The Fractured Community Becomes the Beloved Community

Scripture text: Genesis 50:19-20

 Most Christians only hear the Bible read in church. That means that they customarily hear Scripture read in short fragments, fragments either assigned by the lectionary or chosen by the preacher.

 When we listen to Scripture in fragments, we miss the wider context in which those fragments are embedded. And in missing the wider context, we also are inclined to miss major themes that are being developed in a Biblical book as a whole.

 A good example is the Book of Genesis. A significant motif in Genesis is the bitter strife that develops over and over again between an elder and a younger brother. These rivalries always end in some kind of tragedy.

 Brothers Cain and Abel become rivals. The rivalry ends in Abel’s murder and Cain’s condemnation to a life of wandering exile. Ishmael and Isaac become rivals. It ends in Ishmael’s banishment from Abraham’s family.

 Esau and Jacob begin fighting already in their mother’s womb. Their strife ends in Jacob stealing Esau’s birthright and having to flee for his life.

 And then we come to Jacob’s family, where the history of family dysfunction continues unabated. Joseph, son of Jacob’s younger wife Rachel, so inflames the jealousy of his older half brothers that they sell him into slavery in Egypt. Joseph becomes as good as dead to Jacob and his family.

 But it is easy to overlook how this cycle of fraternal strife is broken at the end of Genesis. When his brothers reappear in Egypt seeking grain during the famine, Joseph has every reason to seek vengeance for the terrible injury done to him.

 There is a hint, however, that his brothers feel some sense of remorse for what they did to Joseph years before. When Joseph demands his brother Benjamin as a hostage, Judah offers to step in and take his place, so their father will not be sent into mourning twice. Given this change of heart, Joseph is able to forgive his brothers and swear off vengeance.

 He does so, saying, “Fear not, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Genesis 50:19-20).

The pattern that begins with Cain and Abel is broken. To borrow a phrase from Martin Luther King, the fractured community is reconstituted as the beloved community. And if it has happened for Jacob’s family, it can happen for other families as well. We easily miss this promise of hope, if we are not paying attention to the wh

Who Has the Last Word in Jonah?

Scripture text: Jonah, Chapter 4

 We tend to think of the Bible’s authors as just prophets, preachers, and theologians. But it is easy to forget that they can sometimes be great artists. And sometimes the daring of their artistry takes my breath away.

That happens every time I read the book of Jonah (one of my favorites in all of the Bible). The book is a searing judgment on the all too common tendency of God’s people to put the people they hate outside the circle of God’s love.

Jonah wants to see God bring down fire and brimstone on the Ninevites. After all, they were the ruthless imperialists who snuffed out the national life of Jonah’s own homeland, the northern kingdom of Israel. He is angry that God shows mercy upon Nineveh’s residents and so he goes off and pouts.

The book ends on a question. In fact, it is one of just two books in the Bible that end on a question. (Nahum is the other.) And in the question, God asks Jonah:

And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from the left, and also much cattle?

But the question I ask is: Who really has the last word in the book of Jonah?  On a very literal level, one can say God does. The book ends with God’s question. But who must answer that question? Is it not Jonah? And therefore does not Jonah have the last word?

Here’s where the author’s superb artistry comes in. Who in the end will answer for Jonah? Is it not every person listening to the story? I contend it is each one of us who is drawn into the question and asked to make a judgment on God’s action. We learn what we think by how we respond to the question.

What awesome writing! The author tells his story in a way than necessarily engages each one of us personally. We all become a part of the story.

Furthermore the story puts each one of us in the position of being a judge over God. We usually think of God being our judge. And rightly so. But here we are placed in the uncomfortable and possibly unwanted position of being a judge over God.

Unconsciously we do that all the time as we assess the justice of God’s ways in our life and world. (I owe this insight to the story William P. Young tells in his novel The Shack.) The book of Jonah, however, makes us conscious of the presumption that involves.

Heaven’s Not My Eternal Home

Scripture Text: Revelation 21-22

O Lord you know I have no friend like you.

If Heaven’s not my home then Lord what will I do?

The angels beckon me from Heaven’s open door,

and I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.

These lyrics from a popular gospel hymn express the hope of millions of Christians. No one questions that the belief that heaven will be our eternal home is biblical teaching.

But we ought to. For it is certainly not the vision we get in the Book of Revelation. In Chapters 21-22, we have John’s vision of the life that is coming after the Eschaton. And in his vision, our eternal home is not an ethereal heaven above, but a recreated earth. The new Jerusalem descends from heaven to a new earth. There it will be the eternal resting place of God and God’s people.

In Revelation, we do not rise to heaven, but heavens descends to us. As John says, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them” (Revelation 21:3). So we ought to look forward with anticipating joy to this glorious union of heaven with earth.

John’s vision is deeply incarnational, as is the theology of the whole New Testament. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” is the proclamation of the Gospel of John, and of all the New Testament. Jesus Christ is Emmanuel, God with us, in every sense of being.

The New Testament hope is not the Hellenic hope, the hope that at death our immortal souls will be set free from the corrupting flesh. Blessedness for Plato and many of his fellow philosophers is the liberation of the soul from its bodily prison. The soul is blessed in its nakedness.

The New Testament hope, on the other hand, looks forward to that great day when mortal flesh should put on immortality (1 Corinthians 15:53-54).  Rather than standing naked before God,  the apostle Paul looks eagerly to that day when our souls are clothed with their new heavenly bodies (see 2 Corinthians 5:1-5). And our personal hope is the hope of all the material universe, which groans in longing for that  day when it will come to share the glorious liberty of the children of God (Romans 8:21).

Eastern Orthodox theology puts this great hope into the maxim: God became a human being in order that human beings may become divine. I love this way of expressing God’s purpose in both creation and redemption. We human beings—bodies, mind, spirits, and social units—are destined by God to be one with God’s own life. No wonder we are encouraged to pray constantly: Thy kingdom come!

God’s Perfume

Scripture Text: 2 Corinthians 2:14-17

 Though I’ve spent a lifetime reading and studying the Bible, I am always taken aback when I see something in Scripture that I have missed all my life.

That happened to me recently when I was reading 2 Corinthians. I came upon verses 14 through 16 in chapter 2. There Paul talks about God spreading a fragrance of the knowledge of God into the world through the community of believers. In verse 15, he even calls the church “the aroma of Christ to God” (Revised Standard Version wording). And in the next verse he talks about this being a fragrance from life to life.

Now maybe what Paul has in mind here is the image of the aroma of the sacrifices that arise from the temple altar. The Greek word osme in verse 14 and 16 that the RSV translates as fragrance can have that meaning. But I am inclined to read this language as talking about the church as the perfume of God. This reading is supported by the other Greek word euodia that Paul uses in verse 15. It has the more explicit meaning of a sweet smell.

This image of the church as perfume is something I have never seen before in the text.

Paul uses many images for the church. The church is the body of Christ, the bride of Christ, the temple of God, and the community of reconciliation. But here is another image to add to his vocabulary: the church as the perfume of Christ to God.

Our calling as Christians is to live a life that spreads the fragrance of God within the wider world. As Paul says in verse 15, “we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing.”

This raises a question for every individual church. What aroma do people smell when they encounter our life as a Christian community?  Does the quality of life we live, especially in our compassionate care for one another, come across as a beautiful fragrance of life?  Or does our communal life stink to high heaven.

One of the tragedies of the scandals of sexual abuse that have swept through the Christian churches in recent years, is that they have created an rotten egg aroma about church life in the minds of many unbelievers. Skunks have gotten into the our houses. For many people of the current generations, it will take a long time for that smell to go away.