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.

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.

 

Improvising Church & State: Overaccepting as a Synthesis of Anglican and Anabaptist Approaches

INTRODUCTION: ACCEPTING, BLOCKING, AND STATUS

From the church’s perspective, is the state a promising offer, or a threatening one? At the risk of breathtaking oversimplification, Anglicans have tended to adopt the former perspective, leading to accommodation, and Anabaptists the latter, resulting in separation.[1] Following Samuel Wells in his theological appropriation of terms from theatrical improvisation, the Anglican tradition has tended to respond to the promising offers (invitations to respond) of the state by accepting – maintaining the premise(s) of the state’s action(s).[2] The historical legacy of the Church of England has given Anglicanism, as Anderson notes, an “inheritance of a strong loyalty to the state and a conservatism that has led the church to promote the status quo more often than it agitates for reform.”[3] This inheritance from the established Church of England has coincided with a dual tendency to adopt a high status (a strategy for getting one’s way), in terms of relative privilege and political optimism, and a low status, in terms of frequent subservience in church-state relations.[4]

However, the Anabaptist tradition has tended to respond to the threatening offers of the state by blocking – undermining the premise(s) of the state’s action(s).[5] For many contemporary Anabaptists, as Joireman summarizes, “[T]he state has the function of ordering the social world, and the church should be the visible witness of believers, the primary affiliation of Christians, and separate from the state.”[6] Passively, blocking the state can be “a choice to shut oneself away and keep oneself unsullied by the world.”[7] Most often, drawing upon their sixteenth-century inheritance of facing persecution from Catholics and Protestants alike, Anabaptists have adopted a low status as somewhat of a fringe movement. Actively, however, blocking can be “a choice to take up arms,” as seen during the (admittedly rare) example of high status Anabaptist opposition during the Münster Rebellion of 1534.[8]

QUESTIONING GIVENS

Continue reading “Improvising Church & State: Overaccepting as a Synthesis of Anglican and Anabaptist Approaches”

Women’s Service in the Church (NT Wright) Pt. 1

The following are some poignant excerpts (in my opinion) from N.T. Wright’s conference paper, “Women’s Service in the Church: The Biblical Basis,” for the Symposium, ‘Men, Women and the Church’ at St John’s College, Durham on September 4, 2004. I’ll start with excerpts from his introductory remarks today, before moving on to his comments on Galatians 3, the Gospels and Acts, 1 Corinthians, and 1 Timothy. If you don’t feel like waiting around for me to parcel the address out in blogposts, however, read the full version here

Nota bene: My Emphases. [My Additions.] 

[The Potential and Peril of Terminology:]

“I do worry a bit about the word ‘equality’ and the language of ‘egalitarian’ and so on. I recognise what is being said of course, and if I didn’t endorse that point I probably wouldn’t be speaking here now; but those words carry so much freight in ouor various cultures that I do wonder whether it’s wise, whether it actually helps the cause you want to set forward, to highlight those terms in the way you do. Not only is the word a red rag to all kinds of bulls who perhaps don’t need to be aggravated in that way (though some may); it is always in danger of being inaccurate, far too broad, implying to many (wrongly of course, but one cannot police what people will hear in technical terms) not only equality but identity. Likewise, to use the word ‘complementary’ and its cognates to denote a position which says that not only are men and women different but that those differences mean that women cannot exercise ministry, or some kinds of ministry, within the church, is I think a shame; as I shall suggest, I think the word ‘complementary’ is too good and important a word to let that side of the argument have it all to themselves.

[All-or-Nothing Need Not Apply:]

“Part of the problem, particularly in the United States, is that cultures become so polarized that it is often assumed that if you tick one box you’re going to tick a dozen other boxes down the same side of the page – without realising that the page itself is highly arbitrary and culture-bound. We have to claim the freedom, in Christ and in our various cultures, to name and call issues one by one with wisdom and clarity, without assuming that a decision on one point commits us to a decision on others. I suspect, in fact, that part of the presenting problem which has generated CBE is precisely the assumption among many American evangelicals that you have to buy an entire package or you’re being disloyal, and that you exist because you want to say that on this issue, and perhaps on many others too (gun control? Iraq?), the standard hard right line has allowed itself to be conned into a sub-Christian or even unChristian stance. Anyway, enough of that; I just wanted to flag up the contexts within which you and I are talking, and warn against any kind of absolutism in our particular positions.

[Creation]

“Many people have said, and I have often enough said it myself, that the creation of man and woman in their two genders is a vital part of what it means that humans are created in God’s image. I now regard that as a mistake. After all, not only the animal kingdom, as noted in Genesis itself, but also the plant kingdom, as noted by the reference to seed, have their male and female. The two-gender factor is not at all specific to human beings, but runs right through a fair amount of the rest of creation. This doesen’t mean it’s unimportant, indeed it means if anything it’s all the more important; being male and being female, and working out what that means, is something most of creation is called to do and be, and unless we are to collapse into a kind of gnosticism, where the way things are in creation is regarded as secondary and shabby over against what we are now to do with it, we have to recognise, respect and respond to this call of God to live in the world he has made and as the people he has made us. It’s just that we can’t use the argument that being male-plus-female is somehow what being God’s imagebearers actually means.”

Again, more on Wright’s take(s) on pertinent passages coming soon. 

But for now, I think it’s important to consider Wright’s last points, regarding creation as male and female, in light of Miroslav Volf’s following quote from Exclusion and Embrace

The ontologization of gender would ill serve both the notion of God and the understanding of gender. Nothing in God is specifically feminine; nothing in God is specifically masculine; therefore nothing in our notions of God entails duties or prerogatives specific to one gender; all duties and prerogatives entailed in our notions of God are duties and prerogatives of both genders. This, I think, is the significance of the fact that, as Phyllis Bird has shown, gender distinctions are unrelated to the image of God according to Genesis 1 (Bird 1981; Bird 1991). Men and women share maleness and femaleness not with God but with animals. They image God in their common humanity. Hence we ought to resist every construction of the relation between God and femininity or masculinity that privileges one gender, say by claiming that men on account of their maleness represent God more adequately than women (with LaCugna 1993, 94ff.) or by insisting that women, being by nature more relational, are closer to the divine as the power of connectedness and love.“ (Volf 1996, 173-4; emphasis added).

What say you?

If the point that we share gender more with animals then with God is true, and if, as Wright claims, it does not destroy the importance of gender, what does it do? What effect should that point have on Christian discussions of gender? 

Is reading gender back into God a real danger when doing Christian theology?

If so, what are the best ways to avoid doing so in our discussions of gender identity in Christian circles? 

 

 

 

Concerning Romans

Well, judging by my blog stats for the past 48 hours — as compared with the past few months — I’d get many more views on this post if it concerned the chaos at Cedarville University!

However, my schedule and blood pressure won’t allow me to devote any more time to my shameful alma mater at the moment. I’ve got a presentation at the 2014 Southeast Regional Meeting of ETS tomorrow (see my previous post, and come to my presentation at 5:00pm in room S009!), and even though Beeson Divinity School’s Spring Break is right around the corner, I’ve still got a fair share of reading to get done. 

Nevertheless, given the current discussion in my New Testament Theology — two classes on Romans — I thought I might re-post two of my previous works: 

  1. Romans. Revisited. (or “The Argument-Story of Romans”): my final write-up for Dr. Chris Miller’s course on Romans and Galatians at Cedarville University. We were due to have an oral exam on the last day of class, in which we talked-through the logic of the epistle. I wrote this summary the night before the exam, and was given the opportunity to present it to the class. I now present it to you! Feel free to give me some push-back! 
  2. Romans 13:1-7 — A Contextually-Appropriate Reading: a paper I wrote for the same course as mentioned above, in which I defend the following thesis: “Far from being a comprehensive condensation of the apostle’s beliefs regarding any and all governments past and present, [Romans 13:1-7] is a specific and historically-conditioned pastoral address to the Roman believers, discouraging them from political unrest, disobedience, and rebellion in order to protect their testimony and the effectiveness of the Roman church in the gospel mission.”

That’s all for now. 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

 

The Perfect Translation

Over the break between semesters at Beeson Divinity School, I’m reviewing Bruce Waltke’s The Dance Between God and Humanity: Reading the Bible Today as the People of God and Philip Goodwin’s Translating the English Bible: From Relevance to Deconstruction for Liverpool Hope University’s Theological Book Review.

I’ve just finished the latter, and hope to write my review in the next day or two. However, I’d like to share the following quotes on Deconstructive Literalism and The Perfect Translation, because I find the concepts intriguing as a student of Eugene Nida’s dynamic or functional equivalence (when it comes to both NT Greek and modern Spanish), and a newcomer to relevance theory, which Goodwin uses to provide a way forward in the shadow of the KJV tradition. More on that later. In the meantime: 

“What Aichele has noticed is that if the interpreter wants to ‘see’ the source text, he or she would prefer not to have another interpreter standing in the way. The problem with a dynamic equivalence translation, then, is that it does not permit deconstruction of the source text. The translation represents an ideological undertaking which itself can be readily deconstructed, but does not provide access to the source. (207-8).

[…]

“Now, of course Ryken and Collins, whilst advocating concordant translation on the one hand, also desire, on the other hand, to maintain the control over meaning to which Aichele refers, by implicitly linking concordance to thematics. In other words, concordance is seen as desirable because it reinforces the theme (‘the message’, again) of the text, to which it is seen as a servant. They leave unexamined the question of what to do when the phenomenon of concordance might be turned against thematics, to undermine it — to deconstruct it. One man’s exegesis is, however, another’s deconstruction. A concordant translation of a text might serve equally to reveal Aichele’s ‘defects and problems’ or Ryken’s ‘full exegetical potential’ — to reinforce its ‘intention’, or to undermine it. I will argue that it does both. (208).

[…] 

“The perfect translation is the one whose relationship to a source text is such that it permits both the construction of the releveant interpretation of that text, and its deconstruction.” (209). 

(Italics: original emphasis; Bold: added emphasis)

The Epistle to Philemon: Analysis and Application

 

As the briefest member of the Pauline corpus, the epistle to Philemon is a letter of recommendation for the sake of reconciliation in which the apostle Paul brings the gospel truth of mutual participation in the body of Christ to bear on an estranged relationship – making a delicate request of his friend Philemon to receive back a certain Onesimus into full fellowship as a brother in Christ.[1]

Comprehension of the passage’s contemporaneous Greco-Roman epistolary landscape facilitates a knowledgeable analysis of its constituent parts.[2] Subsequently, the interpretive insights yielded by this examination facilitate an application of the letter to the contemporary Christian church.

Greco-Roman Letters

Originally referring to “an oral communication sent by messenger,” the Hellenistic ἐπιστολή eventually encompassed a wide variety of documents – from commercial to legal, political to personal.[3] As Greidanus notes, the basic form of a Greco-Roman letter was tripartite, consisting of introduction/opening, body, and conclusion.[4]

The first section named the sender and addressee, often including a brief greeting and “a wish for good health.”[5] Most difficult to analyze formally, the body of Hellenistic letters was flexible enough to encompass content suited to each writing’s particular communicative act.[6] Finally, “greetings to persons other than the addressee, a final greeting or prayer sentence, and sometimes a date” comprised a typical conclusion to Greco-Roman epistles.[7]

In contrast to literary essays and official documents of the day, written to general audiences apart from any relational context, Paul’s letters are more private and personal – exhibiting his pastoral concern for those to whom he was a representative of Christ and an elder in the faith.[8] Nevertheless, the Pauline epistles arguably exceed their contemporaneous correspondence in length, structure, and didactic intent.[9]

Although Paul understandably followed the prevailing Greco-Roman form in his own letters, he nonetheless freely adapted the epistolary conventions of the day to suit his own purposes.

For example, as O’Brien notes, although “on occasion the more intimate letters of the Hellenistic period began with a thanksgiving to the gods for personal benefits received,” Paul expanded and developed the introductory thanksgiving/blessing section in his writings more often than any writer of his day, yielding a mix of Hellenistic form with Jewish and Christian content which is present in most of his letters.[10]

Similarly, Paul often modified the Greco-Roman form by including a concluding paranetic section of exhortation after the body of his letters.[11]

Analysis of Philemon

An appreciation of Pauline epistolary form in Greco-Roman context yields important interpretive insights relating to both the parts and whole of the letter to Philemon, in which Paul displays remarkable tact as he advances his request for reconciliation between Philemon and Onesimus.[12] 

Although lacking a definite section of paranesis, the epistle is composed of

  • an opening greeting (Philem 1-3),
  • thanksgiving/prayer (4-7),
  • body (8-22),
  • and closing (23-25).[13]

Opening Greeting

Of immediate note, Paul atypically refers to himself, in the midst of an otherwise standard greeting, not as an apostle (cf. Gal 1:1) or servant (cf. Rom 1:1; Phil 1:1), but as “a prisoner of Christ Jesus” (Philem 1; NRSV) – perhaps best explained by his desire throughout “to entreat rather than command” (cf. 8-9), but also to stress Onesimus’ usefulness to him in his captivity (cf. 11-13).[14]

Sender (“Paul…and Timothy”; Philem 1a), and addressee (“Philemon…Apphia…Archippus…and the church in your house”; 1b-2) thus identified, Paul’s signature greeting of χάρις καὶ εἰρήνη (3) functions as a benedictional transition to a section of thanksgiving and prayer (4-7), which – as elsewhere in the Pauline corpus – introduces the letter’s main themes.[15]

Thanksgiving/Prayer

As Bruce notes, “the ground of the thanksgiving and the substance of the prayer are closely related to the purpose of the letter.”[16] Paul gives thanks to God because of Philemon’s love, faith, and refreshment of “the hearts of the saints” (Philem 5, 7).

The content of Paul’s subsequent prayer, then, is that “the sharing of [Philemon’s] faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ” (6; ESV).

However, the phrase ἡ κοινωνία τῆς πίστεώς σου is better translated as “the mutual belonging which is proper to your faith,” referring to, as Wright puts it, “the mutuality of the Christian life which, springing from common participation in the body of Christ, extends beyond mere common concern into actual exchange” – a mutual belonging which lies at the heart of Paul’s argument and requests throughout the epistle.[17]

In addition to introducing the key themes of love/heart (cf. ἀγάπη, 4,7,9; σπλάγχνα, 7,12,20) and mutual participation (cf. κοινωνόν, 17), the thanksgiving/prayer rhetorically establishes mutual goodwill as an exordium in which Paul emphasizes characteristics of Philemon to which he can then appeal.[18]

Body

The main request of the letter’s body – of noteworthy length in its Greco-Roman context – is that Philemon should receive Onesimus just as he would receive Paul (17b).[19]

Although Paul makes use of every persuasive tactic at his disposal – including concession of apostolic authority (8; 19b), emotional appeal (9, 12), pun (11), and appeal to honor (14) – the main thrust of the argument depends on the “mutual belonging” (6) between Philemon and Onesimus now that the latter has become a Christian during Paul’s captivity (10).[20]

Regardless of the exact nature of the past estrangement (about which Paul remains virtually silent), Philemon is urged to interpret the seemingly unfortunate state of affairs as an opportunity for eternal reconciliation (15-16), transferring any debts that Onesimus had incurred to Paul’s own account instead (18). In receiving back Onesimus, Paul’s “very heart” (12b), as “a beloved brother” (16), Philemon would continue his refreshment of the saints’ hearts (7) by refreshing Paul’s heart (20).[21]

Here, then, is an analogous microcosm of the gospel itself – a fulfillment of Paul’s prayer for κοινωνία (6) and of the cruciform “ministry of reconciliation” of 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 and Colossians 1:24-29.[22]

As Wright notes, just as in Christ God reconciles the entire world to himself (2 Cor 5:19), “God is in Paul reconciling Philemon and Onesimus” – who both owed a debt, so to speak, to the apostle for their conversion (Philem 10, 19b).[23]

Confident of Philemon’s compliance with his reconciliatory request (21), Paul makes an additional request for lodging based on Paul’s hope for release from imprisonment and subsequent travel to Colossae to be present with his audience (22) – an epistolary structure known as the “apostolic parousia,” revealing Paul’s consideration of his writings as substitutes for his physical presence.[24]

Closing

Finally, Paul reports the greetings of his gospel co-workers to Philemon (23-24), before reverting to the plural to include the other addressees (2) in his concluding benediction.[25]

Application

If the consensus interpretation that Onesimus is Philemon’s runaway slave is correct, then Deuteronomy 23:15-16 would seem to mandate that Paul not return the fugitive to his estranged master. [26]

However, the reality of their mutual belonging in Christ compelled the apostle to facilitate the reconciliation now possible due to the Messiah’s death, burial, and resurrection (cf. 2 Cor 5:16-21).

Nevertheless, Lightfoot reveals a potential hurdle for modern readers of this ancient text when he notes that, though “the word ‘emancipation’ seems to be trembling on [Paul’s] lips…he does not once utter it.”[27]

The first step in resolving this frustration involves the clear delineation between the context of slavery in which Onesimus lived, the transatlantic slave trade of the 16th through 19th centuries, and the modern day slavery of human trafficking and forced labor – for it is far too easy to conflate the three in indignation at Paul’s failure to request Onesimus’ freedom.[28]

Then, once the anachronism of expecting Paul to be a modern abolitionist is noted, it can be clearly seen that, as Bruce observes, though the epistle to Philemon “throws little light on Paul’s attitude to the institution of slavery,” it brings “the institution into an atmosphere where it could only wilt and die.[29]

After all, the same κοινωνία that enabled Philemon and Onesimus to be reconciled could not help but destroy the dynamics of slavery within the kingdom of God and body of Christ – where “there is no longer slave or free,” but all are “one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).

According to the world, Onesimus belonged to Philemon as a slave. According to Christ, they belonged to one another as brothers.

Although here in Philemon, as elsewhere (cf. Col 3:22-4:1), Paul stops short of prohibiting slavery, it is clear that he understood the gospel of Jesus Christ inescapably to transform the divisive condition of humanity into a restored, eternal unity which transcended all temporal divisions (cf. 1 Cor 7:17-24; Col 3:11).

Paul’s tactful requests reveal that the bond between Philemon and Onesimus as brothers in the Lord (Philem 16) was far stronger than the social expectations of master and slave.

Transcending the issue of slavery – yet simultaneously striking at its very core – Paul’s masterfully crafted epistle to Philemon reminds Christians in every age to apply consistently the truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ to their relationships, in spite of individualism’s siren song, which might tempt them to manipulate and dominate instead of to mutually belong to one another in κοινωνία.

Furthermore, readers of Paul’s letter to Philemon should follow his peace-making example by seeking to be ministers of reconciliation in their respective contexts – no matter how discordant or seemingly insignificant.

This brief letter thus coheres with the biblical theme of unity. Because God is one, his people are called to be one as well – a community of forgiven women and men, Jews and Gentiles, even slaves and masters who forgive each other’s debts and refresh each other’s hearts in the κοινωνία of their faith in Jesus their Messiah.[30]


[1] Philemon is categorized as a letter of recommendation by D. Aune, The New Testament in Its Literary Environment (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1987) 211-2 and W.W. Klein, C.L. Blomberg and R.L. Hubbard, Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, Rev. Ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004) 431. This paper assumes the “consensus view” of the epistle’s provenance: namely, that the apostle Paul is addressing Philemon of Colossae regarding the estranged slave and now convert, Onesimus. The creative reconstruction of J. Knox, in which the extant epistle to Philemon is the “letter from Laodicea” (Col 4:16) which was written by Paul to Archippus (Philem 2), master of Onesimus, is here ignored; cf. J. Knox, Philemon Among the Letters of Paul (New York: Abingdon, 1959). For critical responses to Knox’s claims from the consensus view, see F.F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984) 198-202; G.B. Caird, Paul’s Letters from Prison (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987) 217; and N.T. Wright, The Epistles of Paul to the Colossians and to Philemon, TNTC (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1986; repr., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989) 164-6.

[2] Unless otherwise noted, “Greco-Roman” and “Hellenistic” are used synonymously.

[3] P.T. O’Brien, “Letters, Letter Forms,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (ed. G.R. Hawthorne and R.P. Martin; Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993) 550.

[4] S. Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 315; cf. W.G. Doty, Letters in Primitive Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1973) 27; O’Brien, “Letters,” 551.

[5] Greidanus, Modern Preacher, 315.

[6] Doty, Letters, 34-5.

[7] Greidanus, Modern Preacher, 315.

[8] O’Brien cites the intensely personal letter to the Galatians and Paul’s emphasis on apostleship at Gal 1:1, 15, 16; 5:2. O’Brien “Letters,” 551.

[9] Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 426.

[10] Although notably absent from the epistle to the Galatians. P.T. O’Brien, “Benediction, Blessing, Doxology, Thanksgiving,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (ed. G.R. Hawthorne and R.P. Martin; Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993) 69; O’Brien, “Letters,” 551-2; Cf. 1 Cor 1:4-9; 2 Cor 1:3-4; Rom 1:8-10; Eph 1:3-14; Phil 1:3-11; Col 1:3-14; 1 Thess 1:2-3:13; 2 Thess 1:2-12; 2:13-14; Philem 4-7.

[11] Greidanus, Modern Preacher, 316; cf. 1 Cor 16:13-18; Rom 15:14-32; Doty, Letters, 27; pace Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, who include thanksgiving and paranesis in “the fairly typical [Greco-Roman] structure,” claiming that NT thanksgiving sections “performed what all writers considered a common courtesy.” Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 430. While a definitive stance is impossible sans a comprehensive study of Hellenistic epistolary literature, it seems best to emphasize the distinctiveness of Pauline thanksgiving and paranesis.

[12] See A. Patzia, “Philemon,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (ed. G.R. Hawthorne and R.P. Martin; Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993) 706. As a letter of recommendation, the passages closest extant parallel is perhaps a letter from Pliny the Younger to a certain Sabinianus, requesting that he mercifully receive a penitent freedman. Pliny, Letter, 9.21; cited by Aune, New Testament, 211 and J.B. Lightfoot, St. Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1973) 318-9.

[13] Pace Doty’s suggestion that Philem 21 contains the formulaic paranesis. For robust examples of Pauline paranesis, see Rom 12:1-15:13; Gal 5:13-6:10; 1 Thess 4:1-12, 5:1-22, the other examples cited by Doty, Letters, 43.

[14] Lightfoot, Colossians and Philemon, 333; cf. Bruce, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians, 205; Wright, Colossians and Philemon, 172. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations come from the New Revised Standard Version [NRSV].

[15]  “Grace and peace” is a modification of the Hellenistic greeting χαίρειν, designed both to affirm the grace and peace of God which his readers already possessed and to pray that they might enjoy/embody such blessings more fully; O’Brien, “Letters,” 551. On the epistolary function of Pauline thanksgivings, see O’Brien, “Benediction,” 70.

[16] Bruce, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians, 208.

[17] Wright, Colossians and Philemon, 175-6; cf. 2 Cor 1:6-7; 4:10-15; Col 1:24; T.G. Gombis, Paul: A Guide for the Perplexed (New York: T&T Clark, 2010) 40; pace suggestions of κοινωνία here as evangelism (so NIV, Philem 6) or vague generosity (so Bruce, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians, 208-9; and Lightfoot, Colossians and Philemon, 335). The concept of Christian mutual belonging can be seen to have its roots in the “fellow Israelite” laws of the Pentateuch – the example par excellence being Leviticus 19:18’s injunction to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

[18] Aune, New Testament, 211. The theme of mutual belonging is also expressed in the use of fellowship terminology in the epistle’s opening and conclusion: ἀδελφὸς (1), συνεργῷ (1), ἀδελφῇ (2), συστρατιώτῃ (2), συναιχμάλωτός (23), and συνεργοί (24).

[19] Doty, Letters, 35.

[20] Although Patzia rightly acknowledges the “continuing questions of interpretation” relating to the location of Paul’s imprisonment (Rome, Ephesus, or Caesarea) and the timing/nature of Onesimus’ conversion, neither issue is central to the discussion at hand of mutual belonging in Christ; Patzia, Philemon, 705. Rhetorical arguments noted by Aune, New Testament, 211. As Patzia notes, per rhetorical criticism the epistle can be structured into exordium (4-7), proof (8-16), and peroration (17-22). Patzia, “Philemon,” 704.

[21] Aune, New Testament, 211-2.

[22] By “the gospel,” I am primarily referring to the atonement as the act in which God fulfills his creative purposes by bringing his attributes to bear on our sinful 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. See A.J. Johnson, God’s Being in Reconciliation: The Theological Basis of the Unity and Diversity of the Atonement in the Theology of Karl Barth. (New York: T&T Clark, 2012).

[23] Wright, Colossians and Philemon, 181, 186-7; cf. Paul’s use of sonship as a metaphor regarding conversion: 1 Cor 4:14-15; 2 Cor 6:13; Gal 4:19; Phil 2:22.

[24] Doty, Letters, 36; O’Brien, “Letters,” 552.

[25] Bruce, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians, 224-5; Caird, Paul’s Letters from Prison, 223. The list of names at Philem 23-24 mirrors that found at Col 4:10-17, except for the omission of Jesus Justus (Col 4:11). Of note, though impossible to explain fully, is Epaphras’ designation as Paul’s “fellow prisoner” instead of a “fellow worker” as the others. However, Bruce notes that, as “the evangelist of the Lycus valley” in which Colossae was located (cf. Col 1:7; 4:12), Epaphras “would be personally known to Philemon,” and thus merit distinct mention. Bruce, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians, 213-4. The concluding benediction of Philem 25 closely resembles Gal 6:18 and Phil 4:23.

[26] Bruce, Caird, Lightfoot, and Wright all adopt the consensus view. Deuteronomy passage cited by Bruce, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians, 197, fn. 19.

[27] Lightfoot, Colossians and Philemon, 323.

[28] Although an analysis of first century slavery far exceeds the scope of this essay, a potential aid in differentiating between ancient and modern slavery when it comes to Philemon is Gombis’ critique of the consensus view’s failure to acknowledge Paul’s language of ἀδελφὸν…ἐν σαρκὶ at Philem 16. It is likely that Philemon and Onesimus’ relationship was different than that between a normal master and slave. See T.G. Gombis, “Philemon and Onesimus: ‘Brothers in the Flesh’” (paper presented at the International Meeting of the SBL, St. Andrews, Scotland, 11 July, 2013).

[29] Bruce, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians, 197-8. Similarly, Wright notes that, although “inveighing against slavery per se [at the time] would have been totally ineffective,” Paul’s subtler message mimics Christ’s approach to cosmic change from the bottom up, from the inside out. Wright, Colossians and Philemon, 168-9.

[30] Cf. Deut 6:4; John 17:20-23; Eph 4:1-6.

Silence and Violence

Silent Cross by Margot Krebs Neale

 

“Violence is not human destiny because the God of peace is the beginning and the end of human history…

“Granted, pushing the stone of peace up the steep hill of violence … is hard. It is easier, however, than carrying one’s own cross in the footsteps of the crucified Messiah. This is what Jesus Christ asks Christians to do. Assured of God’s justice and undergirded by God’s presence, they are to break the cycle of violence by refusing to be caught in the automatism of revenge.” (Volf, E&E, 306)

“Silence,” a sonnet for Remembrance Day written by Malcolm Guite:

November pierces with its bleak remembrance
Of all the bitterness and waste of war.
Our silence tries but fails to make a semblance
Of that lost peace they thought worth fighting for.
Our silence seeths instead with wraiths and whispers,
And all the restless rumour of new wars,
The shells are singing as we sing our vespers,
No moment is unscarred, there is no pause,
In every instant bloodied innocence
Falls to the weary earth ,and whilst we stand
Quiescence ends again in acquiescence,
And Abel’s blood still cries in every land
One silence only might redeem that blood
Only the silence of a dying God.

Then, Volf on violence:

“Religions advocate nonviolence in general, while at the same time finding ways to legitimate violence in specific situations; their representatives both preach against war and bless the weapons of their nation’s troops. And so the deep religious wisdom about nonviolence boils down to a principle that no self-respecting war-lord will deny, namely that you can be violent whenever you cannot be nonviolent, provided your goals are just (which they usually are for the simple reason that they are yours). Religious dialogue or no religious dialogue, without the principled assertion that it is never appropriate to use religion to give moral sanction to the use of violence, religious images and religious leaders will continue to be exploited by politicians and generals engaged in violence.” (Volf, E&E, 286).

Finally, Volf’s conclusion (E&E, 306):

It may be that consistent nonretaliation and nonviolence will be impossible in the world of violence. Tyrants may need to be taken down from their thrones and the madmen stopped from sowing desolation. […] It may also be that measure which involve preparation for the use of violent means will have to be taken to prevent tyrants and madmen from ascending to power in the first place or to keep the plethora of ordinary kinds of perpetrators that walk our streets from doing their violent work. It may be that in a world suffused with violence the issue is not simply “violence versus peace” but rather “what forms of violence could be tolerated to overcome a social ‘peace’ that coercively maintained itself through the condoned violence of injustice” (Suchocki 1995, 117). But if one decides to put on soldier’s gear instead of carrying one’s cross, one should not seek legitimation in the religion that worships the crucified Messiah. For there, the blessing is given not to the violent but to the meek (Matthew 5:5).

There are Christians who have a hard time resisting the temptation to seek religious legitimation for their (understandable) need to take up the sword. If they give in to this temptation, they should forego all attempts to exonerate their vision of Christian faith from complicity in fomenting violence. Of course, they can specify that religious symbols should be used to legitimate and inspire only just wars. But show me one warring party that does not think its wars is just! Simple logic tells us that at least half of them must be wrong. It could be, however, that simple logic does not apply the chaotic world of wars. Then all would be right, which is to say that all would be wrong, which is to say that terror would reign — in the name of gods who can no longer be distinguished from the devils.