Setting our minds on the Spirit

To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.  (From Sunday’s Revised Common Lectionary Epistle, Romans 8:1-11 NRSV)

So the wrong way to preach this is as a moral exhortation:  All of you, right now, get your minds off the flesh and back onto the Spirit!  That message actually surrenders the mind to the flesh.

WHAT?!?!?!?!?

Well, let’s start with the fact that we are all familiar with the New Testament idea of flesh as our self-centered, aggressive and pleasure seeking animal nature.  Paul captures this in a number of important verses, such as

Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.  (Galatians 5:19-21 ESV)

But in Romans, I think he’s warning us about a religious exercise of the flesh.

For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

When a sermon or other teaching shouts at us to STOP WALKING IN THE FLESH we instinctively (carnally) respond by trying harder to be good.  We try to do lots of pious stuff like going to all of the church programs we can and saying darn instead of, you know, d@#n, and switching from the metal station to the Christian station on the car radio, at least when the kids are with us.

That is, we try to save ourselves by keeping all the rules.

Which, the lesson from Romans warns us, is hopeless because keeping the law is a strategy under the weakening influence of the flesh.

The antidote is setting our mind on the Spirit, which first and foremost means to receive the Spirit’s perpetual witness: Jesus himself condemned sin in the flesh AND fulfilled the just requirement of the law by suffering death on the cross.

This is not to say that putting our mind on the Spirit is to reject the law and practice a touchy-feely Christian form of amorality.  Having our minds on the Spirit generates two primary actions for our practice of discipleship,

First, we are to affirm with the Spirit that Jesus Christ alone is our righteousness.  As Jesus taught of the Spirit’s work,

And when he (the Holy Spirit) comes, he will convict the world of its sin, and of God’s righteousness, and of the coming judgment. The world’s sin is that it refuses to believe in me. Righteousness is available because I go to the Father, and you will see me no more. Judgment will come because the ruler of this world has already been judged.  (John 16:8-11 NLT)

The second action is to read and/or hear Holy Scripture, which gives us the language by which the Spirit can guide us.  If we spend our day memorizing the Bible as a list of laws to be carried out, we inevitably walk according to the flesh, even if we dress the flesh up in religious ceremonies, jargon and habits.  Instead, our knowledge of the Bible allows the Spirit to teach and guide us in accord with God’s priorities and timing,

These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. (John 14:25-26, ESV)

The Holy Spirit is not a mere feeling (thus Paul tells us to set our minds on the Spirit), but God present within us to help us understand the Scripture He’s breathed, all of which bears witness to His righteousness fulfilled for us in Jesus and now being completed in us as we are transformed by the renewing of our minds.

Understanding that the work of God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is primary and that our piety and power to do good are outward signs of God’s continued and continuous inner work in our lives is what allows us to enjoy the radical truth that launches the lesson from Romans,

There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

In the flesh we are our own false gods and justly condemned; in the Spirit we share the life of Christ who is the righteous one, the beloved at the Father’s right hand.

 

 

 

Driven or unloaded?

Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.  Matthew 11:29-30 NLT

Deacon John at HA
Deacon John and I share a moment at Church of the Holy Apostles, Sioux Falls.

I’ll be reading this and trying to offer some comments in Dinka this coming Sunday.   Deacon John came over to our house last night to help me with some pronunciation and understanding.  As my wife said, “That was two hours?  It went by like a few minutes.”  It was a blessed evening of Christian friendship.  Even our surly cat, who avoids company at all costs, made an appearance for Deacon John.

Let me interject that my interpretive bias toward Jesus’ words at the end of Matthew 11 is probably a combination of American farm imagery and liturgical church symbols.  The former associates the yoke with farming, as a contraption to guide dumb animals pulling your plow.  The latter involves the clergy collar and the stole, which represent the yoke of Christ as he guides, well, dumb two-legged animals to do his work.

So my preaching tends to be around the idea of being driven by Christ, which of course presents problems a) because only the clergy wear the symbols and Jesus is speaking to all who follow (not “are driven by”) him and b) because the text emphasizes the weight of the load, not the direction it’s going.

As my wife and I asked John about the Dinka word for yoke, he made clear that it is not something to which an animal is harnessed.  The Dinka culture prided itself on caring for thriving cattle herds, and to harness them for plowing or other work would be seen as “abusing the animal.”  The yoke is something people wear to help carry heavy loads.

The Africa Study Bible comments on the verse include,

20170704_163314
Levantine woman bearing a load.  (Olive wood carving from Israel)

It is common in rural Africa to see a mother, carrying  her child on her back while walking a long distance and carrying firewood or a bucket of water for the family on her head.  Yokes are not only for animals, but the poor or slaves might used yokes to pull loads on their neck and shoulders.

The Apostle Peter used this same imagery when arguing for the church to accept her new gentile converts, contrasting the heaviness of Old Testament Law with the lighter burden of the New Covenant in Christ,

Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.  Acts 15:10-11 ESV

So as pious as it sounds to be driven here and there by Jesus, he’s actually calling us (telling us – the Dinka follows the Greek, in which Jesus says “take” as an imperative) to drop a lot of old crud that we lug around in efforts to be holy (or some virtue signaling secular facsimile), and to take up faith in Him.

He’s telling us to carry the lighter load of faith, the assurance of things not seen.  We carry out – I have a new take on that phrase, for sure – what we learn from him, following him rather than being driven,

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me.”  Matthew 16:24 NLT

Rather than being driven to a destination while chewing our cud (or whatever yoked farm animals do),  we discover the direction by walking on by faith in Jesus, learning from the one who’s lightened the burden and imitating his humble, gentle way as we go.  The load will be easy, but the travel will be tricky,

So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.  Enter by the narrow gate.  For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.  For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.  Matthew 7:12-14 ESV

OK, back to trying to pronounce some Scripture in Dinka.  Pray for me.

Oh, and since this is the internet, here’s that cat I mentioned,

sophia behind me

Don’t click away just ‘cuz it’s about “love”

As I reflect upon Sunday’s Gospel from the Revised Common Lectionary, I think that Televangelists with great hair are a better testimony to the majestic power of God,

And even the hairs of your head are all counted,

20160529_091828<<<<< than am I. Oh well. Just a musing, not my main point.

Back to Sunday’s Good News,

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

It is a troubling passage. After all, the Lord also says that our love of others is part and parcel of the Great Commandment, as necessary as loving God if we are to please God. Sure, he calls love of neighbor the “second” but it is “like the first.”

Love for others is fruit of the Holy Spirit, by which Jesus says those who truly represent him can be identified.

The Apostolic letters of Christ’s New Covenant command love within families and among church members.

We can wax glib (which really means we’re on the wane, IMO) and say, God first, family second, work third.  But such slogans run the risk of Christ’s rebuke, Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 

The Father’s will is revealed in the Greek word for love that Christ speaks here.  It is philon, the word for affection between equals, as between siblings or friends.  It’s not about passionate feeling or over-the-top sacrifice or miracles,  but about the work-a-day bonds of life that manifest our priorities.

This is continued in the Apostolic teaching of James 4:4,

You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship (philia) with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend (philos) of the world makes himself an enemy of God.

Leading “normal” life attentive only to the people and stuff we enjoy, without attentiveness to Christ as a friend alongside us, is the adulterous friendship with the world against which James is warning.

So our ueber-friendship with God is not to plunge into religious zealotry, manifested in public displays of piety or “spirituality.”  Rather, it is to take up the cross (daily, as Luke reveals), walking in sometimes uncomfortable friendship with Jesus with the same attention to efforts, empathy and reactivity that we invest in family relationships and friendship bonds.  It is to treat our friendship with Jesus with at least the same intensity that we have for those we enjoy most in this world.

It is to be “on” all the time, not in some “religious” venue apart from the rest of our daily lives.  This friendship with Jesus is loaded with honor,  support and practical direction supplied by the Word of God, 

No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends (philouos), for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.  You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. These things I command you, so that you will love one another.

I bolded that last love because in this verse Jesus uses the term agapate, escalating from simple friendship to affection that manifests as self-sacrifice.  As Sunday’s Gospel puts it, Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

The Good News is that if we walk as friends with Jesus, his power, not our anxious, straining will and effort, can take our love for other people to a supernatural level.

Mercy over memes

In those days when there was again a great crowd without anything to eat, he called his disciples and said to them, ‘I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat. (Mark 8:1-2)
 
This was part of tonight’s lesson at Evening Prayer. Jesus had compassion on the crowd that followed him. These looky-loos generally misunderstood him and, although they wanted a savior, they had a desperate, short term vision of what a savior would do (see John 6:10-15)
 
Still, he had compassion on them in their need, not because it would do him good, but because he was, is and will always be the perfect expression of God.
 
jesus-feeding-the-crowd
From Church of the Beatitudes

We have opportunity to grow in his likeness when we have compassion on those grabbing here and there for the wrong kind of savior, and those who don’t get what we’re about and will turn away in disgust when we are not useful to their view of what’s needed.

What a dump.

“Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation,
that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a
mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
Amen.”
 
The Collect for this 4th Sunday of Advent made me pause and realize what a broken down place I offer to the Lord.
 
I don’t mean my physical self, aging and decrepit as that is, because “though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day.”
 
No, I mean that inner nature, which is under renewal but has such a lot of maintenance needed. Structural stuff, not just a new coat of paint.
 
I’m grateful he’s OK with being born in animal pens and such.

The endless election wilderness

tp-shovelWill the Presidential election season ever end?  We’re so far into this wilderness that it seems to be without beginning or end – a demonic mockery of the true God.

And like the evil powers portrayed in The Revelation, it manages to seduce many disciples of Jesus.  So many words flow in from left and right trying to explain which candidate is God’s choice and which one followers of Jesus must support to prove that they are his true disciples.

I love the passage in the third chapter of Luke’s Gospel, in which the great and powerful are named in all of their entitled glory,

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas…

except it turns out that what is essential and most powerful is not with them, but with some “John Doe” nobody out in the sticks,

…the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. (Luke 3:1-2 ESV)

The word of God isn’t with this or that candidate or movement.  It’s still with the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, whenever a group of faithful believers gathers to hear that word, baptize others into Christ and proclaim his sacrificial death by sharing Holy Communion until he comes again.  John and Judy, children of somebody something, still out in the wilderness but blessed with what is essential and eternal for the whole creation.

The New Testament political agenda is not elaborate.  A specific command was in the Revised Common Lectionary assignments this past Sunday,

First of all, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind,Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all — this was attested at the right time. For this I was appointed a herald and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.  (I Timothy 2:1-7)

That’s it.  Pray for the high and mighty of this world to be well and chill out so that we (Christ’s followers) have the peace and freedom to preach and teach Jesus so that others receive the life he’s come into the world to give.

I will say that it is salutary to pray for public officials by name.  You’re sure to wind up praying for someone who rubs you the wrong way.  Even municipal politics produces its share of conflict, so pray for your local officials, state and federal government, courts, the whole lot.  I confess, I find it hard to pray for “agencies” (bureaucracies) because they seem like just the kind of meddlers that like to deprive people of “quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.”  But pray I do… like the apostle says, to do so is “right and acceptable in the sight of God.”

Like John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness.

Blurred boundaries

The omnipotent becomes powerless; the omniscient is surprised; the omnipresent is limited by place:

And Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.” And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them. And he marveled because of their unbelief. And he went about among the villages teaching. (Mark 6:4-6 ESV)

The blurring of boundaries between human and divine, mortal and eternal in Jesus is more than the mind can comprehend.

portrait-of-christ
Portrait of Christ (Walter Rane)

What a wonderful confusion sets in as the eternal Word shares finite flesh, the eternal Lord of life suffers and dies, the crucified and buried corpse rises to life, the earthly vessel ascends into heaven.

And – so intimate yet so elusive – the Spirit of God comes to dwell in us and join us to the mystery of Christ’s human and divine natures.

Meanwhile, we walk his way of the cross, marveling at and enduring a faithless and perishing age.