Christian history in a nutshell?

Recently on a discussion board I came across this quote which is both inaccurate and annoying:

"Christianity began as a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. When it went to Athens, it became a philosophy. When it went to Rome, it became an organization. When it went to Europe, it became a culture. When it came to America, it became a business."

I know this quote is posted up all over the internet. It is an attempt to sum up Christian history in a very convenient, very protestant, very individualistic nutshell. Hopefully this blog will be read by someone to put this lie to rest:

1. "Personal" in our culture means "my very own, depending on no other". The Bible knows NOTHING of a "personal relationship" with Christ. True, we have a RELATIONSHIP with Christ, but it is always a family relationship: Never alone in an un-attached, individualistic Christianity. We depend on the entire Church, filled with God's Holy Spirit, to nourish and grow us in Christ. An un-attached Christian is a spiritually dead Christian, because to LOVE God means to LOVE His family (cf. 1John 4).

2. Christianity NEVER became a philosophy. We are called to Love God with all our heart, strength, and MIND (cf. Mat 22.37-40). Loving God with our MIND means developing a comprehensive worldview that is Christ-centered. To do that, Christians of all ages- from the Greek Apologists of the 2nd century to American Theologians of the 21st century- have used the terminology of the best thinking available. Sometimes that thinking is called "philosophy", sometimes it is "science", and sometimes it is called "wisdom". Paul used Greek philosophy to communicate the Gospel in Acts 17. We simply HAVE to express our Christian worldview in some type of language, unless we are going to limit our entire vocabulary to Biblical Greek and Hebrew.

3. The Church was ALWAYS organized as a family system. Jesus appointed Apostles to lead as fathers (and mothers!) in the faith. The Apostles appointed bishops to oversee, ordain, and teach (cf. Titus, Timothy). By 107 AD Bishop Ignatius of Antioch said "Where the bishop is, there the Church gathers". There is no such thing as a non-organized individualistic Christianity. The Church has always had "patriarchs" (in our overseers and bishops), "fathers" and "mothers" (in our elders and priests), and "elder siblings" (in our deacons and ministers). There is no such thing as a leaderless Church.

4. The only part that is true is that in America selling God became a business. And God is only able to be sold because we have deconstructed the Church, and individualized the faith, so that you can sell people ANYTHING in God's name! People who are not aware of their past are doomed to repeat it. A nice, neat way to get people to repeat their past is to simply not teach it, or teach it as clichés which deny, delete, and distort the facts.

The fact is that by the Apostolic era, the faith had definitely reached from the Middle East to Rome (just read Acts!). If you believe there is substance to early Church history (as I do) it is more probable that Christianity reached from Spain to India to China to Africa by the time the last apostle died. As it went, the apostles (and the bishops they appointed) communicated the Gospel in the languages and "philosophical constructs" of the societies they went to. Everywhere they went, they formed Christian COMMUNITIES- families of faith- in which Christians were nurtured.

So, by the end of the apostolic era you find a Church that is NOT merely "personal" but a family; NOT disorganized and autonomous, but organized as a family system; NOT reduced simply to a philosophy, but communicating the Gospel using philosophy.

Perhaps the quote should be this instead:

"In America, Christianity has become big business. To do that, the Church has allowed people to lapse into religion without history, faith without substance, and piety without community. We have substituted Love with convenience, discipleship with entertainment, and service with consumption. The result is a Christian who is perfectly suited to be sold anything in the name of God, because they think Christ only exists to serve them with blessings in this life, and heaven in the hereafter."

Yes, I my quote much better.



A Sermon For Year A, Second Advent
Copyright © 2007 Nathan L. Bostian

Isa. 11:1-10; Rom. 15:4-13; Mat. 3:1-12; Psa. 72With special thanks to CS Lewis, NT Wright, and Brian McLaren

What is your favorite story? I'm not looking for the Sunday school answer. But really: What story captures your imagination so that you read it, or see it, or listen to it, time and time again? What story gives shape to the narrative of your life?

I know that for some, your favorite stories are 19th century romances. For others it may be mysteries. For others it may be science fiction, fantasy, thrillers, biography, or historical fiction. And, for a few of you it may be animation.

But we all have stories that shape us and guide us and form us into the type of people we are. We see ourselves in the characters. We even become FRIENDS with the characters.

My favorite genre of story is probably the dystopian apocalypse. Dystopia is the opposite of utopia: It is a world where everything has gone wrong. Despite our God-like technology, and super-human knowledge, things have somehow gone horribly wrong. If you have read Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, or 1984 you know the genre. If you have seen the Matrix, Terminator, or Blade Runner, you know what I am talking about.

I guess I feel drawn to that genre because in it, the protagonist (you really can't call them a hero) is faced with an overwhelmingly messed up system that has usually been destroyed by the best of human intentions. Things seem hopeless, well-beyond repair. And all of the promises of a human utopia built by human goodness and scientific skill have been revealed as empty and illusory.

The protagonist is drawn, often unwillingly, to be the savior of a group of people. The story is spent detailing how the protagonist and his or her little band of subversives work to overthrow the system, or at least bring people to a place uncorrupted by the dystopia. The ending is usually ambiguous: Did the unwitting hero save everyone, or is the cycle doomed to start again?

I guess I love such stories because I see myself in them. Like Neo in the Matrix, I have grown up in a culture where I was always aware that something is wrong at a deep, systemic level. Despite being one of the wealthiest societies in History, we are very unhappy, very unsatisfied, and very violent.

I never set out to try and fix anything. I was quite happy being part of the problem, to be honest. And then Jesus dragged me kicking and screaming to him, and I have never been the same. I have somehow become part of his band of subversives... and most days I am not sure quite what that means, or how to live it out... But I try.

And I know Him who is heading the subversion of the powers and principalities of our culture which dehumanize and destroy...

And I trust Him to lead me, no matter where His road goes.

My life reads to me like a dystopian novel.

And many of you could say the same. Maybe not in a dystopian way. But, you see your life shaped by a central narrative, a central Plot that guides you. For some of you, this gives you great hope. It gives you a reason to wake up every morning.

For others, it is a source of despair. You feel like you are trapped in a story of failure, doomed to repeat what your parents have done, or doomed to live out the label that has been placed on you by society.

And for yet others, you are trying to find your Plot. In fact, some of the hardest times in our lives are when we "loose the plot", and forget the Story that gives our life meaning. You realize you have no idea what your Story is, and it gnaws at you somewhere in the depths of your soul: What is MY story? What does MY life mean?

But, whether we like our story, or hate it, or are still looking for it: Isn't it amazing that stories seem to shape the very fabric of our existence?

And, no matter what the genre of the Story is, it seems like all good stories have a similar shape:

First, you set the stage and populate it with characters. You introduce who everyone is, and put them in context.

Then, a crisis comes. Everything is set off-kilter. The enemy invades, or love is lost, or a tragedy happens.

Next you spend most of the story trying to fix the problem. One lover searches for another until they are found. A small band of friends try to solve the mystery. The good guys struggle against all of the odds to defeat the darkness.

And this leads to the climax. The final showdown. The last hurrah. The tangled web of intrigue and deception and heartache and struggle leads at a fever pitch to this one last event. It could not have been any other way.

Finally, the plot is resolved. Everyone gets their just desserts. The good are sent away happy, the bad are dispatched to destruction. And everyone lives "Happily ever after".

Now, I know that not every story winds up like this. Some end in dystopia. But even the dystopias end without hope for a reason: So that we will learn, and think, and perhaps avoid the bleak future they predict. They end in dystopia in the hope that they will help us to find true utopia.

And no matter what culture you go to, you find good stories, stories that are central to the very identity of that culture, which follow the same pattern: Setting the stage; Introducing the crisis; Struggling to overcome; The great climax; and the resolution.

It's almost like this universal yearning of humanity for great stories points to Something or Someone greater than all of us: A huge overarching Story that we ALL find ourselves in.

This is nothing like a proof, and I am not arguing that we can "prove" God's existence by the universal yearning of humanity for stories of a certain type. But, I am saying that it is awfully coincidental, don't you think?

In fact, it seems like our human existence, with all of the beauty and pain that goes with it, is EXACTLY the kind of world you would expect to find if we were all part of some cosmic Story.

Our yearning for the final resolution, our struggle to find ourselves, and our insistent desire for a Plot to make sense of it all, is EXACTLY what you would find if there was an Author who was writing us all into His Story.

And, if you will go this far with me, let me suggest something else: Let me suggest that the Grand Plot you find animating the Story of Scripture is precisely the Story that makes sense of all of our stories. It is the Plot that all of our personal stories fit into.

And, if we looked at Scripture as an Epic Story, I think the Plot would look something like this:

The first chapter is "The Creation": The stage is set. The Author of the play creates a universe of freedom in which real actors can act freely in His Story. Then the stage is populated with these actors, with flesh and blood humans, and magical creatures of the spiritual realm who work behind the scenes.

The second chapter is "The Crisis": Something goes wrong, very wrong. It seems to have started somewhere off stage, but it has now started to destroy the stage itself, and every actor and actress on it. A silent enemy has snuck in and taken over. All of those who the Author loves have now turned their back on Him.

The third chapter is "The Calling": The Author calls His beloved back himself through ages and stages, in the voices of poets and princes and prophets and sages. He sends messenger after messenger, tries sign after wonder after sign after wonder. But to no avail. The Enemy has too strong of a grip.

The fourth chapter is "The Champion": In utter desperation, the Author writes Himself into His own Story. The Plot becomes a person of flesh and blood, just like us. As Isaiah says, when our Champion finally comes "The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD."

And, just like us, this real historical person suffers, and dies, and goes to the utmost depths- to hell itself- to rescue His beloved. Then, in the first great victory that turns the tide of the War, the Champion, Jesus Christ, defeats evil, suffering, and death by coming back from the dead.

The fifth chapter is "The Community": This is our chapter. In this chapter the Champion recruits subversives to help Him undermine the powers that are destroying and dehumanizing His beloved. Following his example of radical Love and forgiveness, and living in the power of His Holy Spirit, we become His Body reaching out to heal His world.

The sixth chapter will be "The Climax": At some point in the future, evil will make its last stand. Darkness will try in vain to extinguish the light. The enemy will try to make the Love of Christ's Body grow cold.

And just when the Community is trying most valiantly, against all odds, to bring light to the darkness, and love to the loveless, then the Champion will come again to complete our salvation. What He began with his resurrection will eventually triumph over all forms of death, and he alone will be victorious over all.

On that day, as Isaiah says, the Champion will judge and liberate all peoples from their bondage. "With righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth". Those who have been bowed down will be lifted up, and those who lifted themselves up shall be brought low.

"He shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth" and finally, once and for all, put an end to the pollution and degradation of his world. Our passage from Isaiah goes as far as to say that "with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked".

But, the translation here is a little deceptive. Because what it really means is that he shall slay wickedness itself. He will not destroy wicked people, only to allow the disease of evil to still exist and infect others. No, Christ, our Champion, will destroy wickedness itself, so that nothing will ever infect His Beloved people ever again.

And then will come the final chapter, "The Consummation": Finally, the utopia we have been yearning for will be present in all of its fullness. We will finally be at peace with God, others, and ourselves, in complete wholeness and health and joy and love.

This is what Isaiah is speaking of when he says "The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den."

I do not think that God is literally going to change carnivorous animals into herbivores (although, God has done more amazing things!). You see, wolves and leopards and bears are all symbols of wrath and judgment in Scripture. When people are ripped apart by sin and evil, the picture that is used is one of these carnivores ripping apart its prey.

Lambs and cows and oxen are all creatures that were sacrificed in Temple offerings. They were destroyed to make atonement for sins, and to wash the slate clean with God.

Snakes are, of course, symbols of temptation and evil and distrust (remember the incident in the Garden?). And little children are symbols of innocence and purity: Of people in a pure, loving, humble relationship with God their Father.

So, Isaiah is giving us a picture of the ultimate Consummation of peace, brought about by the Ultimate Champion of the world. In this world, no one will be ripped apart by sin and evil. In this world, no one else will be sacrificed and destroyed for their sins. In this world, the Tempter will no longer deceive God's children and lead them into lies.

Face to face with God our Father, we will all share that pure, undefiled, innocent Love that children have for their parents. This will be God's world. God's Kingdom. And at long last "they will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea."

That is the Story we find ourselves in. That is the Story that gives all our stories meaning. That is the Story of The Creation, The Crisis, The Calling, The Champion, The Community, The Climax, and the Consummation.

And that is why Paul says that "whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope".

Scripture is a book of hope. A book that says that whatever Story you feel stuck in is NOT the end of the road. You can find a new Story. You can be joined to HIS Story: The Story of our Champion, Jesus Christ.

You can join him in the Cosmic Love Story to bring his beloved back to himself. You can fight with Him in the Epic Struggle of defeating the powers of darkness. You can search with Him to solve the mystery of how to find God at work in everyone's story.

Just as Christ welcomed me over a decade ago into His Story, so now I welcome you. Join me, and all of God's characters across History, in the Story of Redemption. I can guarantee you, it is well worth the price of admission! Amen+



A Sermon For Year A, Advent 1

Copyright © 2007 Nathan L. Bostian

Based on Romans 13.8-14

Ahhh! Advent! The beginning of our Church year. The time when Christians all over the world begin to prepare themselves spiritually for the arrival of our Lord.

In the Church, our color is purple. Purple is the color of Royalty. The color of Kings. The color for King Jesus, the God who became human. Our candles are lit awaiting his arrival.

Outside of the Church, the color is green and red. It is the color of ancient pagan revelry, the celebration of winter solstice.

Our garlands are wrapped, our trees are trimmed, our credit cards are getting maxed out.

You know what time it is: It is time for the cultural Christmas wars!


A Sermon For Christ the King Sunday, Year C
Copyright © 2007 Nathan L. Bostian
Based on Jeremiah 23:1-6, Colossians 1:11-20, Luke 23:35-43

Not so long ago, in a suburb not so far away, there lived skater-punk, who rode around on his well worn skateboard, with hair in his eyes, a concert t-shirt, ripped up jeans, half destroyed converse shoes, and something between a smirk and a sneer constantly glued on his face.

And if you looked close at his skateboard, or his shoes, or his jeans, or his notebooks, or the back of his hand, you would see scrawled a circle with an "A" in the middle of it:

The international punk rock sign for ANARCHY.

And I can tell you so much about this skater-punk kid because he was, of course, me. And I loved the idea of "anarchy"! No religion, no rules... No master. No one to tell me what to do. Nothing to "conform to".

My motto was sung by Sid Vicious of the infamous band the "Sex Pistols" in their hit song "Anarchy in the U.K.":

"I am an antichrist! I am an anarchist!
Don't know what I want but... I know how to get it!
How many ways to get what you want...
I use the best, I use the rest"

And then, quite to my surprise, I noticed something: That cool haircut I had was the same as all my friends. And those hip, trendy, ripped up clothes were exactly like what all the skaters in the magazines wore. And there was evidently enough interest in my subversive punk-rock underground music that it kept whole record stores and record labels in business.

In short, I was, to use a phrase of Pink Floyd, "just another brick in the wall". All of us anarchist non-conformist skater kids were just affluent suburbanites conforming to the same non-conformity... which was ruled by an invisible consumerism.

Our own prophet Bob Dylan summed it up like this (using words incredibly similar to Saint Paul in Romans):

"You're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You're gonna have to serve somebody,
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody."

There really is no such thing as anarchy. There is never even such a thing as non-conformity. Even when we react against something, we are allowing what we dislike to form us and shape us by making us the opposite, mirror image of itself.

We may think we are serving ourselves, and living for ourselves, but that is not even true either. We were made to need things. We were made to worship Something. What we choose as our object of ultimate value is in fact what becomes our God, our Master, and our King.

If we think we are serving ourselves, by choosing to do whatever gives us pleasure and makes us feel good, then we soon find that we are addicted to that which we need for pleasure. What used to make us happy is no longer enough. We need more, different, and better "stuff" to be happy... Until the very thing that made us feel good becomes the thing we hate.

If we think we are serving ourselves, by choosing to do whatever makes us a success, then we soon find that we are enslaved to the very conditions of success we have defined for ourselves. Perhaps we are enslaved to the people we want to impress, or to the money and lifestyle that goes with success. Soon we find ourselves ruled by fear: Abject fear that we will loose what we have gained, and we must protect ourselves at all costs.

These are just two ways we enslave ourselves in the foolish attempt to be our own masters. I could count hundred more. We enslave ourselves by wanting to be wanted, and needing to be needed. We enslave ourselves to our lifestyle. We enslave ourselves to our pride, our prejudice and our fear.

We enslave ourselves to what we worship, to what we place as our ultimate value in life. Because we BECOME what we WORSHIP.

So we find ourselves back at the visionary words of prophet Bob:

"You're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You're gonna have to serve somebody,
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody."

So, who are you gonna serve?

Who are you gonna worship?

What is your object of ultimate value?

What do you want to become?

Instead of celebrating anarchy, or any of the powers and prince-palities that masquerade behind the illusion of self-centered anarchy, to deny, distort, demean, and destroy our lives, Today the Church celebrates a totally different kind of "archy".

Today, we celebrate "Christarchy". We celebrate the Kingship, rule, and dominion of the ONLY King that truly sets us free: Christ the King.

That is why today is called "Christ the King" Sunday.

What is a King? A King is One who has authority in a Kingdom.

The word King in American ears has imperial overtones. It reminds us of iron-fisted dictators who march armies into war to conquer and enslave helpless people. But we forget that in our own day, it is iron-fisted western consumerism that has, in the name of freedom, enslaved far more people, and steam-rolled far more cultures, than any national King ever has.

But Jesus deconstructs and reconstructs the whole idea of what it means to be a King, what it means to hold authority, and what it means to have a Kingdom.

FIRST, JESUS IS A DIFFERENT KIND OF KING. We are used to Kings who rule by taking the first place, protecting themselves, and clearly delineating who goes where in the power structure.

Yet, Jesus rules not by putting Himself over all as a Master, but under all as a slave... [ALLOW THE SPIRIT TO SPEAK]

SECOND, JESUS HOLDS A DIFFERENT KIND OF AUTHORITY. We are used to authority coming from the raw use of power to coerce people into making them do what you want. It may be the power of legislation that will send the police to stop what is frowned upon, or it may be the power of economics to withhold money until someone does what you want them to.

Yet, Jesus holds authority on the basis of his perfect Love, not powerful coercion... [ALLOW THE SPIRIT TO SPEAK]

THIRD, JESUS HAS A DIFFERENT KIND OF KINGDOM. We are used to Kingdoms having clearly defined boundaries, and clearly delineated structures, with clear signs that say who is in and who is out.

Yet, Jesus does not rule over a place, but IN a people... [ALLOW THE SPIRIT TO SPEAK]

Listen to what Saint Paul says about Christarchy, about the rule and dominion of Christ the King, in our reading today:

He says that through Jesus, God has "rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins."

Our old addictions and bondages no longer have to rule over us. We no longer have to worship and serve that which brings death and darkness. Instead, we are forgiven and released from all of this, by giving us a new Lord to rule us: King Jesus.

Paul says that Christ is "the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers-- all things have been created through him and for him."

In Christ, the invisible God and Ruler of all became visible. In Christ the untouchable Lord of Creation was able to be touched... And hugged, and kissed, and slapped, and beaten, and crucified, and killed...

And brought back from the dead!

In Christ, God took upon Godself all that it means to be human, with all of the consequences, weaknesses, and suffering that goes along with it. He did not enter into life with us in some abstract way, one step removed from our humanity, only mentally aware of our pain.

No, He took on the fullness of all the joy, and all the pain, of creation into Himself. Then He showed that He alone can rule, control, tame, and transform all of it: Because He rose from the dead, and defeated death by His unstoppable life.

He alone is the King who rules death with life, pain with joy, and darkness with light. And He alone is qualified to be King of all things, and at the Core of all of Reality.

As Paul says "He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together."

King Jesus is Hub around which all the universe revolves.

King Jesus is the Plot which guides all History to be HIS Story.

King Jesus is the Reason which gives all of life Meaning.

King Jesus is the Score which directs the music of our lives.

It all holds together in Him, by Him, and for Him. In Him it is as if the Painter painted Himself into His own picture. It is as if the Author wrote Herself as a character into Her own book. It is as if the Composer became His own music.

It is "as if" because IT IS. Paul goes on to say: "He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross."

Whether or not we admit it or understand it, we are living in the middle of Christarchy. We are living in the middle of an Epic Drama of a King who has faced down the powers of darkness to restore unto Himself the people He loves.

And the secret is that THIS KING is not only trying to save us, but He is inviting us to join Him in the Epic Struggle as members of His own Body.

So, that is the invitation. Will you join the REAL King, or keep serving (and being enslaved by) false kings? Will you choose anarchy, which is really bondage, or Chrstarchy, which is true freedom?

"You're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You're gonna have to serve somebody,
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody."

So, I leave the choice with you. Who are you gonna serve? AMEN+


Kill 'em all, let God sort 'em out?

Today, a friend named Jake facebooked me this question:

From Today's English Version Good News Bible: Deuteronomy 3:3 So the Lord also placed King Og and his people in our power and we slaughtered them all.


Slaughtered seems a bit rough dontcha think? Why was God getting his people to be so violent and if it weren't God's intentions to be so gruesome dontcha think he would have stepped in?
Continued in that chapter verses 6 and 7 speak of having put to death men, women and children and then taking livestock and plundering the towns.

Something about that seems wrong. If it were huge sinners that God ordered to be killed that might be different, but then we probably wouldn't be taking their livestock because I would think them to be "plagued by the sin of their owners" or something of that nature.
So what's the deal?

My Answer:

Well, if you have a problem with that section of Scripture, just wait until the first half of Joshua! Holy Jihad, Batman!

OK, let me give you three interpretations that seem somewhat reputable to me of why Scripture sanctions jihad against the Canaanites (including King Og and others):

1. Scriptures like this are not history in the same sense as we think of history, and they suffer from what we might think of as "poetic exaggeration". So, when Scripture says they killed "ALL" of the Canaanites, it really means "they totally kicked their ass in battle". In this interpretation the only people that died were those directly in combat, and thus they were legit targets for death.

That ain't pretty, but war ain't pretty. And perhaps part of the passage is to show us that war ain't pretty (see #3 below as well).

The problem with this interpretation is that this text and the Joshua text seems to be saying something more: Namely, that by the command of God, the Israelites were doing "racial cleansing" and trying to get rid of a whole culture. Now, it is clear there probably was exaggeration involved (and they didn't kill everyone, and they even let some groups who helped them stay in the land), but it is also clear that this was done for more than just winning a battle. They were aiming to eliminate a whole culture, at God's command!

2. Perhaps this was a "mercy killing" either ordered or allowed by God. If Canaanite culture was half as violent and depraved as the Bible makes it out to be, it literally sounds like hell on earth. Perhaps God, in his foreknowledge and in his mercy knew what would happen if he let that culture keep perpetuating itself: It would keep breeding endless cycles of oppression and dehumanization.

So, with that said, God authorizes the Israelites to do a "mercy killing", to amputate this fatally sick society from the face of the Earth and replace it with something better. Sure, people would die violently in the process, but at least they would not die a long, bitter, dehumanizing death by growing up in Canaanite culture.

The problem with this is several:

(a) It seems to go against God's nature as Love, and his desire to save people rather than destroy them (cf. Ezekiel 33.11; 2Peter 3.9). Although, from a cosmic perspective, it could be an act of "tough love" to amputate a diseased culture.

(b) This sets a really bad precedent for jihad in God's Name in the future.

(c) It does not seem that, in the long run, the Israelite culture that replaced the Canaanites was any better. They repeatedly fell into gross immorality even worse than the Canaanites. Psalm 106 rails against Israel for being every bit as bad as the Canaanites they replaced. And, eventually, Israel was destroyed and exiled because of their sins, just as the Canaanites were.

3. It could be that God "commanded" the slaughter in the sense that he allowed it, or authorized it (rather than directly saying "You shall do this!"). In the Hebrew Bible, especially in the early parts, God is said to cause everything. And, in a primitive sense, God DOES cause everything, because he is the original cause of the entire universe.

But, as you move on through the Bible, we learn that God not only is the active cause of some things by directly doing them (such as miracles), but He is also the passive cause by allowing other free beings to choose something. So, in a primitive sense, God is the CAUSE of sin because He created a universe that is free to sin. But, in a more advanced sense of causality, God merely allows or permits sin, so that we can also be free to choose to love Him.

In this reading, God only passively allowed or authorized the Israelites to do jihad, and it was the leaders of Israel who interpreted this as God "commanding" them to do it. So, when God allowed the Canaanites to be routed, they interpreted this as a sign that "the Lord also placed King Og and his people in our power", and then they used that as the warrant to say God "commanded" the Israelites to "slaughter them all".

Why would God "allow" this to happen, and also "allow" his allowance to be interpreted as his "command"? I think He did this for two reasons:

(a) God knew that Canaanite culture was doomed anyway. If it wasn't the Israelites who destroyed them, it would be someone. If it wasn't external strife that destroyed them, they would devour themselves from the inside. So, God allowed them to be destroyed earlier rather than later, quickly rather than slowly. Like I said above: God allowed a mercy killing.

(b) The Bible not only shows us what pleases God, but it also shows us what displeases God (see Satan tempting Jesus in Luke 4). The Bible not only shows us people following God correctly, but also people using God's Name in vain to advance their own desires (read about the Kings of Israel sometime).

How do we tell the difference between whether the Bible is telling us something God APPROVES or something God DISAPPROVES? Well, sometimes the text tells us directly. Other times, we have to look at the long term effects of what happens in Scripture. When someone does something in God's Name in the Bible, and it causes good effects, then it is something God approves.

For instance, the Truth of Christ's life and message are validated in the long run by His resurrection, the outpouring of His Spirit, the spread of the Church, and [eventually] his second coming in power and glory.

In Acts, the Jewish Rabbis are discussing what to do with the Jesus Movement. One wise Rabbi says: "So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, IT WILL FAIL; but if it is of God, YOU WILL NOT BE ABLE TO OVERTHROW THEM-- in that case you may even be found fighting against God!" (Acts 5:38-39)

Thus, if someone does something in the Bible that God disapproves, then the long term effects will be failure, and it will not bring about the righteousness that God intends.

So, the question is: What were the long term effects from the racial cleansing of the Canaanites which God allowed? Did it bring about a lasting righteousness among God's people and a safe, peaceful land?

No. As Jesus said: "Those who live by the sword die by the sword". Read Psalm 106. The butcher of the Canaanites merely made Israel into butchers. They did not live out the Love and Justice required by the Law.

So, the second reason I believe that God allowed / authorized the jihad against the Canaanites was to show every generation afterward that JIHAD DOES NOT WORK in the long run. God's Kingdom simply cannot be established by force and coercion. Rather, it is only established by Love and Mercy and Humility (cf. Micah 6.8).

Jihad is ALWAYS a temptation to those in power to get rid of those they disagree with. God had to give us a warning, an object lesson, that this does not work. Every since Genesis chapter 4 God has been telling us that murder and hatred do not work to bring about His righteousness.

But God knows how barbaric we can be- especially when we are barbaric in HIS Name. So, God allowed, for a short time, His people to wage war in His Name. Not because He desired it, but because He knew that we needed to learn the hard way that it doesn't work.

And you will notice that after the book of Joshua, the Bible never again allows for "total war" to be unleashed without God warning His people that their violence will turn on them and destroy them in the long run.

So, ultimately, I think God is saying something like this through these passages:

"Look, it breaks my heart to do this, but I know you are a perverse and violent group of people who will only learn the hard way. So, I allow you to wipe out the Canaanites. If you don't do it, someone else will, because they are a culture even more screwed up than you. So go. Do this in my Name. But I warn you: This will not turn out well. The sword you take up will stab you in the heart. The violence you breed will come back on your children. The hatred you harbor in my Name will eventually make you even more wicked than the Canaanites, and I will have to allow you to be destroyed as well. But after you are destroyed, you will learn. And then you will call out for me to save you, and I will come. And when I come as a man, I will put death to death in my own Body, and then conquer it by my resurrection, so that you may finally live in faith, hope, and love."

So, that is what I think is going on in these passages. When you read them in light of the "big picture" which includes Jesus, it makes more sense.


Anglican versus Andersonian Ecclesiology

Alright. I am just as tired of "conservative" schismatics, as I am of "revisionist" heretics. I need a little ranting room, if you don't mind. I do not know what to post first here, so I will let you (the reader) decide. This article is about an email I received from David Anderson of the American Anglican Council (one of the soon-to-be schismatic groups vying for American conservative Anglicans and their money).

I have pasted the email at the end, with my own paragraph markings [] for easy reference. Anytime you see a number inside [ ], that is a reference to Anderson's letter. The people referred to in the article are Rowan++ (the archbishop of Canterbury) and John Howe+ (the bishop of Central Florida).

Anderson writes an odd, and somewhat unconnected letter about what is wrong with the way Rowan++ perceives the Church, and underlying his critique, there seems to be a radical revision of Anglican ecclesiology going on in Anderson's mind. Ecclesiology, if you do not know, is the doctrine of the Church (ekklesia), what the Church is, how She is led, and what She does. This article is an attempt to tease out this new, revisionist "Andersonian" ecclesiology (and why it is neither Biblical nor Anglican).

Traditionally, in Anglican ecclesiology, there are three levels of the Church: At a primary level, there is the "head pastor" of a local region (the bishop), and his Church (the Diocese). Secondarily, within this Diocese are local assemblies of believers called "parishes", which are led by local church elders (priests). Third, the Dioceses are connected together into a worldwide communion, as each Bishop recognizes, receives, and shares sacraments with other bishops.

As a secondary historical development, sometimes groups of Dioceses are organized into provinces, or national Churches, with each bishop equal to every other bishop, and not able to intervene in each other's Diocese. They are organized this way for practical, administrative, and resource-sharing reasons, not because the "province" is actually a real entity in the Church.

In [2] he seems to be implying that the REAL work of the Church is done on the parish level, and thus the parish is the actual basic unit of the Church, except for the fact that bishops are needed to ordain and confirm. Then, in [3] he implies that bishops (and hence their dioceses) cannot be the basic unit of the Church, because more than one bishop is needed to consecrate a new bishop. Then he launches into a critique of what is going on with Howe+ in Central Florida [4-6].

In [6] he begins a critique of Rowan's++ letter to Howe+, and Rowan's++ assumption that the Anglican communion is made up of Diocesan bishops in communion with the Diocesan bishop of Canterbury. Also, in [6] he accuses Rowan++ of following a Roman Catholic model, and thus Anderson sets up the province/national church as the "primary unit" of the Church, rather than the Diocese.

In [7] Anderson concocts a theory that Rowan++ is trying to topple the Primatial structure of the Church. Thus, in [7] Rowan++ is compared with Charles I, with the not-too-veiled threat that the Anglican primates will "cut off his head" (ecclessially speaking) if he does not recognize the Primatial nature of the Church.

In [8-10] Anderson basically re-iterates that Rowan++ is making all "True Anglicans" mad, and that if he continues to do so, his side will loose members and eventually the Anglican communion. Anderson ends with the quip about spreading the faith [11]. One might ask, how does he plan to do this? The faith requires something or someone to spread it.

He seems to be basically implying that He wants to create a new "holy club", which will spread this faith, in a new denomination, with an "Andersonian" ecclesiology. The two units of this new denomination are the provincial/national Church and it's "flying bishops", and the local parish and its priests. The Diocese has no place to play in his schema. The only really worldwide fellowship in the Andersonian denomination would be the "national headquarters" of each denominational affiliate province. Each parish would be basically autonomous Congregationalists, with no direct pastoral oversight, other than paying a bishop to fly in and lay hands on people sometimes.

I think that he presents a bold new vision of a new kind of hybrid Baptist-episcopal Church, don't you? Or do I read him wrong? I mean, he can claim this vision is "episcopal", because it still uses bishops for something. But the bishops would have a position not really known in the history of the Church. Biblically, we find regional Diocesan Churches (i.e. "The Church of Rome", "The Church in Galatia", etc.). And we find house churches, or parishes, within these Dioceses (i.e. the house church of Nympha in Colossians, or that of Prisca and Aquilla in Romans). We even find references to the universal, worldwide Church.

But, in the Bible, we do not find any reference to Provinces that are sub-universal, but trans-regional. We do not find a "Church of the Roman Empire", nor a "Church of the Persians". Diocesan Churches are always connected with a specific city (Rome, Corinth, Canterbury, Dallas), or regional district (Galatia). Provincial, national, and primatial Churches are a second-order administrative development made later in history for the purpose of unifying Dioceses together in a region, led by an "elder brother" bishop (who, I may add, did not have the ability to directly intervene in a brother-bishop's Diocese).

So, Anderson has taken a second-order historical creation (the Province), endowed it with new powers, and is trying to write it off as an "orthodox" conception of the Church? Hrrrrmph! Ecclessiologically, he seems to be every bit the revisionist that "The Episcopal Church" is regarding human sexuality! Am I reading this right? Because just as he claims that he must read Rowan's++ letter in light of other things he has done [9], so I also must read this article in light of what separatist Anglo-protestants seem to be doing.

If I am right, then our choice is clear: EITHER we opt for a historic Anglican conciliar-catholic vision of the Church, in which the primary unit of the Church is the Diocese, and communion is based on mutual recognition of Diocesan bishops OR we opt for the revisionist Andersonian vision of autonomous local Congregationalist churches who hold onto the vestiges of episcopacy, and basically pay bishops for what their hands can do.

What do you think?

Friday, October 26, 2007

A Message From Bishop-elect David C. Anderson

[1] For years as a parish priest I heard the arguments over which is more important, or the basic unit of the church, the local parish or the diocese.

[2] Is the basic unit the diocese with bishop and people or is it the local parish church? A parish church and priest can baptize, celebrate Holy Communion, marry, anoint the sick, hear confessions and grant absolution. The two things the local church and priest cannot do are confirm and ordain. A local church which is well managed might feel quite self-sufficient ecclesiastically until they need to have someone ordained. The American Episcopal Church went from the early 1600s until the late 1700s - not quite two hundred years - without Confirmation generally being available since Bishops were unwilling to venture to the American colonies. Priests had to be imported, or candidates sent to England for ordination.

[3] From a standpoint of continuity it would seem that the smallest complete unit of the church is the Bishop and his flock, even though by custom when a bishop is consecrated there are three bishops doing the laying-on-of-hands. Now there is a new dimension to the argument that takes it to the Province level and even to the See of Canterbury. Archbishop Rowan Williams has used the recent writings of others on this subject and applied it in a novel and two-fold way; more about this in a moment.

[4] The Rt. Rev. John Howe, Bishop of Central Florida and an orthodox and faithful man of God, has of recent confused many of his clergy as to where EXACTLY he stands in his relationship with the revisionist and heterodox top leadership of TEC. As the actions of the principal leadership of the Episcopal Church have more and more offended and disturbed the orthodox laity and clergy of his diocese of Central Florida, more and more of them have wondered if they still have a place in TEC, and indeed even in his diocese.

[5] Very recently nine of the congregations, some of them the largest in the diocese, announced that they are in conversation with Bishop Howe about their departure. Bishop Howe's orthodoxy is noted, yet the congregations and clergy felt that their Anglican connection through the heterodox TEC leadership and Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori was negatively impacting their life, ministry and proclamation of the Gospel. Bishop Howe has been clear that he is staying in TEC no matter what, so that left the clergy and congregations looking for departure options.

[6] Howe wanted to reassure these congregations (and others which haven't spoken out yet) that there is another option, and so he wrote to Rowan Williams. At the same time, it seems that Dr. Williams has several things he wishes to accomplish besides holding onto the current American Episcopal Church and her money: he wishes to project, strengthen, and expand a special relationship between individual bishops of the Communion and himself along a Roman model; he also wishes to undercut and diminish the power of the Anglican Primates whose strength has been growing of recent and is a challenge to him. Dr. Williams wrote a letter to Howe, meaning for it, in a sense, to apply to Howe's special appeal, but at the same time to move the larger agendas forward. In his letter, Dr. Williams discouraged "separatist" plans, urging all Windsor-supportive Anglicans "to regard the bishop and the diocese as the primary locus of ecclesial identity, rather than the abstract reality of the 'national church.'"

[7] I believe it was King Charles I who, when he couldn't control the English Parliament, decided not to convene it. Unconvened, Parliament couldn't exercise any power, he thought. Finally when he had to convene it to raise taxes, it set in play a sequence of events that cost Charles his crown and the head that it sat upon. Dr. Williams, having tried to manage the Primates (with some success at the October 2003 London Primates Meeting, then less so at Dromantine, and still less so in Dar es Salaam) has decided and stated publicly that there will be no Primates Meeting prior to the Lambeth Conference 2008. It is, quite honestly, a gamble on his part. Can he suppress the Primates Meeting and undercut the role of the Primates and Provinces by establishing that what makes a bishop Anglican is the relationship with Rowan Williams as the Archbishop of Canterbury? If that is successful it would mean that to be Anglican is defined by Canterbury alone. This seems like a dangerous road to go down, especially since this Archbishop's own orthodoxy seems to waver.

[8] When the Archbishop of Canterbury first surprised everyone with the release of the list of invitees to Lambeth, it was noted that they were not invited by Province, but individually. This seemed like a slight against the Primates, but the concern quickly focused on the inclusion of those bishops who consecrated Gene Robinson and the exclusion of Robinson Cavalcanti of Recife and a number of American bishops connected to African Provinces. Now after the letter to Howe, it becomes clear that this is part of an orchestrated attempt to pull down the Provincial structure as a means of international accountability, and to pull down the role of the Primates as a college of Primates, sitting with Rowan, who is first among equals.

[9] With the blogging world and the HoB/D list serve going crazy, and some very harsh things being said about His Grace, a second letter was released. It was a "What the Archbishop meant to say was..." which attempted to put his remarks into a narrow context. Viewed alone you might be tempted to accept that, but with the earlier invitation list following the same stream of thought, it becomes clearer that Rowan isn't making this up as he goes along.

[10] Surprisingly, this letter to Howe has managed to upset both revisionists and the orthodox at the same time - but perhaps Dr. Williams doesn't mind this. The difficulty is his belief that there is a mythical middle that he can work with, unaware that the "Windsor" bishops are about to experience a hemorrhage of members themselves. More and more, especially after a number of entire dioceses and bishops depart for other Provinces, he will discover how serious is his misunderstanding. Is there such a thing as "divine right of the primal archbishopric?" Good sense would argue for a catholic and evangelical faith united, within an Anglican Communion globally made up of a family of orthodox Provinces and Primates, with clear faith and discipline applied both within Provinces and between Provinces. Although many of us are to some extent Anglophiles, the location of the see city is less important than the vitality of the faith and a structure that encourages that faith to grow.

[11] In closing, don't just keep the faith. Spread it.



Well, this weekend was the annual convention for the Diocese of Dallas. There was a possibility of things being really contentious (with everything going on in the National Church, and the Anglican Communion). But, I have to hand it to our bishop and our whole Diocese family: We all did a good job of holding it together. I am proud of us.

At the convention I was elected to be one of our representatives to our Province. For those who are Episcopal-challenged, here is an outline of our Church organization, and what a Province is: The basic unit of the Church is the Diocese, which is the entire Church in a geographic region (think of it like this: When Paul writes to "The Church in Rome" or "The Church in Galatia", he is writing to every Christian in that entire area, whether or not they meet in several locations or not. This region is a Diocese).

Within each Diocese are dozens of parishes, or local manifestations of the Church (think of it like this: At the end of Romans when Paul speaks of individual house-churches within the entire Roman Church, this is like a Parish). Now, for the purpose of organizing together, Dioceses are usually grouped in Provinces, which are made up of multiple Dioceses. And provinces make up national churches (like the Church of England, Nigeria, or the United States). Then all of these national Churches make up the whole Anglican Communion. There are some exceptions to this rule (hey, we're Anglican, and there's always exceptions), but this is the general outline.

So, it goes like this from small to big: Parish - DIOCESE - Province - National Church - Worldwide Communion. Make sense?

OK, well I was elected to represent this Diocese at the Provincial level. Our Provence (Provence 7) is made up of the Dioceses of Arkansas, Dallas, Ft. Worth, Kansas, Northwest Texas, Oklahoma, Rio Grande, Texas, Western Louisiana, Western Kansas, West Texas, and West Missouri.

That means that I will have exotic, all-expense paid trips to Kansas, Oklahoma, and Missouri! But, in all seriousness, it was a real honor for me.

I also got to speak to our entire Convention for 10 minutes about College Ministries in our Diocese, and issue a call for involvement in reaching College Students. The address went over pretty well. Here is what I said:

Right Reverend Sir...

Delegates to the Convention...

I Bring you greetings in the Name of our Risen Lord from Canterbury Episcopal College Ministries.

I would like to begin this address by asking you all to do something for me. If you were involved in a Canterbury program during college, I ask you to please stand up.

And, of those who are standing, I ask you: If your involvement in Canterbury was formative in helping you follow the call of God on your life, please raise your hand.

Hmmm. Just as I thought. You may sit down.

Thank you. It is demonstrations like that which tell me two things about college ministry: First, college ministry works. Second, college ministry is something we need to be passionate about in this Diocese.

College ministry works because, in a way that is unlike any other ministry in the Church, college ministry raises up young leaders who will shape the Church for decades to come as clergy and lay leaders.

College is where we send our best and brightest to learn how to be leaders in the world of business and industry, science and politics.

College ministry is something to be passionate about because through it, we are able to connect these growing young leaders into the Body of Christ, so they can find who God made them to be, and in turn lead the Church to find out who God made us to be.

We don't have to assume that our young women and men will leave the Church during college and become practically pagan. We do not have to wait for them to get married and have 2.5 kids before they realize they need to come back to Church to get everyone baptized.

No. We can be proactive. We don't have to leave college ministry to other evangelical groups. Young adults are hungry for the Christ we can offer them. I tell you, the fields are ripe for harvest!

Do you remember being a college student or young adult? Do you remember the feeling of freedom as you finally were able to spread your wings and explore the world "on your own"? Do you remember the fears and anxieties and questions that arose from trying to find where you fit in the world? Can you remember who helped you on your journey to adulthood?

In a superficial world of social masks and false promises, young adults are looking for deep, safe relationships where they can be who they are, warts and all.

In a world immersed in information, and drowning in activities, young adults need a place where they can escape to think, and ask honest questions, and get real answers about the meaning of life.

In a world stripped of mystery and transcendence, young adults need a sacred space and a sacred time to connect with the God who made them, through meaningful worship and authentic prayer.

And finally, in a world that defines success largely as being king of your own world, young adults need to find a real King they can give their lives to, who will never let them down: the Lord Jesus Christ.

In short, young adults need to find Christ-centered fellowship, formation, worship, and vocation.

The mission of Canterbury College ministries is to provide young adults with guidance on this journey. On campuses all over this Diocese, from Texarkana to SMU, from Texas A&M Commerce to our Community colleges, from private universities to the University of North Texas, we are helping students on this journey.

We are doing this with food and friendship, through fellowship and worship, in Bible studies and mission trips, drinking gallons of coffee, and staying up till all hours of the night.

And, we are rebuilding the student center and chapel at SMU to facilitate this mission to college students, as a hub of college outreach in our Diocese. Thanks to the hard work of the Canterbury board at SMU, dozens of incredible donors, and support from the Diocese, we are almost done rebuilding this fantastic facility. We invite you to take a drive down Daniel street, on the north side of SMU, and come visit the new building, and see what God is doing there.

Yet, as vibrant and hopeful as all of these things are, they are not enough. The fields are ripe for harvest, but the workers are few. We must join together as a Diocese and do this mission together. We need your help.

First and foremost, we need your prayers. Pray for the colleges of this Diocese. Pray that students would be open to the Gospel, and come into a saving relationship with Christ through His Church. Pray for those of us on the front line of college ministry, that we would be effective at what God has called us to do.

Second, we need you to contact us and get involved. For the last year a small group of us have been meeting as the "College and Young Adult Committee". We have been trying to find better ways to get students connected with college ministry, and get local parishes connected with students. If you want to be involved with this committee, come and see us at the Canterbury booth. We would love to get you connected.

Third, we need your support. It takes time, money, and manpower to do effective ministry anywhere, including on campus. We are almost done building the new student center, but we are not done paying for it. We need all the support we can get.

So, will you pray for us, that God would do something incredible at our colleges? Will you join with us in this strategic mission to see young lives healed and transformed? Will you support our call to reach and raise up our next generation of leaders in this Church?

I pray you will. And I pray that 30 years from now, our Church will be packed with men and women who will stand up, and say that the college ministries we support now, helped them encounter Christ and become who they are.

Thank you.



A Sermon For Year C, Proper 23
Copyright © 2007 Nathan L. Bostian

2 Timothy 2:3-15

SERMON: I was wondering: Just between you and me, do the Bible readings on Sunday ever make you uncomfortable? Do you ever feel like you come to worship for joy and encouragement, only to be confronted with ideas that are uncomfortable and perplexing?

I mean, we have had a difficult month of readings. Last week, we heard the prophet Habakkuk get angry and ask God hard questions about how he could let the wicked prosper and the righteous perish.

The week before that we heard Jesus tell a story about a rich man suffering in the flames of hell. And the week before that Jesus told us a parable about how an embezzling manager not only got away with embezzlement, but was rewarded for his shrewdness in doing so!

These readings do not leave us with a warm fuzzy feeling. They often leave us with more questions than answers: questions about God's justice, about God's goodness, about the purity of our own motives, and about our eternal destiny. These are hard questions. Disturbing questions.

And after all of these tough readings, I find that I want something light. Something encouraging. I want to hear Philippians 4:4 "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!"

I want to hear Jeremiah 29.11 "For I know the plans I have for you- declares the Lord- plans for your wholeness and not your harm, plans to give you a hope and a future."

But, that's not what we hear today. In fact, what we hear in Paul's second letter to Timothy is one of the most perplexing readings I know of, because I do not know many other readings that are both so encouraging- and so challenging- at the same time.

Paul gives us three images- a soldier, a farmer, and an athlete- to describe the life of a Jesus-follower. Each image is both shocking and encouraging, but each for different reasons. And I think each of these images corrects the flaws and the possible distortions of the other two, because our Christian life is so incredibly rich that it cannot be nailed down by one precise definition.

So Paul starts by telling Timothy "Share in suffering like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one serving in the army gets entangled in everyday affairs; the soldier's aim is to please the enlisting officer."

Comparing the Christ-life to that of a soldier is scandalous for us for several reasons. To begin with, we live in an era that has seen the carnage of two world wars, Nazi Holocausts, Stalinist purges, and three decades of every misstep of our military being beamed into our homes via Television. In such an age, it is easy to get jaded. It is easy to confuse the heroism of multitudes of good soldiers, with the war crimes of a few.

Unfortunately, since the honorable image of a soldier is tainted in our society, it becomes shocking to compare following Jesus with being his soldier. But, for Paul the image would have been even more tainted, because the word that Paul uses here would have brought up the image of a Roman soldier.

It was Roman soldiers who ruthlessly crushed opposition to Rome all over the known world. It was Roman soldiers who unjustly crucified Christ. And, by the time the letter was written, the first great persecution of Christians in Rome had probably happened, in which Roman soldiers rounded up innocent Christians and imprisoned them in the Coliseum to be tortured and executed publicly.

So, for Paul and the early Christians, the image of soldier was as tainted as it could ever be: And yet Paul still used it. Why?

In what ways are being a despised Roman soldier like being a beloved disciple?

First of all, a Roman soldier knew what it meant to have unswerving loyalty to their commander. It was not Roman military technology or technique that enabled them to conquer the known world. In many ways, from Carthage's war elephants to Persian longbow archers to savage Barbarian hordes, the Roman army was often out-manned and out-gunned on the battlefield.

But, there was one thing the Roman soldier was known for worldwide: Their obedience and discipline. They would not break rank or shirk from orders. When their commanders told them to stand firm, they stood firm. When their commanders told them to advance, they advanced. With interlocking shields, and interlocking footsteps, they advanced as one man... and for centuries, they conquered everywhere they went.

And in using the image of soldier, Paul is saying: Look at these soldiers, obeying as one man the commands of a petty potentate, advancing to conquer a kingdom that will not last. If these soldiers are willing to do this for something temporary and someone unjust, how much more should the disciples of Christ be willing to obey the Lord of Love, who rules a Kingdom that will not end?

And if these soldiers are willing to wield weapons of hate and violence in the name of Caesar, how much more should we be willing to wield weapons of mercy and love in the Name of the King of Kings?

We must be willing to stand firm when our Lord says stand firm, and advance when He says advance, with interlocking hearts and interlocking minds, moving together as one man, to heal our world, our communities, and our families, by His power.

The other thing that the image of soldier shows us is that following Jesus entails suffering. It entails walking the road Jesus walked, and carrying the cross he carried.

Yet, I fear that there is a deeper reason why the image of a soldier is shocking to us. It is shocking because it implies fighting and suffering for something. Perhaps being a soldier for Christ is shocking to us is NOT just because of the injustice of war crimes, BUT because most of us do not want to suffer for anything, ever.

In fact, some may doubt whether there is anything worth suffering for at all. If you look at our media, our commercials, our TV shows, our magazines, it seems that our society has an obsession with feeling good and looking better. We want comfort and convenience, and we want it NOW... I want it now.

In our instant society and consumer culture, perhaps the greatest two sins are to make people wait, and to cause them discomfort. We avoid activities which might take time and effort and pain. We avoid people who might tell us hard truths about ourselves, which make us feel bad, and force us to change.

Just stay up late some night and watch all of the infomercials that promise you rock hard abdominals, and a tight rear end in only 10 minutes a day, without any pain.

Just the other day I heard a commercial for some new system to learn a Spanish fluently, without having to memorize any vocabulary or do any grammar drills. They said all of that old-school, time-consuming stuff was "useless", and they had a system to be fluent in Spanish in only minutes a day. No pain, all gain.

But, being a soldier for Christ- a disciple of Christ- means precisely that we will have to wait, and endure suffering, in His Name. Just as military campaigns take time and effort and pain, so also spreading Christ's Kingdom will take time and effort and pain. It takes time and effort and pain to see our own lives changed, our families changed, our communities changed. If we want to participate with Jesus in the healing of the world, we will have to be willing to march in step with Him for the duration of the campaign.

If we were just left with the metaphor of a soldier, we might be tempted to think that the war would be quick. We might be tempted to think that the power of Christ's resurrection was going to obliterate evil immediately... That the war would be brief, and intense, and then be over, in a snap.

But Paul gives us the image of a farmer to challenge this, because God's Kingdom grows much more like a crop being harvested than like a war being won. In a war, the opposition can be overcome by sheer force of numbers, and sheer power of technology. But, a farmer must wait for the right time, the right season, and the right soil. You cannot force a harvest. You have to work with the land, not against it.

To spread God's Love requires NOT an overwhelming show of force, BUT a patient awareness of the people you love. It takes making the most of teachable moments, not beating them over the head with a Bible. It takes a prayerful awareness of the right words to say at the right time, not arguing them into submission. It takes compassion for the needs and hurts of others, not a drill sergeant screaming: GET YOUR LIFE TOGETHER!

In short, spreading God's Love takes the patience of a farmer.

Also, if the metaphor of soldier was left alone, it might imply that we can spread God's Kingdom through raw power and forcing others to submit (or else!). After all, in the heat of battle, even the best soldier can fall into hatred and inhumanity.

So, to remedy this, Paul gives us the metaphor of an athlete. He says "in the case of an athlete, no one is crowned without competing according to the rules".

The phrase "competing according to the rules" is an important one, because in Greco-Roman society, this is what distinguished professional athletes from amateurs. Often it seems like our culture is completely the opposite: These days it is the amateur Olympians who must scrupulously follow the rules, while professional athletes can flaunt all the rules of society and sport and get away with it.

But not so in Paul's day. For them, it was the professional athlete that was known for perfectly following the rules. It was the professional athlete who trained with scrupulous discipline, day in and day out, in good seasons and in bad. If they didn't, they would be disqualified, and all of their hard work would be for naught.

And the same is true for Christ followers. Jesus summed our rules quite succinctly in the Great Commandments: Love God above all, and love our neighbors as ourselves.

We are called to do this, day in and day out, in good and bad seasons. We are called to love the unlovable, to forgive the unforgiven, and care for the forgotten. And we do this, not on our own power, but by staying connected to the source of our Love: our Risen Lord.

This is hard, and it requires lots of training, and that is why we are athletes. While you can win a war by cheating and being inhumane, you cannot win the athletic competition by flouting the rules. We become what we practice.

We cannot bring about God's Kingdom of Love by using weapons of un-love. We cannot heal our world by ripping it apart with power politics and bitter animosity (both of which characterize so much of the rhetoric we find in our church and our nation these days).

We must compete according to the rule of Love. Only Christ's Love can bring about Christ's Kingdom. We are His Body, his own hands and feet, reaching out to heal the world.

I do not know exactly what that means, and I do not know exactly how to live this Love, but I have some idea. And you do to. And I ask you to join me with interlocking hearts and interlocking minds to figure it out together.

And this leads me to the encouragement that all three of these images bring to us: They all bring us a vision of hope. The soldier hopes to end war and bring peace. The farmer hopes for harvest. The athlete hopes for victory.

As we follow Christ, our hope is sure. We ARE on the winning team. Some day the war will end, and God's peace will fill the earth. Some day there will be a harvest of righteousness, and everywhere we will share the fruit of Love. Some day there will be victory, when the light of Christ banishes all darkness, and the life of Christ defeats death.

I ask you to join me in that hope. Together. As one Body, with one Spirit, serving one Lord.

For we are His soldiers.

His farmers.

His athletes.


AFFIRMATION: And now, as Christ's soldiers, and farmers, and athletes, let us affirm together or faith in the Risen Lord using the words of the Nicene Creed...



A Sermon For Year C, Proper 22
Copyright © 2007 Nathan L. Bostian

Based on Habakkuk 1:1-13;2:1-4

SERMON: Quick quiz: As followers of Jesus, what is the proper range of emotions to express in our relationship with God? What are the "correct" emotional responses to feel toward God?

Well, as Jesus followers from the Episcopal tribe, we are very comfortable with reverence. We like to be reverent toward God, with a sort of muted awe, silent admiration, and inward appreciation of God's beauty. We know what it means to "worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness".

We also value thoughtfulness. We like to meditate on God, without being given the "answers", as we look at ideas about God in our imagination. We truly value asking difficult questions, and deeply pondering the possible answers. In fact, sometimes we so deeply value thinking ABOUT God, that we fail talk TO God!

But, that's another sermon...

And while Episcopal Jesus people value reverence and thoughtfulness, Jesus followers from other Christian tribes value other things. Some value excitement! They want the joy of the Lord to pour out like a gushing river every time they worship. Their worship gatherings often look more like rock concerts than what we think of as Church... But at least they are excited!

Other Jesus followers value faith and confidence in Christ. They think it is important for Christians to step out in faith into the great unknown, trusting that God will provide for them in every way. They believe that Christians should be the bravest people on earth, because they put their whole trust in a God who will not let them down.

Still others place the supreme value on sacrifice. Jesus followers should be willing to sacrifice everything for their Lord, giving up all their rights and privileges for the sake of spreading God's Kingdom, God's Justice, and God's Gospel on the Earth. For them, the major sin is to hold back even a little part of oneself from God.

Both Jesus and the Apostle Paul tended to put supreme value on Love: Agape Love. Unconditional, unselfish, unstoppable Love. Jesus said that this Love is what all the Law and the Prophets depended on. Paul said that this Love sums up the Law, and he spent a chapter in his first letter to the Corinthians talking about how it is the supreme gift of the Spirit.

And, when you put it that way, you can see how Love includes all of the lesser, but still important, values of reverence, thoughtfulness, excitement, trust, and sacrifice. If you Love God you will be reverent to Him, but also excited about Him. If you Love God you will trust Him, and also be thoughtful about Him. If you Love God, you will sacrifice yourself for the things He values: Like Justice and Charity and spreading the Gospel.

But, is this the total emotional range we are allowed to feel toward God? Or, are there some emotions that are "off limits" in dealing with God?

Honestly, I think that many Christians would say yes. There are some things that "real Christians" cannot feel toward God. There are some ideas and emotions that cannot enter your heart or mind, or else you are becoming faithless and endangering your very soul.

Because if you felt THAT- you know what THAT is- if you felt THAT then it means that you must be denying God.

Quick! Think about something else! Pretend you didn't just feel that! Ignore it! Deny it! By all means, do not admit to anyone that THAT thought ever passed through your mind!

And- this is important- DO NOT tell God about THAT. God is not big enough to handle it. God is much too fragile. If you tell God THAT He might just disappear, and cease to exist. Or, even worse, God might throw a cosmic temper tantrum, hurl a few lightning bolts at you, and make your life hell.

Wait, it sounds kind of silly when I put it that way. Doesn't it?

I mean, if God is who we say God is, He should Love us enough to walk with us through whatever we FEEL, right? And if God is big enough to make the universe and everything in it, He should be big enough to deal with my crisis, right? And if God is powerful enough to become a powerless carpenter from Nazareth who lived, suffered, and died as one of us, he should be powerful enough to help me through my pain, right?

We know this when we sit down and think about it, but we still walk around with the assumption that our entire emotional range in dealing with God can only consist of "positive" emotions.

Above all, most people believe that getting angry and frustrated with God is complete blasphemy. You CAN'T get mad at God! He is blameless! He is holy! He could squash you like a bug!

So, we sit on our anger. We stuff it. We pretend it is not there. We go through pain and suffering and rejection and humiliation and we smile weakly and say "It is all in God's plan". We witness astounding injustice- corruption, embezzlement, apathy, hate, homicide, and genocide- and we smile weakly and say "Everything works out for the best".

And the resentment grows. Instead of crying out to God and saying "How could you let this happen to them! How could you let this happen to me!", we choose to cling to a few bland clichés: "A smile is just a frown turned upside down!"

Eventually the resentment reaches a crisis point, and we either explode, or melt down, or loose our faith altogether. Sadly, after doing 15 years of ministry, I find that most people wind up choosing the last option.

Some people feel so let down by God, and so unable to be honest about how they feel, that they just give up on the whole God-business altogether.

But God HAS designed us emotionally to deal with this. For every relationship based on Love, there is a solution for pent-up frustration: Honest anger. You can get angry at God, and He will listen, and He is big enough to walk you through it.

I promise.

Listen to the prophet Habakkuk: "O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you "Violence!" and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous-- therefore judgment comes forth perverted."

Can you hear the anger? Habakkuk is seeing the wicked prosper, and the righteous suffer, and he wants to know where God is! He can see that the ruthless and violent Chaldeans are going to attack and destroy his people, and he wants to know how God could let that happen!

He knows his own people are a real piece of work. He knows they are hypocrites and scoundrels, greedy and unjust, but they are not as bad as the Chaldeans! How can God bring judgment on His own people by using a people who are WORSE than His own people!

Habakkuk wants answers!

So, what does Habakkuk do? He goes up to his watchtower and sits and waits for God to answer. He demands that God answer, and then he has the audacity to SIT and wait for it!

And you know what God did? He answered.

Habakkuk was not afraid to get angry with God. He was willing to argue with God to His face. He was willing to wrestle with God, to struggle with God, to stubbornly wait for God to answer.

What we think of as unthinkable- getting angry and frustrated with God- is in fact at the core of how the Bible pictures our relationship with God. And, if you want to get down to it, it is at the core of how God designed us as humans.

In our culture, raw, honest emotions scare us. We are afraid of honest anger, in the same way that we are afraid of deep passion. We want to keep everything light and bouncy. Nothing too deep.

But, if you really love someone, one of the most important skills to learn is how to get angry with each other, and argue in a constructive way, and forgive each other from the heart. If you do not learn how to do this with your friends, with your spouse, and even with your God, your relationships will not last long, and they will be amazingly shallow.

You can always tell a relationship is in trouble if you are always walking on eggshells, bottling up resentment, and never admitting when there is a problem. The healthiest relationships are those where people honestly express what is wrong, honestly try to fix the problem, and honestly forgive each other.

And, this is true all over the Bible in our relationship with God. In Genesis chapter 18, Abraham has an argument with God about saving the righteous out of Sodom and Gomorrah. And because of this, God allows Abraham to rescue his family members from the oncoming wrath.

In Genesis chapter 32, Jacob literally wrestles with God all night. As a result, God blesses Him and gives Him a new name: The name Israel. Israel literally means "the one who wrestles with God". So, all of the Hebrew people came to be named "Israelites": God-wrestlers! And now, the Church is the "new Israel", a people called by God to wrestle with Him.

Later on in the Bible we see Moses getting angry with God and wrestling with Him. Job has a famous wrestling match with God, and so did the prophet Jeremiah. Even Jonah wrestles with God and has to spend three days in a stinking fish before he stopped being stubborn. And the result of all of this wrestling was that God spoke to them, and met them where they were at.

Wrestling God in frustration and anger is all over the Psalms. Time after time we read the psalmists who cry out and say things like "How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?"

Even Jesus wrestles with God in frustration. In the garden before his arrest, He prays three times "Father, I do not want to go through with this! Isn't there some other way? Yet, not my will, but your will be done." On the cross, Jesus cries out "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

Jesus, the Son of God, was a God-Wrestler as well. And God spoke through Him too, by raising Him from the dead.

But this did not stop Jesus' disciples from being God-wrestlers. Thomas was so jaded by the death of Jesus that he said He would not believe He was raised until He saw Jesus' face, and touched His wounds. And what did Jesus do? Turn his back? Hurl lighting bolts at him for blasphemy? No, he showed up. Jesus showed up and showed Thomas his wounds.

And the God-wrestling does not stop there. In the last book of the Bible- the revelation of John- we find martyrs crying out with the same question that Habakkuk had asked hundreds of years earlier: "Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood?"

All of God's people are God-wrestlers. We are called to Love God with all we have- with all of our passion, all our reverence, all our trust, all of our thoughtfulness. But, loving God with that intensity means we need to be honest as well. There are times when we wonder where God is. There are times when we ache for God. There are times when the apparent absence of God makes us...

Makes us mad.

And God wants us to express that to Him. God wants us to wrestle with Him. The worst thing to do with anger is to hide it, and talk about it behind someone's back. And this is doubly true with God. Don't talk about God behind his back. Tell it to His face. He is big enough. He is strong enough. And He loves you enough.

And when you do honestly wrestle with God, and when you climb up into your watchtower with Habakkuk and say "I am not leaving here until you tell me something, God!", you will find that the strangest thing happens: God speaks. God acts. God brings resurrection where there was death.

He doesn't do it like you would expect. But, does God EVER do what we expect? Yet, He will do something. And that something will change your life, and change your world. I promise.

BENEDICTION: And now may you become a God-wrestler. May your love affair with Jesus become so real, that you are able to honestly bring your emotions- all of your emotions- to God. And may God answer you in your time of need, and bring resurrection to all of the dead places in your life. Amen+
This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.