Be Like Jesus & Let Others Serve You*

“The Son of Man came to serve (διακονέω), not to be served.” –Matthew 20:28

What if many American Christians, myself included, have managed to turn the paradigm act of humility, serving others, into an act of pride? What if we’ve corrupted the act of service in such a way that for many of us, in order to do what Jesus meant, we have to stop, at least for a while, doing what Jesus says?

Let me explain. In Matthew 20:28, we have the famous line: “The Son of Man came to serve, not to be served.” But is Jesus advocating for a specific act? Or for a way of handling power & authority? The context will help. Two of the disciples get their mommy (at least we assume this by the reaction of the other ten) to ask Jesus if they can be in power when Jesus becomes King.

Jesus responds this way: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

The point Jesus is making is that the Kingdom of God is a place where the great are those who give up their power, just as Paul so beautifully describes in Philippians 2. So is it possible that our acts of service can become a place not where we give up our power, but where we protect it?

Where do we see this?

We see it in all of us who gladly serve at the soup kitchen because it confirms we are the ones with the ladle and not the empty bowl.

We see it in all of us who gladly give money to the poor because it confirms that we are the ones with money and not the open hand.

In other words, so long as I make sure I am always the one helping, I can be assured that I am the one with, and you are the one without. I can be assured that our focus will be on your problems so that I can keep my veneer of comfort and security, with the added bonus of a good feeling in my heart for helping the “less fortunate.”

I contend that if we are truly going to imitate Jesus, we should learn to be with other human beings who are different than us. Not to save them, serve them, make them a project, but to see them for who they are and not be afraid to be associated with them, thrown in the same labeling, or seen on the same side of the soup line.

For in relationship with people, there is a balance between serving and being served, supporting the weaknesses of others and being supported in our own weakness.

This is what the Incarnation of Jesus means to me, who became and became associated with, humanity, leaving behind his divinity (Phil 2.) for the sake of relationship. So if we want to find a way to be like the Jesus who, although had cosmic social status, gave it up to be a servant, we would do better to find our example in the Jesus who allows the prostitute to wipe his feet with her hair in the middle of a social gathering. Maybe we sometimes we need to be served in order to serve.

So may we stop using endless “serving those less fortunate” experiences as a back-handed way of reminding ourselves that “at least we’re not like them” and instead start admitting our weaknesses, our need for help, and our vulnerability to those around us.

“In Galilee these women had followed Jesus and cared for his needs (διακονέω).” – Mark 15:41

Creating with the Creator

I have been wrestling with what it means for God to be Creator. According to my reading of Genesis, this does not mean that God creates something out of nothing but that he creates order out of chaos, beauty out of ashes. Creativity, in this sense, is redemption.

So, what does it mean to be created in this God’s likeness? Perhaps, yes perhaps, it means we were born to create. And perhaps being creative is deeper than just being good at art. Maybe creation is about redemption, taking ashes and making something new.

There are two lies I hear often enough that I must consciously refuse them:

First, that we are not all creative. As a Christian, I cannot believe this. We are creative if we are human because we bear the image of the Creator. We are creative if we take pain and create joy, take material loss and create relational abundance. Of course, this is what art does. It takes a mess of paints, canvases, personal stories, and creates beautiful portraits. It takes strings, words, heartbreak or triumph, feelings and fingers, and creates music.

Second, being creative is a waste of time. Perhaps, yes, in a cultural narrative obsessed with efficiency, productivity, and the bottom line, being creative is a waste of time. But that is a narrative in which people are workers for profit and working for men, not co-creators. But if God is the Creator, then we are workers for redemption and working for the Creator. If we are working for money and out of fear, then yes. But if we are working for relationships and redemption, then there is nothing more fruitful to be done with our time than to be creative.

It is no accident that both the Exodus and the promise of return from exile are filled with creation language, reminiscent of Genesis’ account of chaos, power, order, and beauty. There is a deep connection between Creation & Redemption, Creator & Redeemer.

I do not want to live in a story where being creative is a waste of time and where we are not all creative. And if part of God’s task is, in every generation, to subvert dehumanizing narratives, those among us who own their creativity might have a few things to teach the rest of us who only reluctantly, and uneasily, admit the image we bear.

Dr. Mohler By Faith Alone

This week Dr. Al Mohler, the President of a Southern Baptist Seminary, reminds us that the Roman Catholic Church is a false church that teaches a false gospel.

His reason?

“First and foremost, evangelicals must affirm that the doctrine of justification by faith alone is an essential, because that is the very definition of the gospel itself, and there is nothing more core, central and essential than the gospel. The reformers were absolutely right in saying that any understanding of justification – even the understanding that justification is by faith and something else — is another gospel, is anathema to the gospel of Jesus Christ,” Mohler said. “The only way of understanding salvation by grace alone through faith alone is defining justification as the Scripture defines it, and that is justification by faith alone.”

Please tell me if I’m missing something here (I mean that sincerely) but the logic seems to be this:

The core of the gospel is justification by faith alone.
If you don’t believe that then you are believing a “false gospel.”

Is that what he’s saying? If so, I have a question about this logic. Isn’t the insistence that I must believe in the doctrine of “justification by faith alone” to be a faithful Christian a contradiction?

It sounds to me like Mohler is doing the exact thing he is accusing Catholics of doing. Isn’t he basically saying that “Justification is by faith alone AND your belief that justification is by faith alone”? In that case, neither the Catholics nor Mohler are saying that justification is by faith alone.

So, to sum up:

If the Catholic Church says the core of the gospel is faith + works, it’s heresy.

If Mohler says the core of the gospel is faith + correct beliefs about faith, it’s orthodoxy.

Got it.

From “The” to “My”

Just like every kid growing up in the 90s, I was taught by my parents, church, and school, that I could change the world when I grew up. And so when I grew up and became a pastor, I tried my hardest. And I thought that “changing the world” was what the gospel was about.

But the more I tried to change the world, the more my world suffered. The more my mind and heart were focused on the problems in the world and how I could solve them all, single-handedly of course (with God all things are possible), the less impact I had in my family, friendships, and local community. And so, I eventually decided that for me to be faithful to the good news of Jesus I had to give up on my dream of changing the world and adopt the harsh reality of changing myself and my world.

Back in 2008 I wrote a series of lectures to be used in a seminary course on Pastoral Ministry and this process from “the” to “my” was obviously at the forefront of my thoughts as I wrote. For instance, part of the first lecture reads:

In the American context, many pastors confuse the call of God to do “great things” with the wider culture’s obsession with celebrity. It is common to hail as hero the pastor who takes up the martyr’s cross and sacrifices his family, friends, and neighbors for the sake of writing his magnum opus that will change the face of Christianity or for the sake of going on the speaking circuit. These tasks are not necessarily bad if the pastor is able to do it out of a sincere love for Christ and if this devotion to Christ is evident by service to neighbor (which includes our family, it will do well to remember). But oftentimes what s/he has really sacrificed is the Christ mandated call to love neighbor as self for his/her own desires of celebrity and recognition or a subjective belief that God has truly called them to this or that particular task. The common sentiment to “do great things for God” can easily become a call to “do great things for myself using God.” That is to say, many will at some point use God as a scapegoat and as justification for their lust for power and celebrity in a twisted version of “don’t blame me, the devil made me do it.” Whether conscious or unconscious, it is never right for the pastor to blame his neglect of family, friends, and local community on God’s call.

I would perhaps not state it so emphatically today, but it has become more evident to me that if the Gospel is about incarnation and about giving up positions of power to be with those who have no power, then the most useful I can be to the Kingdom of God is to incarnate myself in my local community rather than trying to establish my “platform” as a Christian celebrity. If we truly believe that the Kingdom of God is upside down then we should aspire to be the unknown servant, not the keynote speaker. We should aspire to be the unnoticed servant, not the celebrated author. But I don’t. We don’t.

May I continue to learn what it means to be incarnational, to imitate the one who both lived and died as a nobody. To stop trying to be the Savior of the world and to be present with those in my world.

“Cowardice wants only to concern itself with the really important,big things, not in order to carry something out wholeheartedly but to be flattered by doing something that is noble and great. Yet hiding behind the exalted is nothing but an excuse for not conquering all the little things…”

– Soren Kierkegaard

Barthian Ruminations

As our Schleiermacher Reading Group at WTS is currently reading through Barth’s Church Dogmatics section on Scripture, I have found myself having tremendous sympathies with his views on Scripture. Now, this is pretty scary and uncharted territory for me since I have it ingrained in me to consider Barth a hermeneutical and Christological heretic even though he opposed the theological liberals of his time (who I was also taught to consider heretical).

But I think that just as many of my fears about critical scholarship were unfounded so were my fears about Barth. For instance, he states:

The demand that the Bible should be read and understood and expounded historically is, therefore, obviously justified and can never be taken too seriously. The Bible itself posits this demand: even where it appeals expressly to divine commissionings and promptings, in its actual compostion it is eerywhere a human word, and this human word is obviously intended to be taken seriously and read and understood and expounded as such. To do anything else would be to miss the reality of the Bible and therefore the Bible itself as the witness of revelation. The demand for a “historical” understnading of the Bible necessarily means, in content, that we have to take it for what it undoubtedly is and is meant to be: the human speech uttered by specific men at speciic times in a specific situation, in a specific language and with a specific intention. It emans that the understanding of it has honestly and unreservedly been on which is guided by all these considerations…To the extent that it [the concrete humanity of Scripture] is ignored, it has not been read at all.

What I love about this quotation is that it gets at the heart of what makes the Bible so uncomfortable for both theological conservatives and theological liberals: its historical situatedness. For theological liberals history is unimportant because it cannot be trusted to be accurate, so we tear off the husk of situatedness and grasp the kernel of moral truth behind the history.
For theological conservatives history is too concrete and not “transcendent” or “ontological” enough, so we tear off the husk of situatedness and grasp the kernel of “what the divine author really meant.” We often read the text as though we want to always be getting behind the history rather than seeing the revelation itself as historical. I am not sure as to the implications of this but I do know that it gels much better with what we actually find in Scripture, that it was written by specific individuals, for specific individuals, for specific circumstances. We should probably then be spending our time figuring out how this fact affects our hermeneutic rather than expending all of our energy brushing this fact under the proverbial rug.

God is the cause of Global Warming

I completely disagree with my friend Art who says that Satan and evildoers (like liberals, popes, people who don’t believe in the rapture, et al.) are the cause of global warming. Although he does present some good evidence (click here to see his post), I have stumbled upon some counter-evidence that it’s actually God and not Satan.

God is the cause of Global Warming

I completely disagree with my friend Art who says that Satan and evildoers (like liberals, popes, people who don’t believe in the rapture, et al.) are the cause of global warming. Although he does present some good evidence (click here to see his post), I have stumbled upon some counter-evidence that it’s actually God and not Satan.