about when they go on shooting sprees in shopping malls, movie theaters, schools, and churches?
  • Or what about when people are just so different, so unfamiliar, so awkward, that we just don’t know what to say?

What then?

Do we throw up our hands in despair?

THE ASCENSION GIVES THE CHURCH ITS ENDURING HOPE

Here’s the encouragement of the Ascension: it gives the Church its enduring hope.

Without the Ascension, we are left wondering whether the good news of Christ’s resurrection will extend to us.

We are left wondering whether the chaos in the world around us will ever cease.

How long, O Lord? How long before you stay the hand of the wicked?

How long before you destroy the earthly powers and dominions and authorities that divide us and destroy us?

Friends, we can still ask these questions today, but it makes all the difference in the world that Christ has ascended.

It makes all the difference in the world that Christ has been enthroned over all earthly powers and dominions and authorities.

Why?

Because the Ascension shows that Christ has triumphed over his enemies.

The way of the Cross has won out over the sinful ways of this world.

And the Ascension also anticipates the second coming of Christ.

Just like Jesus did not stay in the grave, he will not stay at a distance upon his heavenly throne – present in the Church only sacramentally.

No!

And just like he did not let Sin and Death have the final word, he will not let the servants of Sin and Death have the final word, either.

Instead, he will one day stay the hand of the wicked.

He will one day disarm and destroy those who have decided to persist in rebellion against him.

Christ is enthroned over all earthly powers! This is our enduring hope!

There’s no reason for us to hedge our bets, as it were, by bending the knee to any earthly power – friend or foe.

Instead, the Church can freely exist for the sake of the world, because we know that the world is in the hands of our ascended King.

THE ASCENSION GIVES THE CHURCH ITS ENABLING POWER: THE HOLY SPIRIT

So, you know, just get out there and try harder to love people and let them know about Jesus, no matter how different they are!

Right?!

Wrong.

We’re not fooling anyone. We can’t do this on our own.

Sure, we’ve got a global mission. And sure, we’ve got an enduring hope.

But we still need enabling power.

And the Ascension gives the Church its enabling power: the Holy Spirit.

At the end of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples:

“And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high” [Luke 24:53].

And, at the beginning of Acts, Jesus

“ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, ‘you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” [Acts 1:4-5].

A few verses later, Jesus says:

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” [Acts 1:8].

Now, I know I’m getting a bit ahead of myself.

After all, it’s still a week until Pentecost!

But, brothers and sisters, we can’t make it, not even for a week, without the Holy Spirit!

We are only gathered here this morning, some two thousand years since the Ascension, on the other side of the world, because the Holy Spirit has empowered the Church to fulfill its global mission.

And, even though we live in a divided, divisive, and terrifying world, the Holy Spirit can empower the Church today.

So, thanks be to God that the Ascension and Pentecost go hand in hand!

THE ASCENSION COMPLETES THE GOSPEL AND COMPELS THE CHURCH TO FULFILL ITS GLOBAL MISSION, CLINGING TO ITS ENDURING HOPE, EMPOWERED BY THE HOLY SPIRIT.

So, Father, we thank you for your persistence and patience to rescue us from Sin and Death.

Jesus, we bow the knee and worship you, our Ascended Lord. And we ask you to come again soon and make all things new.

And Holy Spirit, we ask you come. Give us the strength to love our neighbors and our enemies by proclaiming and living the gospel.

Amen.

Christians and Wealth

(The following post originally appeared on May 08, 2011.)

In our current context of wealth and poverty existing side by side in a milieu of materialistic consumerism, the Christian gospel of denying ourselves and making much of God is being abandoned for the American gospel of denying others and making much of ourselves.

American Christians have become content to live a baptized version of the American dream, a hollow faith that is about maximizing your earthly portfolio once your salvation is secured.

My main contention is that Christians in the United States should lower their standards of living to what is necessary for human flourishing and give their excess resources beyond this standard to the poor. In doing so, they will remain faithful to Scripture and discover a more satisfactory way of life.

Isn’t That Asceticism?

At this point some may claim that I am trying to advocate for a form of asceticism. Continue reading “Christians and Wealth”

The Feast of St. James the Apostle: A Homily for Ministers

Readings: Psalm 34; Jeremiah 16:14-21; Mark 1:14-20

Like so many other feast days – scheduled, as they are, on the days of the namesakes’ deaths – the feast day of St. James the Apostle is a strong rebuke to our aspirations. To our aspirations as human beings, and especially to our aspirations as ministers of Christ’s Church.

Saint James the Greater *oil on canvas *92.1 x 74.9 cm *signed b.r.: Rembrandt f. 1661
Saint James the Greater, by Rembrandt

James & John: Fishermen No More?

You see, James started off as a mere fisherman. An admirable one, to be sure, because he and his brother John answered Jesus’ call in Mark 1. They left behind their father, their family, and – they grew to hope! – their family’s fishing profession.

James was off on a new adventure, hopeful and headstrong. So much so that, along with his brother John, he earned the nickname “Son of Thunder”! Coming from the Son of Man, that’s no small compliment!

But their headstrong passion proved to be a weakness as well. In Luke 9, after getting rejected in Samaria, the Sons of Thunder offer to call fire down from heaven to consume the Samaritan village! This earns them a stern rebuke from Jesus.

And, even more famously, they approached Jesus with the following request in Mark 10:37:

Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.

Princes? Or Fishermen?

Now, their request is, in effect: “O King Jesus, would you please make us princes?”

And, granted, this is Apocryphal, but I imagine Jesus putting his arms around them and saying the following:

“Princes? Princes?! Boys, if I had wanted princes, I would have called princes! But, I don’t need princes!

No, no, no. What I need are new fishermen! And that’s why I’ve called you!”

You see, James had been hoping for a new position. And instead he received his old professiontransformed!

James was no longer to be a mere fisherman, but a fisher of men.

And not even just a fisher of men like Jeremiah 16 spoke of – for there the fishermen and hunters are instruments of judgment and exile.

No! Instead, James was to go fishing with, go fishing for Jesus, to bring people back from exile.

Now, undoubtedly, this is a step up from fishing for literal fish.

Or is it?

Not necessarily. At least, not in the world’s eyes.

The Death of St. James the Apostle

Here’s Jesus’ actual answer to the “prince” request:

Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”

And they said to him, “We are able.”

And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

Now, granted, this isn’t one of the assigned lectionary passages for today, but I’d like us to look at the beginning of Acts 12:

About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. He killed James the brother of John with the sword, and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also.

Swept aside, in just one verse! I doubt that sort of an abrupt, violent end awaited most of the fishermen working for Zebedee’s family business.

Was it worth it?

Was it worth it? Did James receive any sort of a promotion, after all?

Of course, we know the right answer. But do we live it out?

Are we thankful, are we satisfied with our roles as servants within Christ’s Church?

Are we willing to be “just” fishermen, even if it costs us our ambitions? Even if it costs us our lives?

Guido_Reni_-_Saint_James_the_Greater_-_Google_Art_ProjectBy God’s grace, I hope so.

By God’s grace, may we – with the Apostle James – be able to confess the final words of Psalm 34 with open eyes, and open hearts. Perhaps it will help to imagine the following words on the dying Apostle’s lips:

Many are the afflictions of the righteous,
but the Lord delivers him out of them all.
He keeps all his bones;
not one of them is broken.
Affliction will slay the wicked,
and those who hate the righteous will be condemned.
The Lord redeems the life of his servants;
none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.

Amen.

Frustrated with Church? You’re the Problem!

Yesterday, I asked you to join the Church if you, like me, are frustrated with the Church. The strongest critiques of religion come from within, not without, the Christian community. Plus, your frustrations are likely shared by many others within the Church!

However, it’s not enough to point the finger at others from your pew, instead of doing so from the public square. Yes, that’s a good first step, but another one is necessary.

You – and I – need to be willing to take ownership for the Church’s failures.

Continue reading “Frustrated with Church? You’re the Problem!”

Frustrated with Church? Join the Club…

…and by “club” I of course mean “Church”!

What am I getting at? Am I calling the Church a mere “club”?

No. Although, unfortunately, it often feels that way, doesn’t it?

  • A club full of hypocrisy, idolatry, indifference, and platitudes.
  • A club full of power-plays, fear-mongering, and Bible-thumping.
  • A club full of saints too afraid to admit that they are sinners.

Perhaps you’re sick of this “club,” and you’re ready to leave, if you haven’t left already.

I’m asking you to stay. To come back. To join for the first time.

Why?

Because the Church must be composed of people who realize the Church’s shortcomings and failures.

Otherwise, it is just a club.

I’m asking you to stay, because most leaders within the Church share your frustrations.

Because the strongest critiques of religion come from within, not without, the Christian community.

And because, as I’ll talk about tomorrow, you’re part of the problems. And so am I.

So, let’s work toward solving them together. Within the Church.

 

Let’s Take Seth Godin to Church

 

I’m not going to lie. My first reaction when I saw the cover of this book? 

No! Of course you’re not indispensable. What use could this crap possibly be to the Church, or to me – simultaneously a pastor and a pastor-in-training.

Then, however, I read the book. And I suggest you do, too!

(Note: affiliate link. I get paid if you make a purchase.)

Seth Godin, bald marketing extraordinaire, is convinced that a paradigm shift has taken place. I’ll quote from his annotated table of contents (which, by the way, I wish all books had):

We have gone from two teams (management and labor) to a third team, the linchpins. These are people who own their own means of production, who can make a difference, lead us, and connect us. The death of the factory means that the entire system we have built our lives around is now upside down. This is either a huge opportunity or a giant threat. Revolutions are frightening because the new benefits sometimes lag behind the old pain. This time, the opportunity is to bring your best self to the marketplace and be rewarded for it (vii).

For the past few generations, we’ve grown used to the implicit deal: If you go to school, learn how to follow instructions, work hard, and show up on time, we’ll take care of you.

But, at least in many sectors, the bargain has fallen apart.

So, Godin advises us to become linchpins in whatever industry we find ourselves. We must treat our work as art, and combine a variety of skills to address complex situations.

We must be able to figure out what to do next, without it being spelled out for us in an instruction manual.

OK, great. But what does this have to do with CHURCH?

I believe pastors are uniquely situated to be linchpins.

They are the leaders of a largely volunteer organization. And, Pastoral Epistles notwithstanding, there is no instruction manual (God forbid we treat the Bible like an instruction manual!).

So they must treat their work as art. If they just phone it in and serve their time, they’ll be left with only the people who phone it in and serve their time as church members!

I believe Christians are uniquely situated to be linchpins in their workplaces.

I plan to write more about this in future posts, but it’s ridiculous how much of the self-help advice out there these days aligns with the things Christians should be the very best at!

A bunch of Godin’s advice centers around treating other people as full human beings, and on giving freely without the expectation of debt or compensation (See chapters “The Powerful Culture of Gifts” and “The Culture of Connection”).

I don’t know about you, but that sounds familiar.

As pastors focus on leading by example – by being linchpins themselves – they could start explicit conversations about the connections between worship on Sunday and work (which should also be worship) on the other six days.

Finally, I believe that each church is uniquely situated to be a linchpin in its community.

What if churches were known for showing artful, personal, and prodigal love to their communities, without expectation of increased attendance on a Sunday morning?

What if we were seeker-sensitive, without selling out to the “latest” corporate and marketing strategies (which, often enough, rely upon the old paradigm)?

What if, especially in North America, we stopped complaining about “persecution,” and started creatively taking advantage of the situations in which we find ourselves?

I don’t have all the answers to these questions, but I’m convinced they’re worth asking!

Godin is convinced that people are starving for personal connection in a world filled with faceless factories and multinational corporations.
I’m convinced that the Church – the Body of Christ – has just the food to feed those starving.

~Josh (@joshuapsteele)


(Note: affiliate link. I get paid if you make a purchase.)

My Sermon: Our Help

Hey internet: I was recently given the chance to preach at my church, St. Peter’s Anglican, on the Second Sunday of Lent. The sermon audio is now online. If you’ve got 23 minutes to spare, give it a listen

First, here are the passages

  • Psalm 121
  • Genesis 12:1-4
  • Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
  • John 3:1-17

Then, make sure to ignore my two seconds of speech from 16:35-16:37 in the audio, I departed from my notes — which ended at “Nicodemus then fades from the narrative,” (which he does in the passage at hand) — and said that Nicodemus apparently never gets it and never shows up again. As I was quickly reminded after the service, he does appear twice more in John’s Gospel. Oops! Next time I’ll stick to my notes and not make any extemporaneous comments about minor characters without thinking through the context first. 

Grace and Peace

~Josh

Cedarville…

I wish I could say I was proud of my alma mater…

Despite my Lenten Facebook fast, I was made aware of the following post by my friend Marlena Graves. I thought I’d share it, just in case anyone is considering Cedarville as a choice for college. I’d still strongly recommend you attend another institution, where you can trust the administration. My previous thoughts on these matters still stand.

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“Dear friends, 

“Every. Single. Week. I am contacted by people who attend and work at CU who are just miserable. I pray about what to say and what not to say; my motives aren’t malicious. This morning I was reading about Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and how he couldn’t believe that the Christians in Germany remained silent about Hitler or actively conspired with Hitler to get rid of the Jews. This situation at CU is no Germany. But faculty and staff at the school I loved are now forced into silence. They’re being oppressed. If they speak, they’ll lose their jobs. Their FB accounts and e-mails are monitored. A coup occurred at CU as it did at Southern Seminary, Southwestern Seminary, and Southeastern Seminary at the hands of Paige Patterson. Paige Patterson is now a trustee and mentor to the new president, Dr. White. Many who made decisions who fought to keep us and our friends (Bible profs/Carl Ruby and others) at the school told us that it was a coup. So the current administration doesn’t care about what fac/staff think. And students are there temporarily so….The chair of the board has said that he is willing to take the school down to 1200 to get their way. Shawn and I can afford to speak up because we didn’t sign a non-disclosure agreement. We are thriving and not bitter. But, I do get angry about how people are being treated. Thank God Shawn got a job right away and didn’t have to worry about providing for his family. Every single person who knows me will tell you I deliberate about my words. I am tired of the pain people are going through. And so I speak up because I can. I think this is the last chance for those currently there to give an outcry. Otherwise it’s over for them. They have moved to forbid egalitarians from teaching there, too. Next year, if you cannot say you are comp, you cannot work there. Only money and power can accomplish such a coup. I have no money or power. But, I have the freedom to speak up. So this below is just more evidence of what is going on. Students pray for your professors and staff. Many are suffering and can’t even tell you. Many of their jobs are on the line. They continue to clean house while silencing people. Pay attention to who is no longer there and from where they hire their new faculty. I’ve lost count of who is gone. People have to decide whether or not they’ll feed their families or speak up. So please, speak up on their behalf!

“Take a look at the fall course schedule. The new female Bible prof’s classes are limited to female students only:http://www.cedarville.edu/courses/schedule/2014fa_bi_beth.htm. Even under Dr. Dixon, that was never the case for Jean Fisher’s classes.”

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Grace and Peace, 

~Josh

My Regional ETS Presentation: Reconciliation and the Lack Thereof

If you’re in the Birmingham area from March 21-22, 2014, and you’re interested in evangelical theology, please consider attending the Evangelical Theological Society’s Southeastern Regional Meeting at Beeson Divinity School! This year’s theme is “the theological interpretation of Scripture,” and the plenary speaker is Wheaton’s Daniel J. Treier (incidentally, Dr. Treier and I are both alumni of Cedarville…go figure). 

Furthermore, if you’re free from 5:00-5:30pm on Friday, March 21, consider swinging by room S009 to hear me present “Reconciliation and the Lack Thereof: Atonement, Ecclesiology, and the Unity of God.” The atonement and the unity of the Church are topics that I’m passionate about, and I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity to give my first ever conference paper. Here’s the abstract: 

This essay endeavors to demonstrate the theological and exegetical legitimacy of viewing the atonement as the act in which the one God fulfills his creative purposes by bringing his uniqueness and simplicity to bear on our sinful, divisive condition through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah in order to save a people to robust unity with himself, each other, and the entire creation. Given Adam Johnson’s thesis regarding God’s triune being-in-act, the fullness of the divine perfections, and the unity and diversity of Christ’s saving work, I draw upon the theology of Karl Barth and pertinent biblical data to frame a theory of the atonement based on the unity of God. Although the lack of ecclesiological unity is the impetus for my study, I choose primarily to emphasize the synthesis of God’s unity and the doctrine of reconciliation. That is, I focus on the theological explanations within the atonement of why the church is to be unified. However, after framing a unity-based theory of the atonement, I conclude this study by casting a vision for the ecclesiological implications of such a theory.

If you can’t make it to my presentation, but you’re interested in the topic, check out my previous series of posts and the undergraduate thesis paper from which this conference paper is drawn. Also, consider buying the new paperback edition of Adam J. Johnson’s God’s Being in Reconciliation: The Theological Basis of the Unity and Diversity of the Atonement in the Theology of Karl Barth (T&T Clark Studies in Systematic Theology). It’s much cheaper than the previous hardcover edition, and without his fresh insights into the doctrine of the atonement and Barthian theology, my paper would not have been possible. 

Finally, please attend the entire conference at Beeson if possible! Here’s the full schedule.

Grace and Peace

~Josh

 

De Trinitate

BY: JOSHUA P. STEELE // NOVEMBER 4, 2013. Click here for PDF.

INTRODUCTION: THE NATURE OF THE TRINITY

One God. Three persons. The orthodox paradox of this Christian confession confounds many, due to its apparent contradictions, abstractions, and absence from Scripture. From Arius to Augustine and beyond, trinitarian debates have raged even among those who agree that God exists, that the Bible is true, and that it is therefore worthwhile to consider what the Bible says because it reveals the existent God. Although the best discussions of the Trinity begin with an acknowledgment of its inscrutable mystery which eludes the grasp of human reason’s highest reach, a sober analysis of the doctrine’s canonical presence and historical outworking may help to answer the charges that the Trinity is a nonsensical, unbiblical abstraction worthy of abandonment. 

Although it is precisely the Trinity’s classical formulation that receives the criticisms just noted, it is important to begin at the end, so to speak, by introducing the operative terms before analyzing the scriptural context out of which and the historical context in which these trinitarian terms grew. The definitive statement of trinitarian belief is the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381 CE, discussed below.1 In brief, however, Christians confess belief in one God who eternally and only exists in one divine substance, essence, or ousia, and in three divine subsistences, Persons, or hypostases.2 One in three, three in one: Father, Son, and Spirit – each Person equally and essentially God, and yet each distinct from the other two.

CANONICAL PRESENCE

A common objection to the doctrine of the Trinity as just stated is that it nowhere appears within the pages of Scripture. And indeed, despite the favorite trinitarian proof-texts in which Father, Son, and Spirit appear together, “no doctrine of the Trinity in the Nicene sense is present in [even] the New Testament.”3 However, as Jenson persuasively argues, “the doctrine of the Trinity is indeed in Scripture, if one abandons modernity’s notion that statement in so many words as formulated is the only way that a doctrine can appear there.”4 Instead, the narrative of Scripture portrays the Trinity “by telling a history of God with us that displays three enactors of that history, each of which is indeed other than the other two and yet is at the same time the same God as the other two.”5

These three dramatis personae Dei, or “persons of the divine drama,” appear throughout Scripture as God – “as a persona in Israel’s story – of which he is simultaneously the author.”6 YHWH – the God of Israel who created the world and delivered through the Exodus – is the Father by virtue of Jesus’ address of him as such.7 The Son is Jesus of Nazareth by virtue of this same address, but also in light of passages such as Psalm 2, appropriated in Hebrews 1 to identify Jesus as the divine Son.8 Finally, the Spirit appears as a persona of the story, first in the OT as the Spirit of YHWH which gives life and “keeps the creation moving toward its fulfillment,” and then in the NT as the one in relationship between the Father and the Son, who is poured out upon the Church.9

The significance of trinitarian “proof-texts” mentioned above is that they portray the three persons of the divine drama in close proximity. Most significant of these is the baptismal formula of Matthew 28:19, spoken by the Son himself: “…baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Although the earliest Christians used poignant trinitarian phrases before the full implications of such had been thoroughly considered, these biblical patterns provided “the raw data from which the more developed descriptions of the Christian doctrine of God [would] come.”10 The classical formulation of the Trinity did not arise from a scriptural vacuum.

HISTORICAL OUTWORKING

Neither was the doctrine formed in a historical vacuum. Instead, as Wainwright notes: “the classic creeds were being formulated at the same time as the canon of the Scriptures was being recognized and determined; there was interaction between the two processes, and the Scriptures and the creeds continue to function reciprocally.”11 The ecumenical creeds – such as the Apostles’, Niceno-Constantinopolitan (381), and the Chalcedonian Definitio Fidei (451) – serve as an interpretive key to the complex Scriptures, and yet also distill the divine drama of the Bible into a concise summary.12

A crucial facet of trinitarian doctrine in which this dialectic took place was the distinction between the immanent and the economic Trinity – the former referring to the Trinity within itself, and the latter referring to the Trinity’s external relationship to the universe. While the majority of Scripture provides portrayals of the economic Trinity interacting with creation, it also offers enticing glimpses into the immanent relationships between the persons of the divine drama.13 The doctrine that developed from such glimpses offered a way of distinguishing between how God relates to himself and to everything else, but also concluded that “the immanent Trinity lives no other plot than that displayed in the economic Trinity, that when you are taken into the story told in Scripture, you are taken into God himself.”14 In other words, “there is no deeper reality of God lurking in the background” behind the three Persons of the Godhead.15 Although many of the disagreements took place before the distinction between the economic and immanent Trinity was formalized, the contours of the historical trinitarian debates revolve around where the conceptual boundary lies between the two.16

A concern for the preservation of God’s unity motivated many of the early controversies. For example, Paul of Samosata collapsed the immanent Trinity to the Father alone, pushing the Son and Spirit into the economy, in their respective relations to the human being Jesus and the apostles – the view known as adoptionism.17 Similarly, Sabellius pushed all three divine Persons into the economy, positing that the immanent Godhead was one God who exists in three modes or roles of being to the external creation – the view known as modalism.18 Finally, it was Arius’s commitment to monotheism that led him to shrink the immanent Trinity down to the Father alone – concluding that, because God is the indivisible cause of all that exists, he must have existed prior to the Son, who is “not everlasting or co-everlasting or unbegotten with the Father.”19

Although each of these views would ultimately find condemnation in the creeds of the Church, it was Arius’s conception of a created Son that ignited the controversy that led to the Council of Nicaea (325), which refuted Arianism by declaring that the Son is “begotten, not made, being of one substance [homoousios] with the Father.”20 However, the trinitarian debates continued, in part because of the relative ambiguity of the term homoousios and the ability of different factions to interpret it as they wished.21 The years between the Council of Nicaea and the Council of Constantinople (381) were theologically chaotic as Athanasius of Alexandria and the Cappadocian fathers (Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa) fought for the Nicene view of the Trinity against its detractors, Arian and otherwise.22

However, along the lines of Arius’s original concerns, if the Son and the Spirit are granted full divinity along with the Father (as they are in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed), why do Christians confess one God and not three? Gregory of Nyssa addressed these concerns first by appealing to the differences between the trinitarian terms ousia (common essence) and hypostasis (distinct personal subsistence). Belonging to the category of collective or common nouns – which unite by referring to the common nature shared by diverse members of the same category – ousia refers to the divine essence or substance, shared equally by the three hypostases of the Godhead so that they are properly homoousioi, or of the same substance, with one another.23 However, belonging to the category of individual or proper nouns – which distinguish by referring to only one member of a particular category – hypostasis refers to the individual identity or subsistence of each divine Person which demarcates it from the other two.24 The divine hypostases are distinguishable in that “the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost are one in all things save in the being unbegotten [Father], the being begotten [Son], and the procession [Spirit].”25

The distinction between a common ousia and distinct hypostases therefore prevents the collapse of the Trinity, yet through a crucial difference between the distinction-in-unity with regard to humanity and with regard to the divine. After all, it is difficult to ascertain the unifying ousia of humanity because the distinct hypostases both appear and behave in such discordant ways. Due to their myriad differences and a merely conceptual unity, humans are not properly referred to as one human but many. In contrast, the unity of the three divine hypostases is actual, by virtue of the trinitarian rule opera trinitatis ad extra indivisa sunt.26 As Gregory of Nyssa notes, “every activity which pervades from God to creation and is named according to our manifold design starts off from the Father, proceeds through the Son, and is completed by the Holy Spirit.”27 Christians worship one God, because although each divine Person is God, “by the same proclamation God is one, because neither in regard to nature [or ousia] nor activity is any difference viewed.”28 Unlike the diverse and discordant human hypostases, the divine persons are completely unified in their will and operations. Therefore, in the words of Gregory of Nazianzus: “the Godhead exists undivided in beings divided.”29

CONCLUSION

To return to what was mentioned at the outset, the best discussions of the Trinity also end with an acknowledgment of its inherent mystery which eludes the grasp of human reason’s highest reach. Theological modesty is always in order, in part because of the unavoidable limitations of finite human speech about anything, much less about the infinite God. Granted, certain ways of framing how God can be one and yet three are better than others, not only based upon their coherence with the traditions of orthodoxy, but also with regard to their impact on other areas of theological concern – such as the atonement and interpersonal relationships.30 And yet, because true theology is not learning how to speak about God in order to master him intellectually, but in order to worship him faithfully, a persistent lacuna in trinitarian understanding is surely acceptable. For, although the gracious condescension of the triune God enables our faith to seek understanding successfully, the inscrutable mysteries of the same triune God ensure that some understandings will ever transcend our faith’s reach.

======== NOTES =========

1 All dates CE, unless otherwise noted. Wainwright notes that the Niceno-Constantinopolitan creed “has remained the most widely affirmed statement of trinitarian faith in both East and West.” Geoffrey Wainwright, “Trinity” in Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible (ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer et al.; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 815.

2 The three terms in each of these two sets will be used synonymously throughout, unless otherwise noted. Substance = essence = ousia. Subsistence = person = hypostasis. Capitalized “Person” will refer to divine, and not human, personality.

3 Rusch notes that the binitarian NT formulas are: Rom. 8:11; 2 Cor. 4:1; Gal. 1:1; Eph. 1:20; 1 Tim. 1:2; 1 Pet. 1:21; and 2 John 1:13. The trinitarian NT formulas are: Matt 28:19; 1 Cor. 6:11; 12:4ff.; Gal. 3:11-14; Heb. 10:29; 1 Pet. 1:2. William G. Rusch, trans./ed., The Trinitarian Controversy (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980), 2. Without denying the importance of such passages, Jenson rightly laments those who “scrabble around in the Bible for bits and pieces of language to cobble together into a sort of Trinity-doctrine – usually with intellectually lamentable and indeed sometimes heretical results.” Robert W. Jenson, “The Trinity in the Bible,” CTQ 68 (2004): 196.

4 Jenson, 197. Emphasis original.

5 Jenson, 199. The divinity of the Father is perhaps the easiest to note throughout the Bible. On the divinity of the Son, see John 1, 10; Col. 2; Phil. 2; and Heb. 1. On the divinity of the Spirit, see 1 Cor. 2:11; Heb. 3:7-10; and 10:15-17. I have here stuck to the contours of Jenson’s argument in lieu of the common arguments for the divinity of Son and Spirit, e.g.

6 Jenson, 198-202. The phrase “dramatis personae Dei” is Jenson’s adaptation of Tertullian’s verbiage.

7Cf. John 5:16-23; Jenson, 199. Although this is almost assuredly an oversimplification, cf. Marshall’s claim that “the Father is the God of Israel, the Son is the God of Israel, and the Holy Spirit is the God of Israel, yet they are not three Gods of Israel, but one God of Israel.” B. Marshall, “Do Christians Worship the God of Israel” in Knowing the Triune God (ed. J. Buckley and D. Yeago; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 258; quoted by Wainwright, 817. However, Jenson’s main point still stands, by virtue of Jesus’ address to the Father establishing both Fatherhood and Sonship within the Trinity.

8 Cf. Ps. 2:7; Heb. 1:1-14. In addition, Jenson (200-3) focuses on showing the presence of the Trinity in the OT, where it is so often neglected, by positing that the Son shows up via the themes of the angel of the Lord, the name of the Lord, and the glory of the Lord..

9Jenson, 199, 204; cf. Gen. 1:2; Ps. 51:11; Isa. 11:2; Ezek. 37:1-14; John 14:15-31; Acts 1:7-8; 2:1-41; Rom. 1:4; 8:11.

10 Rusch, 2. Gregory of Nazianzus captures the progressive nature of this scriptural trinitarian revelation well: “the old covenant made clear proclamation of the Father, a less definite one of the Son. The new covenant made the Son manifest, and gave us a glimpse of the Spirit’s Godhead. At the present time, the Spirit resides amongst us, giving us a clearer manifestation of himself than before.” See Gregory of Nazianzus, Fifth Theological Oration (Oration 31): On the Holy Spirit, 14, in On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and Two Letters to Cledonius (Popular Patristics Series 23; trans. Frederick Williams and Lionel Wickham; Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002), 26.

11 Wainwright, 815.

12 Jenson, 205; Wainwright, 815.

13 Cf. Jesus’ “high priestly prayer” of John 17 and the glimpse of the relationship between Father and Son.

14 Jenson, 206.

15 Jenson, 205.

16 That is, while the debates did not originally or chronologically take place in terms of “immanent/economic Trinity,” the concept provides a helpful analytical framework when considering the trinitarian controversies. .

17 Adoptionism is also known as “dynamic monarchianism.” Rusch, 8.

18 Modalism is also known as “modalist monarchianism.” Rusch, 9.

19 Arius’s “Letter to Alexander of Alexandria,” §4, in Rusch, 32.

20 “The Creed of the Synod of Nicaea (June 19, 325)” in Rusch, 49.

21 Rusch, 20.

22 Rusch, 22.

23 Gregory of Nyssa, “To Peter his own brother on the divine ousia and hypostasis,” 2a-c. in Anna M. Silvas, Gregory of Nyssa: The Letters (Boston: Brill, 2007), 250-1; “Concerning that We Should Think of Saying That There Are Not Three Gods to Ablabius” in The Trinitarian Controversy (trans./ed. William G. Rusch; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980), 149-51.

24 Gregory of Nyssa, “To Peter,” 3a, 4d-f in Silvas, 251,3.

25 John of Damascus, “An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith,” I.2, in Saint John of Damascus: Writings (trans. Frederic H. Chase, Jr.; Washington D.C.: The Catholic University Press of America, 1958), 167.

26 “The external operations of the Trinity are indivisible.”

27 Gregory of Nyssa, “To Ablabius,” in Rusch, 155.

28 Gregory of Nyssa, “To Ablabius,” in Rusch, 159

29 Gregory of Nazianzus, Fifth Theological Oration,127.

30 In fact, feminist critiques have helped to address trinitarian sloppiness in theological explorations of the atonement and interpersonal relationships. See Scot McKnight, A Community Called Atonement (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2007), 40-3 and Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1996), 27, 167-190.