Sunday, June 20, 2010

Life in the Meantine

Life in the Meantime

© copyright 2010, Robert J. Elder

June 20, 2010

Luke 9:18-24; Galatians 3:23-29

At almost every meeting of presbytery there is a time when candidates for ministry are either presented, recognized, or examined. It is true that sometimes meetings of Presbytery can be a bit dull, running on an excitement scale somewhere between boredom and napping. But the examination of candidates for ministry is one of the items at many meetings that lift them above the normal, mundane, run-of-the-mill business.

I remember my own examination for ordination before a presbytery – it’s the sort of experience one doesn’t forget – and I remember observing and participating in many examinations of new seminary graduates. Now, as you probably already know, people responding to a call to enter the pastoral ministry are in for a long, wearying process almost from the day they take the plunge and become candidates. First, the four years of college, then three years of graduate education in seminary, and periodically – particularly during the seminary years – there are reports to be written, progress to be measured by the Presbytery’s Committee on Candidates and Examinations.

Then, during the final year of seminary, generally, there are the much-feared ordination exams. If all five of those are passed, the candidate appears before the Presbytery’s Committee on Candidates to answer questions and be examined further on any item that the committee members desire to have clarified. Then the committee recommends to the full Presbytery that the candidate either be ordained or not ordained. But even with a positive recommendation, the trials are not yet over. On the floor of the Presbytery meeting, in front of as many as 300 to 400 people in some presbyteries, it is the privilege of any delegate to ask further questions of the candidate. In our Presbytery they frequently do. The presbyters must be fully satisfied before ordination is approved. It can be a religious experience, because after it is all over, the candidate on the receiving end of all that attention believes it to have been a miracle that he or she could ever be finished.

I recall in my presbytery in Texas, years ago, we examined a candidate for about half an hour, and it seemed to be the sense of the delegates doing most of the questioning that the candidate had given inadequate response to questions concerning the person of Jesus. So they pressed him on it until they were more fully satisfied:

  • “What was Jesus’ self-understanding prior to his death, from the Biblical perspective?”
  • “What Biblical books would you turn to, to help discover Jesus’ own self-understanding?”
  • “You have said that Jesus was the Christ following his resurrection... but was he Christ prior to the resurrection?”

Then a pastor from a church a few miles away from me put all the questions that were being asked into one lump. He stood before the candidate and said, “I guess what we’re asking is, ‘Do you believe that Jesus is Lord?’”

If you ever want to check out the effectiveness of an antiperspirant, I recommend trying an examination process like this… Consider the personal investment carried into such a moment. After a minimum of 7 years of higher education, mountains of papers written over hundreds of hours, five complex ordination exams – in Bible Content , Theology, Polity, Worship, and Exegesis, endless questions from a committee, endless reports, following the commitment of an appreciable portion of one’s life and fullest effort to reach the goal of ordination, after all that, it strikes me as entirely appropriate that it should boil down to being asked virtually the same question that Jesus asked his disciples, folks who never set foot on a seminary campus or wrote an ordination exam.

You have told me who others say I am: “Elijah,” “John the Baptist,” “A prophet,”... you have told me who the seminary professors say that I am: “The Ground of Being,” “The Divine Essence,”... you may even have told me who Hollywood says I am, a “Superstar” or “The Force” “Morgan Freeman” or “George Burns.” Now, who do you say that I am?

For a candidate for ministry, for Peter, but not for just those... for every believer, a whole world of importance rides on the response to that question. The world awaits our answer. In fact, the world can be transformed by our answer!

Peter said, “You are God’s Messiah.” And there was no end to the trouble that answer caused for him. In fact, I suppose it turned out in a way to be trouble, one by one, for all the disciples. There is an old hymn that no longer appears in the current Presbyterian hymnal – you’ll probably be glad to know we aren’t going to attempt it today – but I have always appreciated its words. It truly captures the cost of Peter’s confession. It goes,

They cast their nets in Galilee, just off the hills of brown;

Such happy, simple fisherfolk, before the Lord came down.

Contented, peaceful fishermen, before they ever knew

The peace of God that filled their hearts brimful and broke them too.

Young John who trimmed the flapping sail, homeless in Patmos died.

Peter, who hauled the teeming net, head down was crucified.

The peace of God, it is no peace, but strife closed in the sod.

Yet brethren pray for but one thing – the marvelous peace of God.[1]

Jesus knew it would be trouble from the start. That is why he spoke immediately after Peter’s confession of the suffering which lay ahead. Much as the world stands in need of transformation, it inevitably will be resisted. Those who answer Jesus’ question as Peter did are not preparing any bed of roses for themselves... more likely they are weaving together their own crown of thorns.

Those who declare Jesus to be the Messiah of God have placed themselves squarely between two worlds: in one world, the world as it was, I have everything to gain by scraping things together for myself, by proving myself, by looking out for myself and making sure that if all else fails, I do not fail to look out for number one. In that world, the one who saves his life is the one who works hard to save it, who makes saving it the top priority.

But there is the other world which has been shown to the one who declares faith in this Messiah named Jesus, the world in which finding comes through losing, saving through giving my life for his sake. It is a hard place to be, between these two worlds, but that is where we are after we have declared our faith in Jesus the Christ.

We are between these two worlds, because while we may have declared that the world as it was prior to Jesus’ ministry is passing away, we have also recognized that it certainly is taking its time about it. It is anything but gone. In fact, one theologian has said that some people are inclined to behave as though they believe the world is out of control, out of even God’s hands. People still suffer, the wicked still prosper at the expense of the righteous, those who look out for number one – the Donald Trumps of the world – are the ones who get all the attention, while those who make a habit of giving themselves for others are so often made to look the fool.

That is the old world from which we want the relief of God’s coming kingdom. And the new world, of which we may have caught only the slightest glimpse personally – perhaps when we saw Mother Theresa in action among the destitute of India, or the compassionate work of so many anonymous saints who daily give selflessly to the work of the church here in Vancouver – the new world, we may be convinced, is coming. Though we cannot offer proof positive, even the most cynical among us must recognize that there is some vision somewhere that causes people to give up their own desires in order to be at the service of other people. Some vision must drive them, and even if we do not know it personally, we may perhaps believe it because the lives of other visionaries are so convincing.

So there we are. The old world is doomed. But the new one, we are equally convinced, is anything but triumphant, or even apparent. We see old times going and new times coming, but we know that we may have to live out our entire lives in the meantime, the time between times.

So the logical question for any believer is to ask what we are to do in the meantime. Do we play the rules the way the old world would have played them? That is what the folks in Galatia were trying to do, save themselves by ritual obedience to Jewish law. Doing so even though Paul knew full well he had told them that the rules of the new world were in effect, a world in which people could only be saved by God’s grace and not by refraining from eating all the pork in the world.

Paul knew that the life of the church, our life together, can be a school for the world to see how it is going to be, how God meant for us to organize ourselves.

The old world order is one that divides us up, convinces us that another’s gain is my loss, that makes me want to see every issue in terms of “us and them.” So I would look around at even my church family and see one with different skin than mine and call them a name; one who belongs to a different political party and make slanderous remarks about them; one who is a woman, and because I am a man, begin preaching about a woman’s “place.”

These things are the result of following the old order. But Paul says those who have laid claim to Christ as Savior are now part of a new world order. We who live in the meantime are freed to live as though the new time has already come, especially in our life together in the church. And here is what will happen if we do:

[1] We will no longer see an important difference between Jew and Gentile.

That means we will not try to decide whether each other person is an adequate follower of Jesus by looking to see if before they joined this fellowship they were first Baptist or Methodist or Hare Krishna. What unites us here is the common confession that Jesus is Lord. The things that divided us before – whether one was an orthodox Jew or a confirmed secularist – these things can divide us no longer once we can make our common confession in Christ.

[2] There will no longer be a difference in our attitudes toward enslaved or free people.

For today that means that social standing becomes irrelevant. It is here that Paul becomes unmistakably political.

Paul declared, in his time, that among believers there was neither slave nor free. Pretty strong stuff in a society that placed incredible weight on one’s social status... in a society that was in no way upwardly mobile. Paul never said slavery was a sin; he merely laid the seeds of its destruction by declaring that within the community of the Christ, the community called to live life in the meantime, such distinctions were as out of place as a buggy whip in a sports car. Living as though the new world has come means living as though such social distinctions no longer existed. Paul’s words amounted to a hot-topic political statement in an empire full of hundreds of thousands of slaves. Even so, it was not merely a political statement. It derived from profound spiritual conviction. Christians have a duty to consider the political implications of the lordship of Christ. American Christians, Chinese Christians, Latin American Christians, African Christians are doing that right now, and as Jesus predicted, it has not made for an easy time for them. Still, to believe is to act. Neither slave nor free. It is a fact.

[3] There will no longer be a false social difference between men and women.

Like social and religious stereotypes, gender role stereotypes will become irrelevant for those living in the meantime. Most of the debate that continues over the ordination of women – a lively issue now more in Roman Catholic and conservative protestant circles than in Presbyterian ones – leaves aside this broadly based biblical text in the furious search for proof texts from isolated spots in other places in the Bible. The fact is, it is important to elect and ordain women to offices in the church because it is so inherently biblical to do so. The new world, which Paul welcomes into our meantime present, recognizes that divisions between people based upon external appearance and judgment – whether that person is a slave, a Jew, a Gentile, a man, or a woman – divisions based on these make not for the new world of God, but more of the same old world of division and oppression.

If any fellowship in all Christianity were to follow their confession that Jesus is Lord with just these three things in mind: neither slave nor free, Jew nor Gentile, male nor female; living as though none of these made a shred of difference in discovering that one is beloved of God and of this community of God’s people; if we could live this way in the meantime, while awaiting Jesus’ return, then the world would look on in wonder, and say of us, as was said of the early Christians, “Behold how they love one another!”* And in perhaps this one little area of the world, at least here, the kingdom which is coming will have come one step closer.

“Who do you say that I am?” The world awaits our answer, in both our words and our lives.

copyright © 2010 Robert J. Elder

[1] The Hymnbook, #421, p. 355, copyright © 1955, words by Wm Alexander Percy (altered slightly here by RJE), 1924, published by the Presbyterian Church in the United States and the United Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.

* Aristides of Athens (2nd century A.D.) was sent by the Roman Emperor Hadrian to report on the new “Christians.” He returned with these immortal words.