June 08, 2015
Author: Scott Hoezee
Like the message they convey, the two parables in this part of Mark 4 are mighty small. This is no Parable of the Prodigal Son that takes up the better part of a whole chapter. Jesus manages to convey something about the smallness of the kingdom via two stories that are themselves pretty tiny. And yet, like the seeds also depicted, these small little parables pack a punch. They capture the very kingdom mystery and (apparent) weakness Jesus is highlighting.
The kingdom is finally a mystery. It’s like a farmer who tosses seed out onto a field and then walks away. He sleeps, he gets up. Days come and days go but somehow, even as the farmer is doing apparently nothing, the seeds grow. In verse 28 you read the phrase “all by itself,” and in Greek that is the word automate, from which we get our word “automatic.” Automatically, mysteriously, without any apparent outside assistance, the seeds just grow and suddenly the day arrives when you’ve got a whole field of wheat ready to be harvested.
Although this parable of the growing seed is among the shortest of all parables, it has proven to be surprisingly difficult to interpret. Scholars cannot agree what the key element is here: is it the power of the seeds, the inactivity of the farmer, the mystery of how seeds do what they do? What is the point here? Surely this is not meant to foster inactivity on our part. It would even be a bit startling if the bottom line here was that we really shouldn’t think much about the growth of God’s kingdom one way or the other.
In short, don’t walk away from Mark 4 singing “Que sera, sera–whatever will be, will be.” But more on that below.
Let’s first toggle over to the other parable. If the growing seed parable seems to be about the mystery of kingdom growth, the mustard seed image is about the apparent weakness of the kingdom. The day will come when the results of the kingdom’s silent, steady growth will be impressive. Meanwhile don’t be surprised if the seeds you plant look ineffective. Don’t be surprised if the witness you have to offer gets laughed at on account of looking so puny. It’s the old “Jack and the Beanstalk” fable: Jack’s mother scorns the tiny beans he brings home from the market. They can never live off those! So in anger she hurls them out the window. Those beans were a non-starter, a mistake, a dead-end nutritionally and in every other sense. Except that, of course, they ended up sprouting into a beanstalk that went, in a way, clear up to heaven.
But Jesus says the gospel message will get a similar reception. We live in a universe and in a world with huge threats to existence and with sickeningly large social and geopolitical problems. There are meteors hurtling through space, many of which would wipe out life on earth if they struck us. There are dictators harboring or seeking weapons of mass destruction, many of which threaten our survival as a species. In the Middle East but in so many other places, too, there are seemingly intractable hatreds and prejudices between and among various ethnic groups (and long about the time Al Qaeda seemed bad enough, along comes a nastier cousin group called ISIS). There are diseases like Ebola that frighten us. Hunger and poverty loom up like a whole mountain range of daunting problems whose heights we don’t know how to scale.
Yet in the midst of all these threats from within and from without, in the face of great sin and evil, faced with maladies that are global in scope, we Christian people swing in with no more than that simplest of all messages: Jesus saves. A Jewish carpenter’s son from halfway around the world and from over 2,000 years ago is the one we hold up as some kind of solution. And not a few folks today want to say, “Give me a break!”
But we keep on repeating the old, old story because we believe that somehow, some way, it’s going to work. If we yoke these two parables now, we can see both the theme of how puny our efforts look and our ardent faith that even though we don’t understand how these kingdom seeds grow, they do whether we are watching or not, whether we are tending them every moment or not. They grow silently and mysteriously in people’s hearts. The seeds didn’t look like much to begin with and they grow without making much noise. If you go sit next to a wheat field a week or two after the seeds have been sown into the earth, you could sit on the edge of that field all day and throughout an entire night and you’d never hear a blessed thing.
On Wall Street, the moment that opening bell sounds each day, there is an immediate frenzy of activity. That loud baying for money creates a cacophony that pierces your gizzard with its shrill intensity. If you were on the Senate floor during a debate, you’d feel the sizzle in the air. They say that when Lyndon B. Johnson was the most powerful Senator, he would give people what became known as “the Johnson treatment.” He’d loop one of his powerful and long arms around another Senator’s shoulders and then lean his massive face directly into the other man’s face, all the while poking and jabbing and thumping his index finger into the man’s sternum until he cowed him into agreement. Now that’s power at work!
But a growing wheat field makes none of the noise of a stock exchange and has none of the sizzle of high-powered politicking. The Jesus whose kingdom we present jabs no fingers into anyone’s chest. He invites with gentle words, “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.” But people don’t want quiet invitations to rest. They want powerful and inspirational promises of success. But our Lord himself said that this is not how you get into his kingdom.
Every day the “Congressional Record” is published and it is each and every day a very thick book detailing every word spoken on the floor of the House and Senate. Every week the Obama Administration issues a flurry of new policy initiatives, also totaling into the thousands of pages. The United Nations works hard to cobble together solutions and coalitions aimed at addressing what ails this world. Were you to bring together all the newspaper sections that record the daily activity on the New York Stock Exchange, the Nikkei Index, the Chicago Board of Trade, and all other financial markets in the world, you would have a stack of newsprint many inches thick.
Such a huge output of words, such a thick volume of records detailing the policy efforts of governments: that is the kind of thing you expect when people seriously tackle this world’s challenges. Yet we Christians stand on the sidelines and what do we offer? The thin, sixteen-chapter little volume called the Gospel of Mark. It’s small. It’s old. And although we don’t say we could do without the efforts of government or of those involved in commerce, we do make the audacious claim that none of those things is ultimately very meaningful compared to the gospel.
1 Samuel 15:34-16:13
Author: Scott Hoezee
Looks can be deceiving. That’s why God apparently doesn’t bother with them in the first place. “The LORD looks at the heart,” God says to Samuel in I Samuel 16:7, now one of the most famous lines of the entire Bible. And on the opposite end of the Bible (and in the paired Gospel lection for this Year B Sunday) is Jesus’ saying, “The kingdom of God is like the tiniest seed you can imagine, a seed that disappears into the soil and then produces effects you could not dream of based on outward appearances alone; effects that, in the end, you don’t even really understand!”
When this Old Testament lection opens, we find Samuel in a funk. He’s depressed. He had never been wild about Israel’s getting a king in the first place but once God told him just to go with it, he did his best and tapped the strapping figure of Saul to whom the Spirit of God subsequently led him. Saul was a reluctant leader at first but once he got a taste for power, it kind of went to his head and next thing you knew, Saul was just uppity enough to start disobeying the commands of God.
So God lets Samuel know that this was not going to work out after all and even though most of the decisions and actions of all that could be traced back to God—and only proximately to Samuel as God’s servant—Samuel feels mighty rotten about it all, almost as though it were singularly all his fault after all. God is said to be grieved, too, but he gets over it more quickly and so aims for Plan B, which is the anointing of a new king. God knows whom he has his eye on and so sends Samuel packing to Bethlehem—a modest place to find a king—to the clan of a shepherd named Jesse.
The rest of the story is pretty familiar: one impressive looking son of Jesse after the next gets paraded in front of Samuel. Each seemed to have it all: GQ good looks, chiseled bodies rippling with muscles, intelligent eyes. But one by one God lets these marvelous hunks of man flesh pass on by until finally no one is (apparently) left. Of course, there is one left, the little guy, the young one. For his part, Jesse didn’t invite little David to this sacrifice, in part because somebody had to watch the flocks and the youngest would always draw the short straw in such things. And anyway, Jesse had no idea what was up in the first place—Samuel knew he was hunting for a new king but Jesse had been told this was just a sacrifice being made by a local celebrity. Jesse didn’t realize that any of his sons were being scrutinized for greatness.
So once Samuel queries Jesse if he had any more kids and finds out there is the baby of the family still to be presented, Samuel sends for the kid and, of course, God lets Samuel know that this is the one they had been waiting for all along. The Lord does not look on outward appearances.
Except that then the text goes on to note how handsome and ruddy and good-looking David is anyway!! But although this appears to be a truthful and straightforward description of how David looked, the text tells us that from God’s vantage point, that had nothing to do with his selection. Maybe left to his own devices Samuel himself would have found even the youngest child of Jesse to be physically striking enough as to warrant selection. Maybe all of Jesse’s kids were handsome young men.
But even if so, in David’s case this was an ancillary fact. The fact is that David was the youngest child, and in the Ancient Near East that fact automatically rendered him second class. Even had David been the most handsome and attractive of the lot, his status as last-born would have meant that he could expect no privileges, no particular advantage over the older siblings. Yet the God of Israel was forever proving that good things come in unlikely wrappings and from unlikely origins.
This is the God, after all, who preferred Abel over his older brother Cain; who preferred a childless couple of senior citizens to found his mighty nation over the scads of perfectly fertile younger couples that must have been available. This is the God who chose Jacob over Esau, Joseph over all of his older brothers. Ultimately it is the same God who will surprise the world with a Messiah born as an impoverished human child in a place called Bethlehem, probably not far from where David was anointed on the day we read about in I Samuel 16.
Unsurprisingly, once that Babe of Bethlehem’s stall grew up, he tended to under-impress folks. And when he opened his mouth to speak about the kingdom of God, he never bragged on the kingdom, never spoke of it in anything approaching hyperbolic terms or in the language of swagger and bravado. He admitted up front—and seemed to be glad about it, too—that the kingdom of God was a startling and stunning force for change in people’s lives and in the whole world but that it was change of a very quiet and humble variety.
For those with eyes to see, the message of I Samuel 16 fits in very well with God’s larger patterns.
Ironically, of course, to this day people miss this facet to the divine nature. You can hear this even in the way people use the word “biblical.” When an event happens that has a lot of size and scope—perhaps a natural disaster of some kind—people will use “biblical” as a synonym for “epic.” “It was a disaster of biblical proportions!” I recently saw a movie in which a woman sported a hugely fancy hairdo, prompting one character in the film to exclaim, “Oh, my dear, your hairstyle, it’s positively biblical!” We associate “biblical” with the epics once made by Cecil B. DeMille. The “biblical” film is the one that has “a cast of thousands!”
Of course, there’s no denying that the Bible, especially in the Old Testament, has its share of spectacles: a worldwide flood, plagues in Egypt, parted seas, pillars of fire. Curiously enough, however, none of that really captures the character of the surprising God at the center of the biblical drama, nor of his Son in the New Testament. Read correctly, the Bible shows the discerning reader that God himself might well define (and so employ) the word “biblical” differently. Because at the end of the day the “biblical” is less about the eye-popping and more about the fiercely quiet things of life.
And so God might see a humble widow doing a behind-the-scenes act of service and exclaim, “That quiet deed is positively biblical!” God might observe his own Holy Spirit slowly but surely transforming the life of an alcoholic into the shape of sainthood and declare, “What is going on in that man’s heart is a drama of biblical proportions!” God might look at the most modest-looking white clapboard country church out on an Iowa prairie somewhere and see in that church’s worship and witness a movement of biblical significance as it participates in the kingdom of God’s steady but sure transformation of the whole cosmos.
That’s the truest movement and inclination of all things “biblical.” But there is still great power there. At the conclusion of this modest little anointing scene in Bethlehem, we are told at the very end of the narrative that starting on that very day, the Spirit of God came on David with increasing power. And where that Pentecostal power is at work, we can be sure that the kingdom of God is coming on, slow but sure like a seed in the soil, growing right along bit by bit until the great day of cosmic harvest comes.
Perhaps we can call this “Susan Boyle Sunday.” It is not surprising that the Common Lectionary yokes this Old Testament passage with the two parables in Mark 4. In both cases the message is the same: looks can be deceiving. Some years back the world’s attention was arrested by a startling incarnation of that old and familiar bromide in the person of Susan Boyle. I know it’s been a while now and all but honestly, I have watched the YouTube clip a score or more times and puddle up with tears every time!
Because when Ms. Boyle walked onto the stage of the show “Britain’s Got Talent” some years ago, everyone just “knew” at a glance that she was a loser and that the ensuing singing act would be a sad spectacle that would likely end sadly once one, two, or all three of the show’s judge pressed the button that would activate those giant X’s that signal the end of the act and the rejection of the performer. After all, Ms. Boyle seemed a bit tongue-tied during her initial conversation with the judges and when she wasn’t stumbling over her words, she was behaving a little oddly—she seemed, well, quirky. And then there was her physical appearance, which bordered on the unkempt with unruly hair, busy eyebrows, and a bit extra weight around her face and middle.
Then, of course, she sang and within seconds every last person in the audience—including hardboiled judge Simon Cowell—melted over Boyle’s powerful and lyric voice as she belted out the appropriately titled song, “I Had a Dream.” The video of the performance went viral within hours and days of the performance (c’mon, you know you want to watch it one more time: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RxPZh4AnWyk ). Why? There are lots of theories but surely there is something deep within all of us that just loves to see the underdog succeed. We love finding beauty in places we deemed unlikely to display anything quite that lyric. We love finding any excuse we can to let our cynicism evaporate like the morning dew. There are far too many days when our cynicism about life gets confirmed. How delightful to find a reason to let it go for once!
Looks can be deceiving, as this Sunday’s lections tell us in no uncertain terms.
Author: Doug Bratt
It seems as if psalmists typically pray for themselves. However, in Psalm 20 the poet prays for someone else, in this case Israel’s king. After all, verse 4 refers to God’s “anointed.” Verse 9 also speaks explicitly of “the king.”
Psalm 20 expresses a strong sense of dependence on God’s gracious provision even for rulers. While most of the psalmist’s contemporaries assumed that their monarchs stayed in power because of their gods’ favor and military might, Psalm 9’s poet recognizes that it’s the living God’s protection, not Israel’s military power that preserves her king.
Of course, Psalm 20’s prayer’s form is rather unusual. After all, the poet doesn’t speak directly to Yahweh in it until its very end. Virtually this entire “prayer” is, in fact, directed to the king. In that way, Psalm 20 is not unlike the benedictions that modern worship leaders offer. They’re blessings that, in some sense, contain no “power” unless God extends God’s blessing.
In Psalm 20 the poet prays that God will bless the king by answering and protecting him when he’s in trouble. Such a prayer for rulers is, as James Mays notes, an “ancient and enduring tradition.” So Psalm 20 invites those who preach and teach it to reflect with worshipers on the frequency and nature of their prayers for their leaders.
Of course, Israel’s king was uniquely the Lord’s anointed. However, the apostle Paul reminds us that God has also put modern rulers in place. In Romans 13:1 he insists, “The authorities that exist have been established by God.” So perhaps Psalm 20 challenges worshipers to spend even more time praying for our leaders than we do criticizing, questioning or even praising them.
Yet our prayers for our presidents, prime ministers and other leaders are always at least somewhat fraught with danger. They easily reflect a kind of idolatry that identifies a ruler or nation with God and God’s purposes and forgets that God’s Church and kingdom stretches across the whole world. What’s more, as we pray for our rulers’ “success,” we easily slide into depending on their success rather than depending on God’s gracious provision.
Psalm 20’s opening verses suggest Israel’s ruler is in some kind of trouble. So we sometimes assume the poet offers it as the king goes into battle. Certainly the poet fills Psalm 20 with military images. She speaks of chariots and horses. She also pleads for victory in battle. What’s more, verse 5’s lifting up of banners seems to refer to the standards carried by military units.
However, some scholars suggest that Psalm 20 an enthronement psalm that’s offered merely in anticipation of coming battles. Its repeated use of liturgical references may lend credence to the idea that this is an enthronement liturgy. After all, the psalmist speaks of the “sanctuary,” sacrifices and burnt offerings, as well as prayerful “requests.”
Yet while Israel’s king is one of Psalm 20’s central figures, Yahweh remains its primary actor. God is, after all, the extremely active subject of most of its verbs. Psalm 20 recognizes that Israel’s “neighbors’” kings rely on their military power. Horses and chariots were symbols of immense national power. Rulers often even had themselves publicly portrayed as riding on horses and in chariots in order to demonstrate their might.
However, Psalm 20’s poet insists that leaders who depend on military may “stumble and fall.” After all, only God can provide the kind of protection that leaders really need. The help of even the mightiest people on earth comes from the Lord who made the heavens and earth. So when the psalmist wants to support Israel’s king, he turns to the Lord, the “God of Jacob” for his protection. It’s reminiscent of Jacob’s own profession in Genesis 35:3: God “answered me in the day of distress and … has been with me wherever I go.”
In Psalm 20 the poet essentially calls Israel’s king and nation to trust not in their military might, but in the Lord. After all, she insists, only God can raise them up and keep them standing. Success in battle and other national endeavors depends not, in fact, on earthly royalty but on the Heavenly King. Israel’s king, as Mays notes, is “not the savior, but the saved. The saving victory will be God’s work.” Psalm 20 recognizes even the most powerful leaders must depend on God for their deliverance because success always comes from the Lord.
So as Luke Powery writes, this psalm affirms God, not humanity’s reign over all of creation. We see that reign in the way God’s kingdom grows from the tiniest beginnings to a “mighty tree.” God’s kingdom doesn’t need chariots and horses to grow. Only God’s power brings the Kingdom’s growth and victory, as well as God’s salvation. Because God reigns, God’s sons and daughters can be confident that the God who has raised Jesus Christ from the dead holds a place for us in the new creation.
It’s fitting that Psalm 20 ends as it basically begins. In verse 1 the poet pleads for God’s blessing on the king as he prays, “May the Lord answer you when you are in distress.” In verse 9 the psalmist speaks directly to God as he says, “O Lord, save the king! Answer us when we call!”
How, then, can 21st century Christians think about this text? After all, while we don’t want to hurry too quickly past its Old Testament context, no modern nation has a monarch who’s God’s special representative on earth. Nor do any of us have a king, queen or any other leader who goes automatically in God’s name to do battle on God’s behalf.
So we might we see Psalm 20 as a reminder to pray for all those who are “in distress.” It could serve as a cue to pray for God’s answer and help for, as well as protection of not only beleaguered rulers, but also the poor, hungry, lonely and oppressed. However, this psalm might also serve to remind us to pray for Christ the King to succeed in carrying out God’s good plans and purposes for the creation that God loves so deeply. After all, at Calvary Jesus Christ won the victory over sin, Satan and death on our behalf. However, Christians continue to worship and pray some while rulers, authorities and powers still rebel against God and God’s loving purposes.
When is “God save the queen” (cf. Psalm 20:9) an inappropriate sentiment? Apparently some people assume it’s only when it’s put to music by a 70’s British anti-establishment band called “The Sex Pistols.” The department store Woolworth refused to sell the controversial single. And on May 31, 1977 the BBC banned the song from its airwaves. It labeled the record an example of “gross bad taste,” a charge the band itself probably wouldn’t reject.
2 Corinthians 5:6-10, (11-13), 14-17
Author: Stan Mast
“Life is difficult. This is a great truth, perhaps the greatest truth.” Those opening lines of M. Scott Peck’s bestselling, The Road Less Travelled, were a sensation back in the 1970’s. Now, as the GEICO insurance commercial says, “Everybody knows that.” What people don’t know is how to deal with the difficulty. That’s what Paul outlines for us in this reading from II Corinthians 5. Unlike Peck who offered a mixture of psychology, Buddhism, and Christianity, Paul gives us the unvarnished Christian “road less travelled.”
I think that verse 7 is the heart of Paul’s “advice” for the road. I put the quotation marks around that word because Paul doesn’t give us the kind of advice we find in today’s self-help books. Rather, Paul roots his “advice” in hardcore Christian doctrine. In the words just before this, he has been talking about either the intermediate state or the resurrection of the body (depending on how you interpret the words of verses 1-4). In the middle of this passage he refers to the final judgment. Then he turns to the crucifixion. And at the end he discusses the new creation. In other words, Paul roots this advice for the road in deep Christian eschatology and soteriology.
Which should alert us to the fact that the faith Paul talks about in verse 7 is not some generic faith—faith in God, or faith in humanity, or faith in the spiritual world, or faith in self. It is specifically faith in the Triune God whose historical actions in Jesus Christ and whose personal actions through the Holy Spirit have changed the way we deal with the difficulty of life. That’s what Paul meant back in chapter 4:18, when he said, “we fix our eyes (the eyes of faith), not on what is seen, but on what is unseen.” With eyes fixed on the unseen God and his unseen salvation made visible in Jesus Christ, we walk by faith, not by sight.
Paul characterizes this faith with three words that seem mutually exclusive at first. However, upon closer examination they actually show the thick texture of faith. The words are confidence (verses 6 and 8), fear (verse 11) and love (verse 14). The faith that enabled Paul to endure the troubles of his ministry was a combination of confidence, fear, and love.
Given the way many of today’s Christian leaders value doubt, uncertainty, and questioning, Paul’s words about always being confident will sound arrogant and doctrinaire to some of our listeners and even to some of us preachers. But Paul is confident precisely because of the doctrine he has just taught. “Therefore” points back to verses 1-5 where Paul is dealing with deep eschatological doctrine, which he concludes with this strong claim that God has given us his Spirit as “a deposit, guaranteeing what it to come.” Because of that truth, “we are always confident and know….” Note the “know.” No uncertainty here.
What does Paul know with such confidence? Basically this– that, if we walk by faith, we cannot lose. Using words that occur only here in the New Testament, Paul describes his current life as being “at home in the body” and his coming death as being “away from the body.” Though he doesn’t explicitly say it, he is suggesting, I think, that he is at home with the Lord whether he lives or dies. He would prefer to be away from the body, so that he could experience being with the Lord in a visual and tangible way. But even when he is away from the Lord in that directly experiential way, he is still at home. Now, he walks by faith, not by sight. But that doesn’t mean he is unsure, filled with doubt about the unseen. Twice he says, “we are confident.”
But then he introduces what seems to be an opposite dimension of faith, namely, fear. After asserting his confidence, he says, ”Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord….” How on earth did Paul get from confidence to fear? He got there by way of the final judgment. Immediately after talking about his confidence, he writes, “So, we make it our goal to please him, whether at home in the body or away from it.” Rather than making him lazy in his faith, his confidence that he is and will be “with the Lord” moves him to labor (the Greek is philotimoumetha, to work hard, to be ambitious) to please the Lord. Lest we miss his point, Paul explicitly talks about appearing “before the judgment seat of Christ, that each may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body….”
It sounds as if Paul is taking away the very confidence he has just professed. How can he be sure that he will be with the Lord, if he will have to give an account to the Lord for all the good or bad he has ever done. How can he be sure that he’s done enough good? Well, of course, the answer is that we cannot lose our salvation at this judgment. “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ….” (Romans 8:1) Salvation is not by works, but by grace through faith. Judgment is on the basis of works, but God’s grace received by faith cancels the guilty verdict we deserve. So, Paul’s strong desire to please the Lord is not based on his terror of punishment, but on his deep reverence for the Lord who has already saved him. Because he is so confident that he will be with the Lord, he wants to please the Lord who has saved him. And he lives his life with “deepest, tenderest fear,” as the old hymn put it.
Indeed, that fear motivates him in his evangelistic work. “Since we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men.” He might mean that he wants to spare other people the terror of appearing before the judgment seat of Christ, so he preaches Christ in order to move them to faith in Christ. But, given what he says in verses 12 and 13, I think it is more likely that he is contrasting his fear of the Lord with his fear of his opponents. Because my life is dominated by my deep reverence for the Lord, I’m not going to be deterred by my fear of other human beings. I’m going to wade into the conflict and try to persuade people of the truth about Jesus. I’m not going to worry about my approval rating with the Judaizers or the Gnostics or the pagans. My confident, reverent faith in the Lord Jesus gives me the courage to face the foe, even if they call me insane (as some did).
But there is one more dimension of the faith that enabled Paul to continue down the road less travelled. He is motivated in his ministry not only by his own fear of the Lord, but also by Christ’s love for the lost. “For Christ’s love compels us….” Some scholars take that to mean Paul’s love for Christ, but the following words talk about the greatest expression of Christ’s love for a lost world—“because we are convinced that one died for all….” We go out into the world and preach to everyone, regardless of their race, class, sex, or religion, because we know that Christ died for all. If Christ loved all people enough to die for them, then I need to love them enough to preach to them.
Most of my readers know that there is huge dispute about the referent of that little word “all.” Does Paul mean all humans without exception or all humans without distinction? Is Paul referring to every single human being or to all kinds of human beings? I’m not going to attempt a solution to that old Calvinist versus Arminian dispute. I’ll just point out that Paul connects those for whom Christ died with those who subsequently live for Christ. That is, Christ died for those who will live for him. Of course, that doesn’t mean that Christ looked at the life he saw we would live and, on the basis of that, died for us. On the contrary, it means that Christ died for us precisely so that we could live for him. The purpose of Christ’s death was to bring formerly dead people into a new life, a life in which they live for him who died for them.
Paul’s point here is that Christ’s love for sinners, the walking dead, compels him in his ministry to all kinds of people. He doesn’t focus on where people are at the moment he meets them, but on where Christ in his love wants to take them. That’s what Paul means when he claims that he doesn’t look at people from a worldly point of view anymore. He doesn’t see Jew or Gentile, slave or free, rich or poor, male or female, Republican or Democrat, Sunni or Shiite, good or bad, Christian or non-Christian. He sees people who through Jesus can become a new creation. He is motivated not by the kind of partisan spirit that divides humanity into a billion warring factions, but by the love of Christ that can make a new creation. In fact, Christ has already done that. “If anyone is in Christ, he/she is a new creation. The old has gone; the new has come!”
The problem is that Paul’s claim about a new creation seems to be patently false. For that matter, so does the rest of what he says about faith in Christ. We do not live by faith, at least not all the time. Our lives are often dominated by what we can see. We are not always confident about our standing with the Lord. We often fear our fellow humans much more than we reverence the Lord. We aren’t new creatures. In fact, Christians look very much like everyone else, or so the polls tell us.
What are we to make of this apparent inconsistency between Gospel claims and Christian living? Well, we might say that the Gospel isn’t true. Or we might say that we aren’t true Christians. Or we might say that we walk by faith, not by sight. We don’t always see the truth of the Gospel being lived in our lives, but we walk by faith anyway, confident that it’s all true because the Bible says it is. We walk by faith anyway, striving by the power of the Spirit to live in deep reverence before God and with Christ-like love for our neighbors. We walk by faith anyway, believing that the Triune God is making all things new. Living by such faith is the road less travelled that will take us home “through many dangers, toils, and snares.”
Paul’s talk about being “compelled” by the love of Christ got me thinking about the things that drive our lives. I’m currently reading a book entitled, Ghettoside, which describes the murderous culture of south central Los Angeles in the 1990’s and 2000’s. Black on black murder, most of it driven by gang rivalry, was epidemic in those years. The police department was so overwhelmed by that epidemic that many cops were more than a little cynical about it, and their performance of duty was influenced by their cynicism. Often they did their job in a perfunctory fashion. But there were notable exceptions. One of them was a white detective named John Skaggs, who was driven to bring justice for all those who were killed, no matter who they were. The book focuses on Skagg’s pursuit of the killer of a black officer’s non-gangbanger son. He solves the crime because he is “compelled” by his passion for justice.
Paul’s words about how we look at people reminded me of C.S. Lewis famous words in The Weight of Glory. “It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses; to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”