Sunday, August 24, 2014

N.T. Wright Helping To Put the Story of the Law Back Together Post 8 – Postscript

In this blog series, I tried to put God’s historical story of Christ, the Law, and their relationship back together. That assumes, of course, that it has been taken apart. I then examined a prototypical Protestant Evangelical sermon exemplifying my point and proposed some practical implications for the church. That sermon that I examined was part of a sermon series at a particular church, which continued this morning on Galatians 5. I would like to here address how some of the points made in this blog series were affirmed by today’s sermon, which contained many of the same elements that made the previously examined sermon prototypical for today's Protestant Evangelical church. Today’s sermon also contained some elements that confirmed some points made previously that could not be as well supported at the time as I would have liked. For the sake of ease, I will simply list in numerical order the previous points of this blog series that I would like to here address on the basis of today’s sermon, which was on Galatians 5:

The political relevance and importance of the gospel. The blog series discussed the importance of the idea of Jesus as king. Further, it discussed the importance of Christ as representative king of the Jews. In other words, as king of his people, he represented them when dying on the cross and rising again, thus bringing the curses of their Law to their climax and fulfilling the promised blessings. This story, of course, implies that God, in and through Jesus Christ, worked and works within human history, that the message of the gospel has strong political meaning and importance. Part of the political meaning of the gospel discussed in this blog series was how the power of the Spirit helps fulfill the promise of glory and exaltation of God’s people that were part of both the original covenant with Abraham and also part of the blessings pronounced by Torah.

Contrary to those deeply seeded politics of the gospel, the pastor of today’s sermon on Galatians 5 had the following to say: “We understand freedom when it comes to America, but I don’t think we understand freedom when it comes to Jesus.” As part of the context established in the sermon, the pastor discussed how we are often thankful for our military men and women who sacrificially help ensure that we remain a free nation. This lead to a point being made that we often don’t understand the sacrificial gift of freedom that Jesus offers.

The most directly relevant passage from Galatians 5 discussed in today's sermon was from The Message: I repeat my warning: The person who accepts the ways of circumcision trades all the advantages of the free life in Christ for the obligations of the slave life of the law. As discussed in this blog series, a big part of the “slave life” to which Paul was here referring was the obviously observable historical reality of being enslaved to the likes of Herod and Pilate. In other words, the national or racial self-righteousness of using Torah as the marker for the people of God leads to destruction, slavery, and manifestation of the curses pronounced by the very Torah being abused in that way.

The problem, then, with the way this passage was presented in the sermon, however, was that, whether the pastor intended it or not, it implied the commonly heard refrain that goes something like this “Jesus saves my soul; the American soldier saves my freedom.” In other words, the gospel was made, in and of itself, to be essentially apolitical. The idea that God’s people are slaves (and I don’t mean freed slaves to God) so long as they are ruled by the likes of Pilate and Herod - which is a crucial and central part of the gospel as presented in the New Testament - is totally lost, forgotten, or maybe ignored. In this today’s sermon, on freedom of all things, It was never even hinted at. The translation into today’s world – that we are slaves to something or someone other than Christ so long as we are POLITICALLY ruled by something or someone other than Christ – is also long, forgotten, or totally ignored.

Why did Jesus spend very little time in Jerusalem and no time in any other big cities? Why did the Samaritan village not accept him when he had resolved to go to Jerusalem (Luke 9: 51-53)? And, according to Wright, it is a matter of historical obviousness that when, in Luke 9, after Herod starting asking about him, his slipping off into the middle of no where was a sign of revolutionary intent of sorts. In other words, the location of the feeding of 5,000 – out in the wilderness where the people couldn’t buy food immediately – was part of why they immediately tried by force to crown him king (John 6: 15) and why Peter confessed him as Messiah just after (Luke 9: 20).

At one time this week, I walked into the office of a local Christian private school. In a central location where everyone could see as soon as they walked in hung a giant picture of the American flag. At each office worker’s private work station were private little personal reminders and affirmations of Christ and the gospel. Obviously, unlike Paul and the entirety of the early church, no one in that room had any problem with Christ not being our actual and presently ruling good and gracious King with all political power in his hands.

Tied into point (1) is the fact that the gospel isn’t about going to heaven when we die but the fulfillment of the promised resurrection of God’s vindicated world wide people. It’s not about pie in the sky; it’s about the renewal of all things.

This blog post discussed the importance of mutually self-sacrificial love with the cross as its model. This was discussed as “mutual participation in Christ” and tied to the currently common problem in the church of triumphalism (also discussed in a recent sermon by Alistar Begg, by the way, on the Faithfulness of God in Afflication).

Today’s sermon discussed how we don’t like to feel weak, “but when I am weak, God is strong.” As the pastor said today, “If you are going through a season where you’re feeling weak and beat up, maybe we should embrace that for a little bit, for this season.” The problem there is, according to the gospel I have come to know in the scriptures, this Ragamuffin Gospel that the pastor noted should maybe be embraced for a season IS the very truth of the gospel that is to be preached ALL the time AS a centrally important component of said gospel. Obviously, Paul’s point about God’s strength being made perfect in weakness is being missed. I suspect our triumphalism might have something to do with that.

Also discussed in this blog series was the point that Paul was not arguing against nomism, against a “rule-keeping system”, which is how the Message paraphrases the relevant part of Galatians 5: 1-3. Of course, though, the sermon bulletin used The Message to quote that part of Galatians 5, as if Paul was, in fact, arguing against a “any rule-keeping system.” In explaining the desire of the Galatians in today’s sermon, the pastor noted that Paul said that all you have to do is love (Gal. 5: 14). According to today's sermon, the Galatians said, ‘Could we please get circumcised instead. Could we please go back to that rule-keeping system’ (Gal. 5: 1-6). Of course, because this makes no sense, no logical explanation was given as to why the Galatians wanted to get circumcised in the first place. The pastor did, however, infer that circumcision is bad because it is painful. “Who wants circumcision!?,” he asked. That only undermines his argument if no explanation was given as to why those Galatians did, in fact, want to be circumcised.

Of course, as discussed in depth in this blog series, the reason the Galatians actually WANTED to be circumcised was because a group of Jews were teaching that things like circumcision were needed in order to be accepted into the people of God. “The works of the law” was in reference to those particular aspects of Torah that distinguished Jew from Gentile, and circumcision was a central one. Paul’s point, of course was that faith rather than Torah was the mark of the one people of the one God. That – and not because circumcision is an arbitrary “rule” like any other “rule keeping system” - is why circumcision or uncircumcision is of no benefit (Gal. 5: 5-6).

One of the points made in this blog series was that the Protestant Evangelical church tends to, along with some of the genuine substance of the gift, present the gospel with foreign stuff wrapped up within. Because of this, for example, Paul gets accused of contradiction in Galatians, where he argues against keeping external systems of rules, and first Corinthians, where he apparently argues for an external system of rules. Is Paul a libertine or a legalist? The point of this blog series, of course, was that this has nothing to do with Paul’s point, and that this point infiltrates our gospel due to the haze that is our current Post-Reformation and post Romantic movement point of reference. The pastor affirmed the existence of this haze today when, in setting up his point on Galatians 5 that the Galatian church wanted circumcision because they wanted to follow a rule-keeping system, he said, “In life, there are the rule keepers, and there are the ‘others.’” Of course, it should be noted that the pastor never directly stated that Galatians wanted circumcision because they wanted to follow a rule-keeping system, because that would make no sense.

Another point of discussion in this blog series was the meaning of the biblical term “Justification,” which is, of course, tied to our understanding of the term “righteousness.” According to Wright, the term, when used in scripture, is most basically and commonly in reference to the idea of being included within the fold of the one people of the one true God. In today’s sermon, this point first arose in the bulletin’s quotation of Gal. 5: 5: But we who live by the Spirit eagerly wait to receive by faith the righteousness God has promised to us. According to Wright, this means that the church awaits the final Day of Judgment when God will complete the recreation of all things and when his one world wide people will be vindicated by the promise of the bodily resurrection. Suffice it to say, this, although somewhat related, is not how “righteousness” is typically interpreted in the Protestant Evangelical church.

Also discussed in this blog series is the related point that said “justification” or “righteousness” is determined not by Torah but by faith. This, of course, was Paul’s point in Gal 5: 7-8: You were running the race so well. Who has held you back from following the truth? It certainly isn’t God, for he is the one who called you to freedom. The sermon used this scripture to make that point that Christian freedom is freedom to defeat distractions. The examples used to illustrate the point painted such “distractions” as lapses in concentration that we all experience in our daily lives. This, of course, only misses the point. The other examples of distractions – alcohol, unhealthy relationships, ect – come closer to the point, muddled though it was in the first place.

The pastor here took some time to make a point about the problem of racism. His point was that Christian freedom is the freedom to love (Gal 5: 14), and such love is the solution to the racism that should break our hearts and that has been exemplified this week in Ferguson, MO. Ironically, this point, although being far closer to Paul’s real point about the Law than any ideas about “any rule-keeping system,” seemed like a random aside and totally disrupted the flow of the sermon. Since it was much closer to Paul’s real point, then, it is not surprising that the pastor’s beef with racism also hit harder, much closer to home, and with more force than the his point about “any rule-keeping system,” even though the pastor’s condemnation of racism did seem random and out of place in the sermon.

This blog series made the point that the mega-church attractional church model is extremely detrimental to the church’s fully carrying out it’s call to play its proper role in God’s plan within and for human history. To this point, it was mentioned at the end of today’s service that last weekend – “bring a friend weekend” – featured almost 70 souls giving their lives to Christ. Also, we were told that about “300 people walked through those doors for the first time.” These are two strong indicators that said mega-church attractional model is, in fact, the model of the particular Protestant evangelical church where this sermon series is occurring. How this is detrimental was discussed in depth previously. In context, as well, this implies a lack of discipleship.

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