In Christ pt.1

April 3rd, 2008

John Piper published a gem of a book in 2005 with the title God Is the Gospel: Meditations on God’s Love as the Gift of Himself. Piper as a Christian pastor/theologian tends to inspire strong reactions. Usually one either generally loves or generally dislikes his work. I fall into the first category. But whether you agree often with Piper or not, or whether you’ve even heard of him before or not, this little book of Piper’s says something of supreme value and importance: at the heart of the good news of the Christian gospel is God giving himself to us as a gift.

Among the very highest treasures and desires of the Christian is fellowship with God.
Perhaps the only greater desire is to see God’s glory revealed. To put this in relation to the gospel: fellowship with God and the declaration of God’s glory are at the very heart of the gospel. By contrast, the gospel is not primarily a hell-avoidance or sin-coping scheme–although hell and sin are eternally serious matters. But hell and sin are serious precisely because of the obstacles they pose to fellowship with God (in the case of hell, an irrevocable and eternally broken fellowship) and because they put people on the wrong side of God’s glory. Unless God gives us a new life, we sinners do not want fellowship with him and we do not desire his glory.

When Christ came into this world, when he died on the cross, when he came back from the dead, he did it all to renew the possibility of eternal, delightful, close fellowship with God. But in order to enable such fellowship, he had to deal with the problem of our sins which makes us natural enemies of God, our creator and source. By atoning for our sins, Christ offers–to those who cling to him and his salvation–restoration into the intimate fellowship of God’s own family

I’d like to take this beautiful thought of Piper’s (that God himself is the greatest gift of the gospel) and pursue a corollary: God’s Gift of himself to us is, in fact, the gift of union with Christ himself. For those who cling to Christ, who believe his gospel and follow Christ, being united with Christ is the blessing and reality that best sums up all the other blessing and realities of the gospel. So it should not be a surprise that the New Testament has some extraordinary things to say about union with Christ.

This will the first in a series of posts exploring this topic. For this first post, I’ll just cite one of the biblical passages that speaks of the extraordinary gifts that are summed up in the gift of union with Christ; below, you will find a quote from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. This idea of union with Christ is brought out in the passage through the phrase in Christ. The phrase has an instrumental meaning, too. “In Christ” can be glossed with “by means of Christ.” However, there is more than just this instrumental sense here. The phrase denotes union with the one who is also the means to various ends. (This will be discussed in greater depth in subsequent posts).

In context, Paul is celebrating the fact that in Christ, Gentiles can also have fellowship with God, that the Jewish people are no longer the only ones to whom God offers his fellowship. Yet, although the immediate application speaks of Christ as the means of peace and spiritual equality between Jews and Gentiles, the greater truth that Paul is stating is peace with God for those who are in Christ. This peace means fellowship with Christ, fellowship with the Father and fellowship with the Holy Spirit–fellowship with God the Trinity.

Note the various ways in which Paul celebrates fellowship with God in Christ. Being in Christ means: breaking down separation from Christ himself, restoration of hope, nearness to God for those who were far away, peace with others (Jew/Gentile relations), reconciliation with God, being part of God’s family (his household), being joined in Christ into a spiritual structure that is the dwelling place for God through his spirit. It’s as though Paul cannot come up with enough ways in which being in Christ is a blessing and a joy!

For those who are tempted to reduce Christianity to a well-intentioned system of moral betterment, consider the realities that Paul is speaking of here. You may not accept them, but Paul is speaking about realities of an intimacy and closeness with God that utterly transcend the “mere” reality of a moral lifestyle, as important as morality is.

Eph 2:10-22

10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
11Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands–
12 remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.
13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility
15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace,
16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.
17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near.
18 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.
19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God,
20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone,
21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.
22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.

PS. If you follow this link, you can read the book God is the Gospel for free online. Also, the site Desiring God has a “pay what you can” policy. If you’d like to order this book (or others), but you cannot pay the suggested price, they’ll send it to you for less, or even for free.

A prayer for Palm Sunday

March 29th, 2008

Here’s a prayer for our congregational prayer on Palm Sunday (yes, out of step chronologically).

Lord Jesus, on this day we remember that you rode into Jerusalem as king, a kind of king the world had never seen, bearing not a sword, nor riding for war. Instead, you rode in bringing peace and reconciliation with God. You entered humbly, riding a donkey.

You were human, like us, fearing mockery, death and pain. And you loved God your Father with all your being. Yet, you entered Jerusalem willing to face your worst fears, worst of all to face God’s judgment and wrath, so that we might be spared God’s judgment and wrath. You were wholly innocent and yet willing to be the substitute for those who would soon mock you.

Your greatest desire was to do your Father’s will, to seek and save the lost, to renew all things, and so you steeled yourself and rode into Jerusalem knowing that you would soon face not praises, but betrayal, mockery, torture and death. And yet you rode in as the humble king.

Lord Jesus, on this day we remember that you came to Jerusalem knowing you would be the sacrificial lamb for our sins.

And so, for your sacrificial love, the greatest of all loves, a love willing to die for its enemies, the love you showed in riding in that day, for your worthiness to be our king, we proclaim, along with the crowds and the disciples:

Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!

Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”

Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!

Lord, apart from the renewing work of the Holy Spirit whom you sent, who brings us rebels into reconciliation with God, who opens our eyes and softens our hearts to you, we are no different from the fickle crowd that day. In ourselves, we are often fickle in our allegiance to you as King. When following you is painful, we can be quick to weary. We keep your command imperfectly and love you imperfectly. We sin against you in thought, word, and deed. And so, we pause to confess together in silence these sins against your rightful rule.

Pause.

Lord, because you cleanse us of our sins by your own shed blood, we are made fit for worshiping God. You purifying work opens our lips so that our mouths may declare God’s praise. And under your shepherding hand and the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit, we live under your kingly rule. We wait for your return as conquering king, riding a white horse in victory. So, as forgiven and redeemed sinners, we continue to proclaim:

Blessed are you, Jesus, who comes in the name of the Lord. You are Faithful and True. You are worthy to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing! Glory to you, together with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, reigning forever. In expectation of seeing your glory, we pray, come Lord Jesus.

It is in your, name Lord Jesus, we offer our intercessions.

Here a prayer of invocation I wrote (with group input from a work group in my class on Christian worship) for our first chapel service after Easter. The text was Luke 24:13-35, Jesus’ encounter with two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and breaking bread together at Emmaus.

Invocation

Almighty God,
you do not withhold yourself
from the world you created.
You are not silent.
You are a God of love
who speaks to us,
in the words of your scriptures,
through your great acts of redemption,
and, above all, through Jesus Christ, the Word of God,
whom your word testifies to and proclaims.

In love, you sent your son to dwell with us–God with us–
In love, he offered himself up for our sins,
In love, he bore the curse of our sins,
In love, you did not let your Holy One see corruption,
you raised him from the dead,
so that we can can know that he is strong to save,
can know the triumph of your love over our sins.
can know the power of his presence through your Spirit,
can behold your glory in his face.

We ask your blessing and help to truly know the risen Christ.
Open our minds and hearts to him,
rescue us from all unbelief and folly and sin
that might hinder us from seeing him living,
from exalting him to the highest.
Disclose the risen Lord to us,
so that we would know him,
present in all your scriptures,
would know him in his suffering for our salvation,
would know him in his glory in being raised from the dead.
Through your Holy Spirit, quicken us to love, cherish, treasure our risen Lord,
without whom we have no hope, in whom we have all hope.

Father, through your word, through the knowledge of your risen Son,
through the power of your Holy Spirit,
equip us to serve and minister for you.
Grant us skill to proclaim Jesus according to scripture.
Grant us faith in the power of your word.
Grant that our hearts would so burn within us in the knowledge of Christ
that others would see the flame of Christ, and catch fire also.
Grant us delight and strength in proclaiming repentance
and the forgiveness of sins to a lost world
in the name of Jesus Christ our risen Lord.

And it is in that name, in the name of Jesus Christ, that we joyfully offer you these intercessions and this service. Amen.

Christ the Center

March 22nd, 2008

1.
Christ is risen today.
Death could not hold him,
could not reduce
his body back into dust.
He has come back to life.
He is breathing in,
breathing out
the breath of life.

God’s glory shines this morning,
His face shines on me.
In white, he stands before me.
He is alive, radiant.
All is lit in his light:
Garden, trees, shadows,
world, sun, moon, stars
and light itself.
He is light from light.

2.
In the dust beneath his foot,
lies a splintered skull.
Death is dead,
scales smeared into the dust,
its broken spine
kinked in broken coils.

3.
He is the firstborn
from the dead,
his broken bones reknit,
blood coursing through
his heart, once dead.

His old body can still be guessed
in its wounds.
Yet, his body is new,
so glorified
that we must learn
to see and know him.
At dinner,
after a dusty day’s journey,
he breaks the bread,
and pours out wine.
Recognition comes,
the memory of the night
before he died.
Somehow, on the road,
we were deaf,
as he retold all God’s story,
re-read to us the plot,
that figured him at its center,
David’s heir, the king eternal.

3.
In him, we catch sight
of all made new,
reconciled to its Creator.

New men,
new women,
on a new earth,
under new heavens.
The white-clothed crowd will look like him,
will gather in his name.
Cast your thoughts back into
broken history.
You may guess names
that will be in the crowd.
For now, they remain strangers
to your gaze.
What they will be is hidden
in the risen Christ.
You still must shield your eyes,
must gaze at the sun
through soot-blackened glass.

4.
Vindicated!
Everything that he was
confirmed, unshakable
from now forward
without end.

We mocked him.
We screamed against him,
so angry,
spitting on history’s
worst king.
We clamored to see him
bloodied, to hang him up naked.

Let everyone pause.
Think:
everything we have done,
everything we are and want,
is judged by him,
as he stands living before us.
We made his kingdom
our bitterest joke. To us,
he was the king of all failures.
At the end, we were proud
not to be like him.
Can we face what it means
for us that he did not fail?
We have no hope unless he pardons.
Now, he is either savior or judge,
without middle term.

A king without a sword,
riding a donkey,
not a warhorse.
his feet almost scraping the dust.
A king who would not make war.
What king was ever like this?
His chosen stratagem:
to absorb the hate of his enemies,
to bless, not curse his foes,
to bless every family of a world
that had refused his rule.
Before anything began,
he chose the most foolish gambit,
a swordless, solitary mission.

Everything since, seemed
proof of his plan’s folly.
Until now.

We shouted our curses at him.
We invented new curses for him.
We used his name as a curse.
We pooled our hatred,
pulled together to kill him.
We drove spikes and spears into him.
sealed his tomb with a boulder and guards.
All the powers were on our side.

Now we are silent:
How could meekness win
against a whole world
hating him?
How could he win by being righteous,
peaceful, just,
an obedient son,
loving his father’s will?
Where is the strength in it?
We thought the world had had its way,
but God had his.

The Father sent his only son,
unarmed.
straight to the ambush,
He went willingly,
knowingly.

The deepest of mysteries
was known by God before time:
God himself would dwell with us,
be broken in this breaking world,
would drown in the sea of our sins,
be crushed under his own curse
against our outrageous sins.

The risen one does more than figure
God’s love.
He is God.
He is love.
A wound-marked body speaks
the proposition of God’s love
God’s logic is personed.
His love comes in person.

5.
Electrons and cells and cliffs,
hold together in him,
move in him,
are in him,
would cease without him.

Natural selection is blind.
Matter is blind.
Eyes are blind.
Sight itself is blind,
if we do not see him.

Despite evidence,
despite an empty tomb,
despite the cloud of witnesses,
stubborn eyes are blind.
Only faith can see him.

Yes, his body is there before us,
visible, more real than all bodies
all created by him.
Yes, the risen Lord
can be seen
with human eyes:
he made the light by which we see.

Yet faithless sight
faithlessly rules out sight:
“Once the ruler is dead,
the king no longer rules.
Death is the rule,
dead stays dead.”

If blind chance rules,
there are no rules.
By what rule do we lever
ourselves up
to declare our rule?

We do accept some evidence:
we can reckon
kinetic energy for
one mole of salt.
Yet we refuse
the evidence of his life,
refuse to consider him risen.

Is the will that purposefully wills
to refuse
epiphenomenal,
a chance by-product
of lightning and acids?
Blind chance begets
no will to purpose refusal,
no rules of evidence
to cite for refusal of sight.

If we turn our backs
to the empty tomb,
to the risen Christ,
if we refuse to follow history’s plot,
yielding Easter’s twist,
we refuse to see all,
and we have no justification.
Our refusal, numbered
with our sins,
condemns us.
We cannot justify closing our eyes,
we cannot justify our sins.
To what rule,
to whose rule,
might we appeal,
once we reject the ruler of all?

A spindle of genes
cannot justify anything,
cannot justify itself,
cannot justify denial,
has no rules,
does not rule itself.

6
This king did not rule in life,
but served in death,
and now rules without end.
Our rules are broken,
discarded with his shroud.
We will serve him,
joyfully kneeling,
or with knees
forced down to dust.

The one we thought dead
extends his hand,
wound still visible.
The fingers flex,
the hand has warmth,
has strength.
The hand is still empty,
without a sword.
Today is the day to take his hand,
to hear his voice,
to welcome the truth
of his risen body.
Let earth receive her king.

7
Unless he is the center,
we are points without connection,
unless he stretches out his arms
to us, becomes our radius,
binds us in his sphere,
we are points without dimension.

Or we are the small period
at the end of the law,
justly declaring our sentence forever.

Geometry, or law,
a Son–the definitive Word
from the mouth of God,
We can choose any language.
Every language will condemn us,
as we burn its dictionary,
twist its grammar,
refuse its author.

Our sin is an abyss
without a floor.
Yet, the infinite math of grace,
can enfold the set of our sins.
He absorbed our condemnation,
measured out for us,
his righteoussness,
of boundless space.

His blood washes away our sins,
if only we have eyes to see him,
and voice to confess him,
alive on Easter morning.

We stand on the periphery
this morning,
looking in toward the center,
to the risen Lord,
come back from the dead,
the glory of the invisible God
made visible,
not withdrawn from this world,
the true center of all things.
The center has held,
holds,
will hold forever.

He does not slouch,
he is the victor,
captives in train.

Christ, victorious,
risen from the dead,
is the center of all that is.
He calls us to himself.

In the grave

March 22nd, 2008

All our hope went with him.
Israel will never be free.
Her Messiah has not come.
Or can God’s Anointed be killed?

In the grave

No king will refound David’s line–
a succession of lousy Herods instead.
Why would God allow such knaves at the top,
when this one was perfect?

We never knew anyone more right or good or sane.
The powers always win.
The bastards always have their way.
There is nothing good that lasts.

What will become of us?
He said this would happen.
We left him to his fate;
It’s unforgivable,
this shame will never go away.

He is gone.
What will become of us?

Early on Good Friday

March 20th, 2008

The universe is blind to it. No one on earth knows it, except Jesus himself. The earth does not know it. Its creatures do not know it: Soon, the Lord of creation will die. Creation will kill her king. Somehow, in God’s mercy, this won’t mean that all is erased. Instead of absolute, final entropy, order will be restored. Time and space will not be extinguished. Instead, time will restart, will begin to run forward to the New Eden.

He has spent the night enduring a contemptible show trial. All along, he knew the outcome better than the conspirators. They knew what they wanted to do to him, but were fumbling for a way to do it: how to make a murder look noble and good. The powerful have always hit this exasperating limit: killing is easy enough, but the PR angle is hard to control. Maybe they could make blasphemy stick? Late in the night, they settled on blasphemy, reason enough to ratchet up their outrage and slap him around, spit on him. It was humiliating.

The thought is no comfort, but two thousand years later, the techniques would be much more sophisticated, the humiliation even more potent. Car batteries hooked up to genitals, digital cameras at the ready to snap the prisoner in staged porn scenarios, waterboarding to put the fear of death in one–all of this done by underlings on auto-pilot, so the leaders are off the hook. Yes, his night could have been even worse. But it was still awful.

But now, after a night that was so very long, so very lonely, things are quickly getting worse. The scourging was very bad. Now the soldiers are showing that bored soldiers with a helpless victim do not change much over time. Every blow they land hurts more than anything he’s ever felt. What lies ahead is unthinkable. The Romans knew how to do an execution. Modern innovations cannot improve upon crucifixion for drawn out agony.

As thorns are being jammed down on his head, as he reels from each blow, he may reckon that this is still the easier part, bearable by comparison to the cross. But the worst thing, his greatest fear, is the weight of sin and the curse of God. Soon it will crush him. He knows it will kill him; none of the men now beating him could guess how much more effective spiritual execution will be.

And so, as this painful morning drags on, he knows that the long night’s suffering has not gotten him very far down the path he dreads: the very worst is still coming. The Lord of creation will let himself be lynched on a tree to show the lynch mob mercy.

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