Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Manifest (TV show), Romans 8:28, and contextual interpretation of Scripture


Romans 8:28  New International Version

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

Ok, so I'm behind the times a bit.  Manifest aired on NBC in the fall of 2018, but I had never heard of it until it appreared in my Netflix suggestions a couple weeks ago.  Given my affinity for shows with a mysterious premise, like Lost in the early seasons, Stranger Things, or The Man in the High Castle, I started watching.  A few episodes in it became clear that the foundational premise of the show is built upon Romans 8:28, a fact the creators make clear with repeated referances to the number 828 and one episode where a character opens a Bible to Romans and reads the verse in question (but no more).  As the series unfolds, God (presumably) sends a 'calling', that's the term the characters use, to various people who were on flight 828 through voices, visions, and general intuitive insights that enable them to solve crimes, protect the innocent, and battle against a sinister secret plot.  While it makes for good drama, none of these manifestations of the hand of God have much of anything to do with what Romans 8:28 is talking about as both characters in the show, and viewers watching, are left asking, "What exactly is God's purpose in all this?  Why is this happening?"

As a pastor, I've run into non-contextual interpretations of Scripture many times, Philippians 4:13 probably leads the pack on that score, but Romans 8:28 is right there alongside it.  What is the common mis-interpretation of Romans 8:28, and what is the proper contextual interpretation?

Context free interpretation: On its own, without the verses that precede or follow it, one might assume that Romans 8:28 is promising that God is a generic force for good in the world.  That he molds and shapes people and events to make things work out for the better, resulting in a world that is less evil and more beneficial to us than it would be otherwise.  In this interpretation, God isn't much different than Superman.  He has power that he uses to help people, here and there, saving the day unexpectedly, but not fixing the root problems that cause there to be people in need of saving in the first place.  While this view of God is fairly common, and fits fairly well with ideas of an impersonal Force that controls the universe (like in Star Wars), in the end it leaves much to be desired.  Why, if God has power, is he using it in such a limited way?  Why helps some and not others, why prevent a tragedy here and there but let the others happen?  Superman can only be in one place at a time, we know why he's more likely to save Louis than anyone else, but God can do more than this can't he?  Without context, 'the good', and 'his purpose' are left nebulous, can we identify them, help them along, or is this just some mystery?

A contextual interpretation: First, let us broaden the view a bit.

Romans 8:18-39  New International Version

18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. 27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.

28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.

31 What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? 33 Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. 34 Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36 As it is written:

“For your sake we face death all day long;

    we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

This isn't bumper sticker theology.  You can't fit the deep wisdom of this passage (and Paul's overall themes in Romans) on a poster.  That may be while people prefer pithy but fruitless sayings like, "God helps those who help themselves" to what Scripture actually says, but non-contextual interpretation, and non-biblical aphorisms, are a dangerous game, we're much better off with the full medicine, kep the spoonful of sugar.

So, what is the larger point that Paul is making here that Romans 8:28 is integral to?  God has a master plan, a plan for all of creation and humanity, a plan that involves calling individuals by the Spirit to accept his Son by faith, and then leading those individuals forward toward Christ-likeness in a process that cannot be derailed by any power because it is emeshed in the Love of God, and a process that he helps along by weaving 'all things' toward that very specific purpose.  Something to that effect.  I could make that run-on sentence into a paragraph, page, or chapter while still trying to convey the essence of Paul's words, but the original that he wrote will remain the most profound way to say it.

God isn't in the business of making this world a better place.

Thought I'd leave that sentence by itself to let it sink in.  His redemptive actions in history will certainly have that effect, but that isn't the goal, but its treating the symptoms of the disease, not eradicating it.  The goal is fellowship with humanity under his rule as Lord.  God is working "all things together" in order to redeem out from humanity his chosen people, mold and shape them through discipleship toward Christ-likeness, and eventually present them before his throne holy and righteouss in his sight.  God's purpose is far higher, far nobler, and far more difficult than simply making this world a better place.  Jesus would not have taken upon himself humanity for such a lowly purpose, and certainly would not have needed to die upon the Cross, if making the world a better place was the goal.  If that was all God had in mind he could have used people like the prophets of old to accomplish it.  Moses, Elijah, Esther, even Jonah once he got straightened out, could 'make things better' with God's power.  No, Jesus came to this earth for a much bigger project, a project he alone as the God/Man could accomplish.  When Satan offered him rule over the kingdoms of this world, Jesus refused.  Jesus as King of the World would have resulted in a massive improvement in the lives of everyone on this planet.  Can you imagine a more wise and benevolent ruler?  But Jesus isn't tempted, he isn't here to work through the systems of this world, but to overcome them, and destroy Sin and Death in the process.  Jesus' sights are set much, much higher.

God's business is the making of a holy and righteous people

So, in the end, while Manifest has an interesting premise, and I'll finish watching the series, the God that it is portraying thus far isn't God enough, whatever the end game the series has for its characters, thus far none of them are actually living lives that reflect Romans 8:28, for none of them are being called to repentance, faith, and worship of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, and God the Father.  Romans 8:28 is part of a powerful and profound promise to those whom God calls that whatever happens in this life, the hand of God will continue to work in us, and through us, to transform us to Christ-likeness.  Manifest, like so many non-contextual interpretations, falls short of this glorious promise.

Sermon Video: "A house of prayer for all nations" - Mark 11:15-18

Having entered the Temple courts on Monday of Holy Week, before his upcoming time spent teaching the people there for the last time, Jesus drives out of the Court of the Gentiles those who were doing the business of the Law of Moses (selling kosher animals for sacrifices and exchanging foreign money for coins that could be put into the Temple treasury) in that supposedly sacred space.  Gentile converts, those who had chosen to join Judaism, could not enter the temple itself (warning signs on the entrances reminded them they'd be executed if they tried) and could only worship/pray to God from a greater distance than Jewish women, who were kept further away than Jewish men.  However, for convenience sake, the sacred space they're supposed to worship God in was turned into a marketplace (and a short-cut from one side of city to the other).  

Can a church negate the sacred nature of its house?  Certainly, among the way happens is: (1) By not making everyone welcome {racism, sexism, class divisions, unwelcome attitude toward ex-cons, those with addictions or questions about their sexuality, etc}, (2) Through a focus on perpetuating the ministry, primarily through emphasizing money, more than fellowship and worship, (3) through a focus on earthly power instead of God's kingdom, typically by making the church a Red Church or a Blue Church, or (4) by failing to be a place of Love and the Fruit of the Spirit (a spirtually dead church).  In each case, depending on the severity {a church could suffer from more than one, many do}, the worship done in that space is wasted, for naught.  

May God help us to see where we fall short, as a church, of creating/maintaining sacred space, and may God grant us the humility to change.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Sermon Video: "Hosanna!" - Mark 11:1-11

 As Jesus' journey to the Cross reaches Jerusalem, on the Sunday before Passover begins, Jesus chooses to ride the last two miles into the city, on a donkey. Why? His humble entrance fulfills the prophecy of Zechariah (9:9), contrasting with the vainglory of kings among men. Additionally, Jesus control over the details of his entrance (knowing where the colt will be, what his disciples need to say) demonstrate that his upcoming Passion is a choice, he is a willing participant, not a victim.

The people shout "Hosanna!", a Hebrew imperative meaning "Save us!" that can be turned around in a moment of joy to mean, "Savior!" Truly, Jesus has come to Jerusalem to become the Savior, not just of the children of Abraham, but of humanity: past, present, and future. The Savior of the World. Hosanna, indeed.

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Sermon Video: "I want to see" - Mark 10:46-52

He's known as Blind Bartimaeus for a reason. When Jesus came to Jericho, where Bartimaeus sat begging, he didn't hesitate to cry out, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" When those standing by tried to quiet him, he shouted louder. Jesus heard him, called him over, and asked him what he wanted. The question seems obvious, the blind man wants to see, but people are fully capable of not seeing their own most serious needs. Bartimaeus had no such trouble, he confidently told Jesus, "I want to see". After he was healed, he followed Jesus...Do we tell God what we need? Are we honest with God when we pray? God knows everything we could tell him already, but it is God's will that people approach him, in faith, and ask.

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Is it my job to police the communion line?


The meme above has been bouncing around social media as a response to a recent vote (168 to 55, Abortion rights: US Catholic bishops face clash with Biden - BBC news) by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).  The USCCB is attempting to provoke a showdown with Catholic politicians with whom they disagree, in this case on the issue of the legality of abortion, by potentially denying them the Eucharist (i.e. Communion).  This move is opposed by the Vatican, and unlikely to ever be enacted and/or enforced, but it raises an important question that reverberates outside of the Catholic Church as well (as evidenced, in part, by the above response from a gay Anglican priest in Toronto, of course on social media everyone seems to have a 'dog in the fight').  As an ordained American Baptist pastor, is it my job to watch the communion line?  {prior to COVID we passed the elements down each aisle with ushers, since then we've been coming up front one family at a time to take them from the altar, a practice we will likely continue post-pandemic; so technically there is a 'line' now}

Some background for those of you unfamiliar with how communion works in your typical baptist church (whether or not they belong to a denomination).  For us, the ordinance (the fancy word we use when we need to use a fancy word) of communnion  is not a question of transubstantiation or consubstantiation.  In other words, it isn't a question of whether or not the bread and wine are tranformed into the body and blood of Christ, however one chooses to describe it (that was the heart of the argument that led to the Reformation, and eventually people killed and were killed over the issue during the Thirty Years War.  {See: What Every Christian Should Know About: Church History, part 3 at the bottom of the page}  For a quick primer on the various Christian views of communion: Transubstantiation, Consubstantiation, or Something Else? Roman Catholic vs. Protestant Views of the Lord’s Supper - Zondervan Academic blog.  

Most baptists would agree with Huldrych Zwingli that communion is a memorial, with some leaning toward the view of John Calvin that the ordinance does invoke the spiritual presence of Jesus, albiet in a way significantly short of that embraced by the Orthodox, Catholics, Anglicans, and Lutherans.  That being said, as an American Baptist minister, when I preside over communion (which we do once a month, typically on the 1st Sunday unless I'm not here, then it gets bumped to the 2nd) I normally say, "We here at 1st Baptist celebrate open communion, by that we mean that if you are a follower of Jesus Christ, you are free to join us if you choose."  Those words don't come from a book, or denominational HQ (that's not how things work when you're a 'low liturgy' baptist, each church/pastor decides many such for him/herself), they simply reflect what we believe, and when I remember to say them, they're an invitation to any visitors or relatively new people.  Morever, after I say the prayer (again, extemporaneously given) it has been my habit (learned from the independent baptist pastor, James Frank, who led my family church for 40 years) to simply close my eyes, bow my head, and spend the time until everyone is ready receiving the element(s) to pray.  The end result?  I don't know who is participating in any given week.  I don't know if a particular individual in my church skips communion on occasion, or regularly.  My thoughts on this matter mirror my thoughts about the offering.  When the plate is being passed (in the COVID era we just left it in the back, and that seems likely to continue) I don't look to see if anyone is putting something in or not.  The point with both is that the decision to participate (or give) is between that person and God.

As baptists we believe in the doctrine of the Priesthood of All Believers.  Long story short, my role as pastor doesn't set me apart from the congregation, we all partake of the same Holy Spirit, we all are held to the same standards of conduct and service.  Using Paul's analogy of the body of Christ, we are all a necessary part.  This has numerous implications, one of which is the elevation of one's own responsibility before God (not to the level that it negates collective church discipline when necessary), particularly in matters of conscience.

Which brings us back around to communion.  Paul, writing to the church at Corinth about the Lord's Supper said this, 

1 Corinthians 11:26-32 New International Version

26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

27 So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. 29 For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. 30 That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. 31 But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment. 32 Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world.

The key phrases here are: "in an unworthy manner" (vs. 27), and "Everyone ought to examine themselves" (vs. 28).  Given these instructions, it seems to us (as baptists) that it isn't up to a church officer (be he/she a deacon, pastor, bishop, or any other title) to decide who is, or is not, worthy of participating in the Lord's Supper.  Those who do so 'in an unworthy manner', perhaps by doing so with irreverance or with unconfessed sin between him/her and God, will be judged by God himself, not by me.

Lastly, Rev. Daniel and I probably disagree about a lot of things theologically speaking, but I certainly echo his final statement above, "What if somebody 'unworthy' receives it?"  "Uh, that would be everybody."  Our approach to the table is always an act of grace for known but Christ is worthy, our acceptance of the bread (body) and cup (blood) is always an act of grace for our sins doom us otherwise, no matter what we undertand the bread and wine to be.  At any given church service, at any kind of church, there are those who ought to abstain from participation until they confess their sins and repent, and there are those who are just going through the motions due to either unbelief or complacency.  In the end, seperating the 'sheep from goats' isn't my job, thanks be to God for that.